Ready Player One

Title: Ready Player One

Author: Ernest Cline

Genre: Pop Science-Fiction

Length: 384 pages

Read: September 13-18, 2011

Summary: 10: buy book 20: read book 30: goto 10

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I read this after two different friends recommended it in the same week. Wow! If you’re one of my (presumably) many readers who love video games. Go buy and read it. This is pretty much the ultimate classic video games novel! And I should know, having been born in 1970, the perfect time to experience the full rise of video games and modern pop culture (inaugurated May 25, 1977). I was so enamored of computers in general and these little beasties in particular that I went and made (and sold) thirteen of them professionally.

But back to Ready Player One. It’s a first person narrative set in a roughly 2040 dystopia where the world has basically gone to shit and most people live inside a gigantic virtual reality video game. It’s creator has died and left his vast fortune to the winner of an elaborate easter egg hunt (think Atari Adventure Easter Egg crossed with the Great Stork Derby). This whole world and contest centers around an obsessive love of all things pop-culture and 80s, particularly films, comics, and most importantly, video games.

In practice the novel is an old school adventure set mostly in virtual reality. But it contains an astounding number of well placed and deeply woven 80s pop-culture references. For me, they were continual fun. I got 99% of them, including some damn obscure ones. I’ve played every game described in the book (except for Dungeons of Daggorath — never had a TRS-80 — but it looks like Wizardry), seen every movie, heard nearly every song, etc. I don’t know how this book will read for someone a lot younger who isn’t up on all this old school geekery, but I sure enjoyed it.

The story is great fun too. The protagonist is likable and all that. It’s not a long book but races along. There are a few second act jitters (the “romantic” period between the first and second keys), but I blew through them fast enough. The prose is workmanlike but unglamorous and there are some cheesy or cringeworthy moments. They don’t distract from the fun. The last third in particular was awesomely rad with numerous 1337 epic moments. When the protagonist faces off against an unstoppable Mechagodzilla avatar and invokes a two-minute Ultraman powerup I felt tears coming to my eyes.

As Science-Fiction the book is a bit mixed. Mr. Cline manages to deftly describe what must to the novice be a bewildering array of virtual reality technologies and concepts. He’s fairly unusual in actually specifying some of the interface elements in his world and he does a credible job with all of this. Nothing stood out as particularly bogus, but was based on decent extrapolation. There are some elements, however, which still exist in his 30-years-from-now future that are already on the way out. Hard drives in “bulky laptops” for example. One only has to look at the iPad and the Macbook Air to see that writing on the wall. Again, I must point out that these minor quibbles do not detract from the book’s extreme fun factor.

Cline is uncannily knowledgable about his video games (and again, I should know), but there is a curious oddity in the biography of the central Bill Gates crossed with Richard Garriot character. He is described as releasing his first hit game (for the TRS-80) in 1987 in plastic baggies. Besides wondering if any TRS-80 game had much cultural impact (Read my own Apple II guy origin story here!), the date is totally off. If he was talking about 1982 that would have been fine. But by 1987 the TRS-80 had gone the way of Allosaurus and plastic baggies hadn’t been seen in years. My first game, Math Jam, was released in baggies in 1984 and that was way late for them. 1987 featured games like Zelda II, Contra, Maniac Mansion, Mega Man, and Leisure Suit Larry. All of these are well after the era venerated in the book. This small, but important, error is odd in a book so otherwise accurate. I can only assume that the author (and his character), living in the middle of the country, existed in some kind of five-year offset time-warp 🙂

On a deeper level, the novel toys with one of my favorite futurist topics: Will we all get sucked into the computer? I actually think the answer is yes, but that it’s unlikely to happen via 90s envisioned visors and immersion suits (like in Ready Player One). I think we probably will have retina-painting laser visors/glasses at some point. Then neural implants. But the real big deal is when our brains are digitized and uploaded into the Matrix. Muhaha. I’m actually serious, if flip. Eventually it will happen. If not this century then the next. I just hope I make it to the cutoff so I can evade bony old Mr. Grim and upgrade.

In conclusion, I have to agree with the back cover quotes of some other authors I like:

John Scalzi: “A nerdgasm… imagine that Dungeons & Dragons & an ’80s video arcade made hot, sweet love, and their child was raised in Azeroth.”

Patrick Rothfuss: “This book pleased every geeky bone in my geeky body. I felt like it was written just for me.”

So if you have even the least enthusiasm for video games, virtual reality, 80s pop culture, or just plain fun. Go read this book!

For more book reviews, click here.

PS. If you are 5-10 (or more) years younger than me (born 1970) and have (or do) read this book. Tell me in the comments what you think of it. I’m really curious how those who didn’t live it see it.

I couldn’t resist.

The Sopranos – Season 2

 Title: The Sopranos- season 2

Genre: Comedy / Drama

Stars: James Gandolfini (Actor), Lorraine Bracco (Actor), Alan Taylor (Director), Allen Coulter (Director)

Watched: Second season: April 29-May 3, 2011

Status: Six seasons, series finished

Summary: Ups the ante

ANY CHARACTER HERE

With season 2, The Sopranos takes the formula they successfully developed in season 1 and really notches it up.

While the foundation of fun characters is great, fundamentally I think the improvement has to do with a slight toning down of the comic element (it’s still there, just slightly muted), and a concentration on the mob aspects at slight expense of Tony’s maternal and psychiatric relationships. It’s not to say that any major elements changed, the writers merely tuned up the balance.

The mob stuff is great this time around. First of all, we have a lot more violence. It actually feels pretty real. This underscores a fundamental aspect of the show, in that we are made to become very fond of a bunch of “cold hearted killers.” I’m not personally sure that this is unrealistic because everyone’s the hero in their own story. In any case, there are some great episodes here.

I particularly enjoyed “Commendatori” in which Tony, Chris, and Pauli go to Napoli for a little pow-pow with some old country gangsters. Having spent some time in Naples, this is extremely well handled, showing off that ancient city’s blend of violence, seediness, and beauty. “D-Girl,” is another really fun episode. This is predominantly a Christopher show, and in the first season his subplots were dull, but maybe it’s just living in Hollywood, or perhaps that I know Jon Favreau myself (he’s a friend of a friend), but I found it sexy and amusing.

A few new characters spice things up. I’m not that big a fan of Tony’s sister Janice, but Richie Aprile is awesome. Channeling a very short Al Pacino, he’s quite a character. This couple follow in Tony’s Ma’s tradition of stirring up trouble, both serious and comic. It all gets a little twisted — particularly his mafioso-style bedroom fetish.

Particularly in the first half of the season, there isn’t much for Dr. Melfi to do, and during the second she arcs in a way I didn’t find realistic. Family life and relationships are still paramount, but juicing up the crime intensity a bit, I felt improved the balance, moving things closer to the modern HBO style of great writing, great action, and shock.

For my review of season 1, see here.

For my review of season 3, here.

ps. What’s up with Meadow’s weight? It bounces around like a super ball. The rest of the cast (except for Christopher and his Jersey girl fiance) mostly stay what most of the characters would call, “fat fucks.”

Game of Thrones – Episode 3

Title: Game of Thrones

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Watched: Episode 3 – May 1, 2011

Status: First Season now airing on HBO

Summary: Amazing!

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Episode 3 is titled “Lord Snow,” in reference to Jon Snow‘s nickname at the wall. This episode continues, and I think essentially wraps up, the trio of scene setting episodes. This world is so complex, with so many characters, it needed a three hour pilot. Still, it’s a damn enjoyable setup.

We do find ourselves with a different feel than last week’s “The Kingsroad.” This episode is brighter and faster, better I think, but also lacks any real momentous events or a dramatic conclusion. Episode 2 started off slower, but ended with a bang. Episode 3 just fundamentally introduces the Wall and King’s Landing. But both are fun. Varys and Littlefinger are a delight. There are a lot of very strong scenes in here, mostly in the area of character development and exposition. The scene where Robert, Barristan, and Jaime discuss their first kills is terrific. Others will and have quote it, but I will again. “They don’t tell you that they all shit themselves. They never put that part in the ballads.” Just awesome.

Tyrion and Arya continue to rock, Jon is building momentum. There’s good work with Arya and her sister, even better work with her and her father, and the fan fave delicious introduction of her “dancing instructor,” Syrio. No one who’s read the books doesn’t love Syrio and the waterdance. You can see subtle little nods to the characters, like Arya listing off those she hates, as this will flare into the flame that keeps her warm in the dark cold nights.

There are also curious absences. What happened to Ghost?  (Jon Snow’s albino wolf)  And Commander Mormont’s raven?  And time pressure makes a few of the scenes feel very very fast indeed for those viewers who haven’t read the books (particularly the Dany scenes this time around). If any of readers are in this camp (not having read the books), please comment below and offer your opinions of the show, I’m really curious. I love it, but some of this is propped up by my encyclopedic knowledge of the characters and their relationships.

I do also have to say that I don’t love the weird mixed race look of the Dothraki. The Khal is fine, but I would have just cast the rest as Mongols and made them straight up raw and tough. The blood rider is so young he looks soft, and middle eastern to boot. Who’s with me in thinking that Endo from Lethal Weapon would have made the perfect blood rider? — 25 years ago.

King’s Landing (aka Malta) has a different sunnier feel than I imagined it in the books, but I kinda like it, down to the interesting little detail of the floors always being dirty. And in a number of scenes the CG view out the windows is gorgeous, high up on the towers with the whole city laid out beneath like in Napoli. I also liked Maester Aemon, but he needs those white “blind guy” eyes because that’s how I imagine him.

Exposition or no, I enjoyed every minute of this episode, and we’re poised for some serious stuff in the hours to come ahead. Next week, jousts and dwarves in a pickle.

My reviews of other episodes: [Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, Episode 4].

Click here for some trailers for and about the series.

Or find out about my own fantasy novel, The Darkening Dream.

The Sopranos – Season 1

Title: The Sopranos- season 1

Genre: Comedy / Drama

Stars: James Gandolfini (Actor), Lorraine Bracco (Actor), Alan Taylor (Director), Allen Coulter (Director)

Watched: First season: April 20-28, 2011

Status: Six seasons, series finished

Summary: The HBO missing link

ANY CHARACTER HERE

For whatever reason The Sopranos remained the only real HBO drama that I hadn’t seen. I’ve been a huge  HBO original programming fan as far back as Dream On, but I just never got around to Tony and crew.

Until now.

It’s interesting to see it after the fact, after having watched Rome, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Carnivale, True Blood, The Wire, Big Love, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, etc. This is an intermediate stage in the development of today’s long form visual medium. The Sopranos, like all HBO dramas, is very well written. Where it shines is in character building. Not development per se, but in the creation of unique and interesting personalities. The casting is spot on and nearly every member shines as distinctive and amusing individuals. But inherently, this is a recipe HBO has really mastered, blending casting, writing, and acting to make seamless characters.

It isn’t (in this first season) as well plotted as some of its sucessor shows. Less happens, and the events are a bit less dramatic. This isn’t to say that nothing’s going on, but we don’t have the momentous and shocking events every fifteen minutes that are the hallmark of the mid 2000s shows. I suspect later seasons may grow into this. The net net of this was that I wasn’t quite as riveted by the events, and certain subplots dragged, but the characters certainly kept me watching.

There is something to note here, which is the odd dichotomy of the like-ability of most of the cast and their “trade” as cold and murderous mobsters. The show strikes a slightly comic and not entirely realistic tone with regard to this, making it easier to disregard the violence and keep on liking them. And like them I certainly did, particularly Tony. James Gandolfini shines in this role, nailing his particular brand of goomba charisma. His mother is perfect too (although fun to hate) as the manipulative bitch that she is.

I was also a bit ambivalent about the central premise of the mafia boss in psychotherapy. Although I did like the shrink, and I liked the amusing way in which Tony would sometimes describe a happening in mild mannered terms while the visuals showed it “the way it really was.” I often enjoy this this sort of humor. At times the overall conceit felt a little forced, but it basically works.

So I’ll start in on season 2, particularly as I’ve heard the series only gets better.

For my review of season 2, see here.

Check out my review of Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones – Episode 2

Title: Game of Thrones

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Watched: Episode 2 – April 24, 2011

Status: First Season now airing on HBO

Summary: Amazing!

ANY CHARACTER HERE

After watching Episode 1 three and a quarter times, I was eagerly awaiting the continuation. This week’s installment, entitled “The Kingsroad” didn’t disappoint, although this is an extremely transitional episode.

In “Winter is Coming” (Ep 1) we were introduced to the major players in what amounts to two major settings and story lines, one at Winterfell with the Starks, King, and Lannisters, and the other across the sea with Daenerys. About midway in this second episode the main Westeros storyline splinters into three: Ned and the girls, Jon & Tyrion heading to the wall, and Cat, Robb, and Bran back at Winterfell. This fragmentation will continue a bit in further episodes, but for now everyone is moving into place. I suspect in the long run this will be one of the “duller” episodes of the series. But all is relative, and it still contains a number of very powerful scenes.

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion continues to delight with his ironic tongue and sharp delivery. The queen shows both her calculating side, and her cruelty. Joff is appropriately loathsome and Arya every bit as spunky as she should be. While new viewers might not be totally aware of it. This episode really starts to drive home the consistant notion in the books that all choices and actions have consequences, and that those are never what they might seem.

Jon chooses the wall, but even from the start, it isn’t the romantic knighthood he hopes. Tyrion chooses to side, even if by default, with his own, and that will play out with fiery results. Sansa choses to stay out of the fray, Arya to enter one, with drastic consequences. Dany chooses to try and make the best of her miserable situation. I do wonder a little how new viewers (those who have not read the books) will take all this, as even in this long (10 hour format) the incredible richness of the characters, their interactions, choices, and consequences.

For example, despite spending an entire hour on this transitional moment the writers still have to rush Dany’s realization that she can take control of her situation. Married off by her abusive (and more than slightly creepy) brother to a mongol-type warlord who takes her every night “Dothraki-style” (like a Stallion and a mare) she isn’t in the best place. Some reviewers have issue with this, but personally, as this has been the plight of millions (or billions) of women throughout time, nobel and pauper alike, I think it belongs here. Some wonder, why does she stay? Well, what is she supposed to do, married to a warlord, virtually alone in a camp he controls with 40,000 of his people in the middle of nowhere? She does the only strong thing possible, she starts to seize on some measure of control in her relationship. One must not interject the modern conception of mariage is mutable into it. For much of history a sort of grim fatalism pervaded most people’s being.

The final bit of the episode too, with the crucial play out of various childish personalities having dire consequences in both the youthful and adult worlds is very well handled. Joff’s cruelty and impotence, Arya’s headstrong nature, and Sansa’s passivity clash. Who suffers? A cute doggy and the peasant boy. But this will have long standing consequences for everyone involved, including the adults. We can see it in the seething looks exchanged between Ned Stark and the queen. The very end rises to a nice emotional tieback. Still, I would have enhanced the mystical a bit here (almost totally downplayed by the producers). Perhaps showing all five of the other wolves howling and/or linking with one of Bran’s dreams as in the books. I suspect that because of a fear of being labeled too fantasy the producers will continue to soften the fantastic elements, subtle as they are even in the original books.

Still. I can’t wait for Episode 3, which with the arrival at both Castle Black and King’s Landing should make for some good stuff. Littlefinger!

For my reviews of other episodes by number: [1, 2, 3, 4]

Click here for some trailers for and about the series.

Or find out about my own fantasy novel, The Darkening Dream.

Shameless

Title: Shameless

Genre: Comedy / Drama

Stars: William H. Macy (Actor), Emmy Rossum (Actor)

Watched: April 8-12, 2011

Status: First Season

Summary: A guilty pleasure

 

Shameless is Showtime’s latest entry in the “edgy comedy” category, a slot they’re fond of (Weeds, Dexter). In any case, Shameless is an American remake of a British show, and centers around a working class Chicago family with an extraordinarily bad and alcoholic father named Frank (William H. Macy) and a bevy of often delinquent children and associated hangers on.

While Macy is great, nicely straddling the line between likable and incorrigible, the show is anchored by oldest daughter and effective mom Fiona (Emmy Rossum). I never noticed her before (she had minor roles in a couple movies I’ve seen), but she’s fantastic in this role. She brings to the table a wining hand of tough, sexy, vulnerable, and sheer chutzpah.

Tone wise, this show is much like Weeds in that it mixes (attempted) social satire with the ridiculously scandalous and the sketchy. This blending of comedy with the truly unwholesome seems to be more and more popular, but it first knocked itself on my consciousness in the mid 90s with Reese Witherspoon‘s Freeway. I mean in Shameless we’re talking baby-napping, highly inappropriate sex, “borrowing” the elderly, all sorts of fraud, at least 4 or 5 different portrayals of male backdoor action, blow jobs under the kitchen table, some really really bad parenting, and I’m just getting started. But the show tries to wash down this heavy stuff with a big tongue in cheek and a medium dose of Guy Ritchie-style cinematography.

It’s a pretty titillating show too — like watching a sexy train-wreck with lots of nudity.

And overall I think it succeeds, and succeeds well, not so much because it’s funny — it is — but because it manages to make us care about the characters. This is a complex tonal balance, and the season finale isn’t perfect, but despite all the unrealism, and the unbelievable (and unacceptable) stuff spun with a comic touch, there remains a realistic feel to the people. I found myself glued, pounding through the season in 3-4 episode-at-a-time video-on-demand bindges. While the players’ actions may at times be comic, their emotional response is not.

Back to the Future Part II

Title: Back to the Future Part 2

Director/Stars: Michael J. Fox (Actor), Christopher Lloyd (Actor), Robert Zemeckis (Director)

Genre: Time Travel Comedy

Year: 1989

Watched: March 30, 2011

Summary: Lots of time travel, and fun!

 

Following up on such a gem of a movie as 1985’s Back to the Future (my review here) must have been a daunting task. And it occasioned part II and part III being filmed together, and released only 6 months apart. As far as I know this was the first time this kind of joint production was ever done.

In any case, I always liked part II, particularly since it has the most time travel of the three, and certainly the most complex examination of the basic principle of time manipulation. It starts with a literal repeat of the last 3 minutes of BTTF (although they must have reshot some of it because they inexplicably replace Claudia Wells with Elisabeth Shue as the girlfriend — not that this lame duck role matters. They then pop into 2015, where Hilldale Ca is both the same and very different. The technological inovations proposed are pretty amusing, and most of them still haven’t happened in 2011. Again, where’s my hoverboard? But they missed a few things — like the cel phone, or the death of the fax machine.

Anyway, while avoiding paradox, and just having run with the same cast of actors playing different ages, characters, (and genders), Biff manages to steal the time machine, bring it back to 1955, and give himself a sports almanac. Then he inexplicably brings the DeLorean back to the good guys. Go figure! When they travel back to 1985 they find Biff’s nefarious influence has trashed the entire town and made a blade runner-esque hell of the place. There are some good moments here again paralleling the now standard running jokes with each character. Marty waking up to versions of his mother. The principal as bad ass with an axe to grind, etc.

Once they figure out how all this mess got rolling, back to 1955 they go to sort it out. This involves a parallel track recreation of the first movie’s main events without disturbing these. This is great fun, revisiting the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance from a different perspective. As far as I know, this is the benchmark scene for a two-pass time travel-type scenario. The car chase at the end however, is a bit tedious. And why, may we ask, is it possible for Marty to call doc on a walkie-talkie from the back of Biff’s convertible, while Biff is about 2 feet away in the front seat? I don’t know about you, but when I’m alone in a car and someone has a conversation in the back seat, I generally notice.

The film ends with an awesome setup for the third part. I love the Western Union bit. But watching all three back to back as I did, I could have lived without ALL THREE movies replaying the footage of the Doc at the clock-tower.

These problems aside the movie is great fun. Other reviewers seem to find the time travel antics byzantine in this outing, but this is exactly what I loved about this film. At least it dares to create an alternate present, and then undo it. True there are a few moments where the cast has to answer audience questions in near straight exposition. For example, when Marty and Doc head from messed-up 1985 to 1955, but leave Jennifer (the useless Elisabeth Shue) behind, Marty has to ask why, and Doc launches into a whole explanation about how the time continuum will fix itself around them.

Again the technical transfer on the new blu-ray versions is awesome. This was always a slick film, with the future scenes in particular filled with fun effects. It holds up perfectly well. There is the occasional shot where the rotoscoping is obvious (compositing has gotten a lot better in the 22 years, Cliffhanger being, I think, the first film to use the new digital compositing). But these minor issues don’t date the film at all. Now if only they wrote a better part III.

Check out the Back to the Future Part I review here.

Or, coming soon, a review of part III.

For more 80s films, About Last NightBetter Off Dead, or The Sure Thing.