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.

Untimed – Two Novels, Two Drafts!

My second novel, Untimed, is a YA time-travel adventure.

And I just finished the rough version of my second draft. Whew! Happy to be done with that. The book grew to 84,000 words (it’ll probably get trimmed down a bit for draft three). It still needs polish, but the second draft is often the worst, and this one took 5 or so weeks of concentrated work. While I learned from my first novel and put the beginning at the right place, the previous draft still had a number of classic first draft problems.

Namely, character and motivation needed work. Plot can formally be considered the friction between the protagonist’s desire and the obstacles to said desire. The book is/was jam packed with conflict and action, but the desire line was a bit weak. I won’t say it’s perfect now, but it’s a hell of a lot better. As are the characters. For me it’s difficult in the first draft to flesh both of these out because as a pantser I don’t know exactly where I’m going with the story until I get there. Not that I write blind, but I like the story and the characters to take me where they want.

When writing the second draft, you have an end (even if you plan on changing it), so you know all the elements that you intend to put in the book. Therefore it’s easier to go back and foreshadow those and reinforce the important ones. You also know what the character is going to need to feel at different points in the story, so it’s easier to try and set up and reinforce those feelings.

Additionally, as a pantser, I actually get to know my characters in the first draft. The writing of them brings them to life in my head. Then in the second draft, I need to brainstorm extra elements in their past and present that reinforce the traits I know they’re supposed to have, then hint at the them in the book. Again, hard to do the first time around.

Now to see what some reader that aren’t me think — and trial and nail the third draft.

I’d also like to thank my story-consultants Sharon & Bryan for listening to every blow by blow change and my independent editors Renni & Shannon for pointing me in the second draft direction. Here’s to hoping I went far enough :-).

The second draft involved a few weeks of incubation (June), a full read and polish (also June), and then hardcore writing from June 30 until August 2.

And in case you’re wondering what the book is about, I still haven’t written a log line, but its a lean-mean-fast-paced first person present story about a boy whose name no one remembers — not even his mother. And it features Ben Franklin, Napoleon, a male gang leader that wears red high heels, and the Tick-Tocks, creepy clockwork time traveling machines from the future.

For more posts on writing, click here.

Sophomore Slump – Delirium

Title: Delirium

Author: Lauren Oliver

Genre: Dystopian YA

Length: 114,500 words, 441 pages

Read: May 17-21, 2011

Summary: Big disappointment.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Earlier in the week I read Lauren Oliver’s debut novel Before I Fall and loved it. So I eagerly downloaded her second book, Delirium, on my Kindle/iPad and set to reading. Ick.

She’s a very good writer, and the prose style is nearly identical, being first person present from the POV of a 17 year-old girl. For all it’s flaws (I’ll get to those), the voice is still very good, and makes for compelling reading at first. Oliver’s still great at inner monologue.

But everything else falls pretty flat.

Let’s begin with the premise. First of all, it feels like someone told Oliver that “dystopian is hot” and she jumped on the bandwagon. As far as I can tell, she shows no knack for it whatsoever. And worse, she pushes in this direction at the expense of her considerable talents elsewhere. This version of America exists an ill-defined period in the future, probably around 2050-2075. The central premise of the society is that LOVE has been diagnosed as a disease and the source of all societal ills. But fear not, a cure exists, some kind of magic brain surgery that gets rid of most feeling and desire. Everyone gets this at 18, because conveniently, that’s the age “the cure” works at.

Now besides this ludicrous premise, which involves a drastic about face of human tenants consistant since the dawn of time, we have to accept that in 50 years almost no technology has changed. Sure there are a few nasty totalitarian rules and such, but they still use cell phones, they still text. The book has absolutely NO description of anything different other than attitudes. Hell, there was probably more innovation between 1300 and 1350 than shown here! I just completely didn’t buy the world. Not one bit. There’s no way we could get from here to there. And it’s been done to death before. Better. Delirium is like a lame The White Mountains crossed with Uglies. Both books are far better (particularly the first). The whole thing felt entirely forced, like it was all derived from the high concept premise without any other consideration.

In Before I Fall, Oliver showed herself adept at painting peer groups. This is hard stuff, and fascinating when done well. But we don’t have it here. We have a protagonist, who isn’t bad, albiet a little generic, but then we don’t have too much else. Next up we have the romantic interest and best friend — both okay also. But that’s it. The other characters are like cardboard cutouts. I find this hard to jive with her first book where even the minor characters are deftly drawn.

Also in her first book was an intricate and cleverly woven progression of plot and character, while not perfect, it formed a lovely little puzzle unfolding across the length of the novel. And most importantly, giving a sense of emotional depth.

So what happened? I’m forced to conclude that either: 1) she spent much much longer writing her first book and really polished the hell out of it (nothing wrong with that) or 2) that she should have stayed more firmly rooted in the familiar early 21st century as the complexities of world building (even this minimally) sucked her focus.

Or both.

Still, I do have to give her credit for prose skills. They pulled me enthusiastically through the first third, then groaning and moaning through the rest. If it hadn’t been for this I would have chucked it in the middle and you wouldn’t have seen the review (I rarely review the many books I give up on — doesn’t seem fair).

I’m sad. It could have been so much better. I have nothing against dystopian — I am after all a hard core sci-fi reader — I’d have read nearly anything she gave me and enjoyed it if she just provided some reason to care.

For a review of Before I Fall, click here.

Book Review: XVI (read sexteen)

Title: XVI

Author: Julia Karr

Genre: YA Dystopian Fiction

Read: Jan 16-19, 2011

Summary: Good premise, tried hard, fell flat.

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I really wanted to like this book more than I did. The premise is fine, set in a dystopian 2150 where teens are branded at 16 as”legal for sex.” Nina is almost 16, and is dealing with not only the stress of this oncoming rite of passage, but boys, the death of her mother, and a bigger conspiracy.

But where to begin with the problems. The protagonist is okay, and there isn’t anything wrong with the prose, but fundamentally this book stands out as an example of premise over plot. Plot, we are told is how the characters in a story deal with or overcome the premise. A good one sells the premise in an engrossing and personal manner. The plot just felt weak, and the characters reactions to it rushed and forced. People keep popping up out of nowhere. Dramatic events — like the narrator’s mom dying — blink by. They live in Chicago, yet everyone seems to know everyone. The villain tattles his villainy while playing hide and seek with the heroine — so very Scooby Doo.

And the Science Fiction is pretty darn mediocre. This is 150 years from now and music and films are stored on “chips!” There won’t even be physical media in 15-20 years. There is no mention of a net or internet — nary a computer. They still have magazines! Video playing machines that play films on chips (like a DVD player). People have phone numbers (also on the way out already). There are no substantial tech improvements. Some “transports” that maybe fly. Mention of moon and mars settlement, but no matching tech on earth. No new biotech, no new computer tech.

150 years ago is 1860 and the civil war!

I didn’t hate the book, in fact wanted to like it, but it just fell flat.

Book Review: The Windup Girl

Title: The Windup Girl

Author: Paolo Baciqalupi

Genre: Sci-Fi

Read: Jan 5-9, 2011

Summary: Interesting Science, mediocre Fiction.

 

This novel won the 2009 Nebula and tied for the 2010 Hugo. It’s set in an approximately 100-200 years-from-now dystopian future Bangkok ravaged by gene engineered diseases. Fossil fuels are nearly exhausted and society eeks by on “megadont” (gene hacked elephant) and human power.

At first I found this intensely gripping, as the depiction of the future world is crystal bright and highly novel. The prose is fantastic, bordering on slightly literary. The problem is that the story has a lot of characters, five or six main points of view, and I found it very hard to care about most of them. I only really liked Emiko, the gene hacked whore/slave looking for a better life. The American gene thief was okay too. The rest of them I could hardly focus on enough to follow their rambling monologues. Once the relative novelty of the world ground down a bit, I just couldn’t keep myself interested in what was happening. There’s plenty of plot, but it’s moderately byzantine, and I just didn’t care.

Because books are all about the characters. Contrast The Windup Girl with something like Song of Ice and Fire (which I need to write up, but is being adapted into an HBO series). The plot and world in that book are intense, but Martin makes you care for all (well most) of the characters. The Windup Girl has a lot of repetitive rantings. The elderly Chinese guy for example goes on for about two pages in his second chapter about his distrust of banks. Sure this was supposed to instill the sense that he no longer trusts any institution (for good reason), but it just felt self indulgent. The seedy scenes with the titular character in sort of future Patpong where cool though, albiet disturbing.

Let me get back to the world, as this is the biggest strength of this book. The author clearly spent some serious time in Bangkok, and the  foreign, yet vaguely possible future was pretty damn good. I don’t really buy the relying on springs for power, and there’s very little impact here of either nanotech or computers, both of which I think will dominate the 21st century. Still, it was pretty cool. There’s a serious element of “environmental preachy” between the lines, which I suspect is a factor in it’s award winning status. Award gives love a leftist cause. Not that I’m not pro-environment, I’m just not a “causist.” The book reminded me of Neuromancer and Diamond Age in that they described really cool and consistant worlds, but had inadequate character development. Diamond Age in particular is pretty darn boring once you get over the world (which is great). Two many characters, no reason to care about them, opaque and weird motives.

Personally, I think authors should focus tighter on character in these “new world” type books. For example, Consider Phlebas worked for me. People bag on it’s story, but at least it focuses fairly well on a particular guy’s adventure, and the world is amazing. There’s only so much you can do in one book, and a totally new world is a lot. Occasionally someone managed both, like one of my all time favorite novels, Hyperion, but brilliant as that is, even it still suffers from switching the POV so often. But boy does he work some serious pathos into a number of them.

Book Review: Across the Universe


Title: Across the Universe

Author: Beth Revis

Genre: YA Science Fiction

Read: Jan 10, 2011

Summary: Great read. Reminds me of books I read 30 years ago.

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A couple months ago one of the book/writing blogs I read featured an article about first chapters that included one from this book. It was unpublished at the time, but I liked the first chapter enough to pre-order the book on Amazon. Liked it enough to actually read it yesterday when it came in the mail (one day before it was supposed to and the Kindle version wasn’t out yet — so for the first time in a little while I read on paper).

I knew I’d liked the first chapter for a reason. Besides the fact that it (the first chapter) featured a naked seventeen year-old girl, this was a fun book. And no there isn’t much sex in here — at least not for the characters that matter.

And the reason this is a good book… drumroll please… the characters. Particularly Amy, the female lead.

Superficially this is fairly old-school Science Fiction, slanted a bit younger than adult, almost like Citizen of the Galaxy, Home from the Shore, or For Love of Mother-Not (boy is cover design today 1000x uglier than it was in 1980!). Worth a 2 minute diversion:

Left the old one, the right is new. Which would you pick? Personally, I hate photography on fiction covers. I like COVER ART. Call me old-school. Anyway.

Across the Universe (not to be confused with the movie of the same title), is about a girl who joins a generation ship as cryogenically frozen cargo (the ship will take 300 years to go to it’s colonial destination) with her parents, but is accidentally woken early (alone) to find herself amongst a very strange society. The crew has been left to run the ship for centuries, and well nothing stays the same, certainly not human society over the course of generations.

The science here isn’t the most innovative, but it is consistant and easy to grasp. I didn’t totally buy the society and all it’s premises. But it didn’t really matter. The book is told in double first person view point, from Amy’s POV and that of the young future captain of the ship (simplified explanation for review purposes). The POV’s are very good, and stick tightly to single interwound storyline. The classic device of having a newcomer (Amy) works well to make the experience more visceral and personal, and this ties us as a reader into the story. It’s also worth contrasting this with a more “mature” Science Fiction novel I read the day before, The Windup Girl (review HERE), which although Hugo and Nebula winning, and possessed of a MUCH more elaborate and interesting SciFi world, just isn’t that fun to read. As the two main characters are literally the only people on the ship their age, they are fairly obviously in it together. I like the “forced” relationship device.

Again, because the character narrative is too fragmented. I like character. I like narrative. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Science Fiction, I’ve read thousands of them. I like elaborate worlds. But they’re nothing without the glue to hold you there.

Now my small beefs. The book was too teasy on the sex. There was sex flying all around, we should’ve had some with the protagonists! I’m old school that way too. 60s, 70s, and 80s SciFi had lots of sex.

And the last 20% of the book started to get that we-have-reached-the-big-reveal-and-now-it’s-all-going-to-feel-a-little-forced stage that many “big reveal” books have. I had this same beef recently with the otherwise perfect Dead Beautiful (review HERE). Still, I read Across the Universe in one sitting, literally, and I enjoyed it the whole way through. I love when this happens — fairly rare as it is for a reader as jaded as I am — it reminds me that there’s still good writers out there.

Book Review: Uglies

Title: Uglies

Author: Scott Westerfeld

Genre: YA Science Fiction

Read: Nov 19-21, 2010

Summary: Great Read.

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The Science Fiction in this book is a little hokey, but it’s still a extremely compelling read. There is a bit of a silly high concept in this dystopian future, where at 16 teenagers get an operation that promotes them from “uglies” (normal people) to super improved “pretties.” I didn’t really buy the idea of this particular and odd society, but I just suspended my disbelief and enjoyed the ride.

The voice is solid and captivating. It’s a good story, and the world has a really nice feel. The characters are pretty well painted too. I pounded though the book and ordered the sequel. I have some little beefs with the logic of the plot, and a bigger one with a motivation of the protagonist, and the ending. However, when I enjoy a story and care about the characters, a little ignoring is worth it.

There are also some cool gadgets. The tech feels a little uneven — I usually find that the case, where the level of technology changes aren’t consistant across the board. But a good read is a good read.