Category Archives: Fiction and Films

Ready Player One

Another book review, this time Ready Player One. It’s a recent young adult book that H had us listen to in the car on the way to work. We ended up reading the last half of it. No offense, Wil Wheaton as narrator.

My feelings on the book are mixed. On one hand, the subject matter – early 80s culture and gaming – is delightful, since I, too, was growing up at the time and got my first computer in 1984, much like James Halliday. And there are some very clever moments. However, I feel there are some serious problems worth dissecting, and I preface the following comments with the usual SPOILER ALERT.

First off, the novel’s central contest is based mostly around the mastery of coin-op titles. If you know Joust, Black Tiger, and Tempest cold, you’re basically worthy to win, which seems an odd value judgment for even a reclusive billionaire to make. Where are the moral tests? Halliday seems concerned with the right kind of person taking control, but he also seems wedded to the notion that if he can only force the countless millions of gunter contestees to be lesser clones of himself circa 1989, they will automatically become worthy human beings as well. And Wade never questions this – never wonders, bright fellow that he is, if this contest isn’t flawed from the get-go. Later on we learn that Og is the contest’s failsafe of a sort, but this doesn’t prevent a innocent kid from dying, or pretty much any of the Sixers’ progress. In short, the contest bred more evil than good. Being a product of the ’80s myself, I have to say, regrettably, that all that stuff doesn’t make you a better person than average, and manual dexterity at Pac-Man has limited value.

Second, the true beginning of the novel is probably when Wade enters the tomb. Everything up to that point – about a third of the book – is primarily exposition. The book only flows when the contest is progressing. As such, all that slow stuff in the beginning – the setup of the contest, Wade’s home, his school – could be gradually filled in later in a more streamlined fashion. This is a first novel, admittedly, and simultaneous plot/exposition is hard, but it can be done. The scene with the lich is interesting enough by itself to carry the reader forward into that material.

Third, the entire section where Wade gives up his apartment is completely and utterly unbelievable. Nothing he has done as a character up to that point points toward him being capable of it – again, immersion in ’80s culture doesn’t make you a better or stronger person – and he does it without even knowing if the codes he brings work. Also, the reader is left in the dark for two chapters after getting used to knowing everything Wade thinks, which is a big no-no.

Finally, the ultimate ‘lesson’ or ‘character growth’ moment of the book is that Wade finally escapes the Oasis and rejoins us blokes in the real world, getting the girl and saving the world(s) in traditional fashion. I know this is young adult stuff, but I thought it would have been more realistic, given what had been presented thus far, if both the real Halliday (as represented by his avatar at the end) and the real Artemis had proven disappointing, or if the contest had been a joke, with no prize or a far lesser prize – or, even, if Wade had lost all his friends in his obsessive quest to win (my preference). There are hints and false starts to all those possible endings in the book, but we got the least meaningful one.

Now let’s be fair. There are counterarguments. Halliday does throw everyone for a loop when he requires the last gate to be opened by three people, suggesting that only someone with similarly-skilled friends willing to share the prize can enter (although you only get to know this if you can play a certain Rush song on guitar during a very limited one-shot window of time). And Wade does seem to be a basically good fellow, so Halliday’s contest ‘worked’ in producing an appropriate winner, deus ex machina in the form of Og notwithstanding. The obsessive attention to detail that creates master players of Joust is in the end a symptom of highly refined taste, which leads to superior morality – after all, nearly all of the games Wade plays are good vs. evil with the player firmly on the side of good, with bravery, chivalry, and selflessness all positive traits displayed in the media as well. This could have been more nakedly pointed out, however.

An Exchange of Hostages

I finished another book from my experimental pile, An Exchange of Hostages by Susan Matthews, 1997. This is the first book in a protagonist-oriented (that is to say, it is primarily a character study) series about Andrej Koscuisko, a dual surgeon/torturer in an inquistion-themed future. Already a brilliant surgeon at the start,  the book details his largely unwilling training as a torturer, divided into nine ascending Levels. The first is simple verbal abuse, and the last few are pretty damn nasty.

The question the book proffers is if it is possible to be a moral or ethical torturer, with Koscuisko offered as a palpable maybe. It’s not clear. He’s a complicated fellow. On one hand he is philosophically opposed to torture, but he does it, forced to by a family and society that has carved out his career path for him. He actively avoids inflicting unnecessary pain to his prisoners, but he discovers fairly early on in his training that he’s a sadist and that he derives professional pleasure from his job. And as if he didn’t have enough issues, he’s forced to take on a personal slave (the book calls them ‘bond-involuntaries’, a catchy bit of Orwellianism) that comes to admire his restraint. In short, people, including his victims, tend to admire him, perhaps as he is the best available person in a throughly mad society. Does that make a moral torturer? Maybe. I can see why there’s a blub by Stephen Donaldson on the back, as he pretty much patented making readers uncomfortable with a protagonist.

I kept trying to fit the book into a genre or find a parallel, without much success. It reminded me of Ender’s Game with the progression through morally questionable training, but the book ends suddenly with graduation instead of the grand prolonged denouncement that Card delivers. The dystopian psychological  manuevering and the style in which it was written reminded me a little of Dune, especially the sections told from the perspective of K’s fellow student, who fancies herself a master manipulator but consistently misreads every situation she’s in. But it’s too small-scale. Donaldson’s Covenant is close, but K is far too decisive and centered to be compared to the Unbeliever.

Exploration

The other week I did something that I almost never do – went into a bookstore and picked out some books in the scifi section by authors I didn’t know in the hopes that they might be somehow good. Generally I acquire books by overheard reputation or prior experience with the author(s).

So far my experiment has proved largely fruitless. I finished Leviathan Wakes by James A. Corey (a pseudonym) and Heaven’s Shadow by Goyer and Cassutt. The first was a reasonable 80-page novella with a 480-page introduction – I’m dead serious. If the book had begun on page 481, I would be singing its praises. The second was a reasonable enough first-contact story, but like most of them, it doesn’t stack up well to Rendezvous with Rama or the Eight Worlds scenario, which I prefer for their study of expected alien indifference/antiapathy.

I’m still rereading A Song of Ice and Fire, but that’s going to take awhile. A Feast of Crows in particular is providing to be like wading through a sea of a thick but pleasant-tasting maple syrup.

I decided to switch to experimental mode after by reading lists like this one from NPR on the 100 best scifi works (really it covers fantasy and scifi), and realizing I had read most of them (my count on that particular list was 57 of 100, with 21 of the first 25 and almost all of them that represent series. It’s not a very good list, BTW – should be by author). Of the other 43, most were automatic turnoffs, some I’d already tried and gotten burned on, with only a handful suggesting future reads are in order.

This means I’m getting saturated. There are still good stories out there, surely, but they’re getting harder to find. My father, who likes hard scifi but dislikes fantasy, has an even grimmer search.

Game of Thrones

Last week I watched the first season of Game of Thrones on HBO with H. I had been avoiding it for months because I was sure I would be disappointed. But it turned out to be a surprisingly good book adaptation. H even liked it. GoT is a long book, and they managed to fit it neatly into 10 hours.

For the most part, the writers followed Mike’s First Rule of Book Adaptations, which for the unfamiliar is simple: Don’t add anything, but cut as necessary. The reason for this is that great long books work because they are more than the sum of their parts – disrupt the pattern too much and you destroy what made the book great in the first place. Insertions hurt far more than clippings, as any book has fat to trim.

I reread the book this weekend to see exactly what additions/subtractions had been made. I approve of the bulk of the subtractions, but some of the additions are questionable.

I didn’t mind the additional sex scenes, most of which are at least suggested in the novel, but a few scenes fell flat because of their added nature. In particular, there’s one late in the season where Cersei and Robert discuss their marriage that felt both forced and useless. I can see the desire to make Cersei seem less one-dimensional, but events later in the series will do this. Ditto for Theon.

The confirmation of an affair between the Knight of Flowers and Rely worked better, providing an explicit reason for the brief scene where Rely asks Ned for help. Less impressive, I’m not sure why the confrontation between Ned and Jaime was turned into a duel. Was getting his leg crushed by a horse not heroic enough?

Other minor changes actually worked. Most of them involve Tyrion, The trial by combat that allows Tyrion to escape the Eyrie, for example, was originally two separate chapters. The series combined them into one and it worked dramatically (not to mention saving money from having to construct another lavish set for a single scene!). Also, in another clever cost-saving measure, the battle that Tyrion takes part in within the book happens off-screen, as Tyrion gets knocked cold before it even begins.This reminded me of how the destruction of Anthony’s fleet in the Rome miniseries was handled – we only see the end.

Other changes I can’t explain. The origin for Khal Drogo’s mortal wound, for example, or why Littlefinger tells Sansa the tale about the Hound’s scars rather than the Hound himself.

Some parts that I thought were particular respectful of the book were the fate of Arya’s fencing-master, the killing of Bran’s would-be assassin, and the closing scene with the dragons (though I could be nitpicky and point out that her hair didn’t burn off).

Back to the good. Casting was mostly excellent. Tyrion, Jaime, Jon Snow, Arya, Sansa, Cersei, Joffrey are spot on. The only ones that might be miscast are the actors for Ned and Cat, who are clearly older than their mid-thirties characters, but they make up for the difference in skill and gravitas as the characters act older than their age in any case. A few other characters are at liberties with appearance – Mormont’s son, for example, and possibly Tywin.

Reading, writing, gaming

I’m writing this to take a break from cleaning the house. The task took longer than I had anticipated due to the drain trap under the kitchen sink coming loose and creating a mess. Fortunately, I was right there.

Some good news – S=C is going to be published, though likely under a different title. Star and I put the call for proposals out in late 2010; it’s amazing how long it takes to get things out the door in academia, but hey, we’re getting things done.

There is a dearth of good games out right now, and my enthusiasm for Skyrim has waned. I didn’t even play it once over the break, despite specifically purchasing the PS3 version so I could do so. I did play through the re-release of Shadow of the Colossus and thought it was spectacular, maybe in my top ten despite its brevity and that damnable horse; I’m not finished with Ico yet.

I’ve been reading/re-reading through the older fiction of John Varley. The Golden Globe, Mammoth, Millennium recently. Some of it I’ve encountered before – Steel Beach, for example, I’d read years ago, but I didn’t realize at the time that it was part of a much larger fictional universe. His short stories are pretty strong and the great bulk of them have not dated much, which is always impressive. The John Varley Reader collection is excellent, and contains a lot of interesting asides about the circumstances of this or that composition, in a way that reminds me of one of Zelazny’s collections where he does the same thing, though far more briefly.

Merit

I’ve been wanting to write something on merit for awhile. I think this has a lot to do with it, PR for her book aside. I don’t accept that parenting has only two extreme sides. Much of her claim comes from a ridiculously small sample size – well, her children excelled after her brand of parenting, so ALL children will, and all children who don’t have this kind of parenting will in turn not excel at anything. Or, rather, this is what is implied by the excerpt.

I have problems with the whole idea of a meritocracy, though I’ve not gotten to the point that I can articulate them quite yet. It has something to do with self-worth and external validation, citizens vs. non-citizens, percentage of the population with “talent” or “competence” at specific activities, the reliability of education, knowing something vs. using that knowledge, celebrities as role models, and the American ideal of everyone going to college. Something seems deeply wrong to me. It’s not an issue of the world being “fair,” because, frankly, it is not. The perpetuation of the American dream is a civilization-level lie, but again, that’s not quite what I’m disturbed by.

Perhaps it is that some people accept America as flawed, but hold that it is the best system available. This passive judgment sacrifices a half-ton of ideals. Flaws are rendered permanent. There is no need to look for better systems or progress. There is only the struggle between parties, between who is right and who is wrong. The rules don’t change.

This line of thinking reminds me of one of my favorite movies, Dirty Harry. When it came out, one of the main criticisms was that it was a fascist vigilante fantasy, which has always struck me as a classic example of a bad reading. The film isn’t about how Harry is some kind of ideal vigilante wantonly pissing on the law as he executes criminals without due process. It’s about frustration.

I’m hard pressed to think of a film where the protagonist is more frustrated. Harry hates his superiors for being ineffectual and cowardly. He hates mundane bank robbers who won’t let him finish his hot dog. He hates suicidal idiots that waste his time. He hates rapists. He hates serial killers. He hates getting a confession thrown out because he tortured a man to make him reveal the location of a woman who was buried alive, and didn’t have a warrant to search his lodgings. He hates that his wife was senselessly killed by a drunk driver. He hates that his partners regularly get shot and then drop out of the game. He hates society for being cheap and tawdry, and for letting innocents be terrorized and killed. And he really, really hates having to do something about it, because it corrupts him and turns what would be meritorious – a strong desire for justice – into a disgrace. He has the same line-crossing problem that Batman has, though Harry has a far easier solution due to his willingness to shoot people dead. Magnum Force explores the same idea, but not nearly as well, though the talk between Harry and Briggs at the end is interesting because it clarifies how he has compromised with what he calls “the system.”

I don’t like the system that much either. Human life is valued semi-randomly. It’s not universally cheap (the middle class is still quite large), but neither is it uniformly expensive (no shortage of homeless people). Class matters, race matters, gender matters, money matters, fame matters, beauty matters, ambition matters, intelligence matters, and education matters. Of these, only the last three are viewed as completely neutral and dependent on individual free will. The rest you are either born into, or acquire through luck, misadventure, and/or application of the last three.

Mockingjay, Bruce Lee, Giant Rats

Some things I’ve been thinking about, in no particular order:

Over the summer and the beginning of this semester, H and I have listened to The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins while commuting. Pretty good stuff. There are several stylistic things I admire about the series – how the present tense sets the pacing, the way violence is handled, and the perceived authenticity of the protagonist – but more broadly, I really like how it presents a brutally unromantic view of media and rhetoric. I also like how it rejects what I have come to hate as the standard thoughtful-modern/postmodern/postpostmodern-novel-plot: protagonist enters an extended malaise that is only broken by an act of violence that serves as a catalyst for a glimpse at truth and a new way of living. Come to think of it, that also describes the plot of 90% of TV shows. Fortunately, a glimpse of truth is the one thing that the characters in these three books never, ever get.

I saw a page on the rhetoric of Bruce Lee over the summer and made a note to comment on it but never did. Apparently the thesis runs along the lines that Lee’s own founded martial art, Jeet Kune Do, was not nearly as original or groundbreaking as advertised, but more of an artifact or reflection of the postmodern and interdisciplinary values of late 1960’s culture – a ‘non-style’ that was anti-institutional but scientific,  and anti-traditional but unoriginal. This analysis reminds me a lot of the ‘plain English’ movement and its Baconian, irony-resistant critique of style. To have no style is, unfortunately, to have a style, however no-style you want to sell it. Every time I think about that particular circularity, I want to read The New Rhetoric again.

I’ve been playing Echo Bazaar lately, through Twitter, for which I blame idonotlikepeas. It is a wonderful example of how the horrific psychology of collecting can be turned to more benign ends; it is about collecting stories as much as it is about collecting stats. It is also a wonderful example of how to go about efficient world-building in terms of work vs. perceived content. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that it is set in reasonably Holmesian London, a setting created by one of the masters of efficient world-building, Arthur Conan Doyle. Rats are a recurring theme. I’m still looking for a certain one, for which the world is not yet prepared.