Sunday, April 5th, 2015

Ready Player One
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

It may seem like I didn’t give it a fair chance, but the truth is that I was fairly unimpressed with Ready Player One from the get-go.

Almost immediately, it starts listing classic video games with no real coherent purpose other than setting the tone for the entire book: lists of pieces of shared nerd culture without context. You can almost hear the author begging, “You love these things, right? So why won’t you love meeeeeee?” (In my head, the author sounds like Dick from 3rd Rock From the Sun — there’s a nerd reference for you!

It turns out, though, that the lists are welcome compared to the author’s other favorite literary technique, the lecture. Sometimes, it is merely an infodump to explain the state of the world without having to bother doing any world-building. That is certainly bad writing, but it’s not exactly unknown in SF.

Other times, the lecture takes the form of the main character going into a great amount of detail about the person who set off the Quest that drives the plot. This is mostly a subset of the more general infodump — but instead of standing in for world-building, it tries to explain why the nerd-reference for this page really is integral to the story and not a thinly-veiled attempt to cover up bad writing with a shared culture and earn popularity the easy way. These lectures are annoying, but they are not the worst.

No, that is saved for the lecture about the nerd references. The author spends an astounding number of words to make clear that he read the Wikipedia page for, say, the Tomb of Horrors or Family Ties.

This led me to my first big question about this book: who is it for? Based on the hilariously transparent way it tries to use lists of nerd-things to gain favor from us, one might think it must necessarily be aimed at nerds like me. Yet, the constant lecturing about the things I love is really insulting to me. Of course I know what a kill screen is. Yes, I’ve played D&D. I’ve even used a quarter to hold my place at an arcade machine. This is my life and he is explaining it to me over and over like I grew up…playing basketball or something.

So maybe it was really aimed at muggles (reference!). Maybe it is an instruction manual to help them understand us. But why would anyone want to read this sort of book if they weren’t already into Neuromancer?

But even so, this book only examines nerds at the most superficial level of “Boy, these geeks sure do like Monty Python, don’t they? Hyuk! Hyuk!” It actually reminds me of The Big Bang Theory — a show that is “about” nerds (at the broadest level) but isn’t really *for* us at all.

In my own experience (and certainly, this world offers plenty of opportunity for variance), nerdom is chiefly defined by a love (if not a need) of pulling things apart to understand them at a deep level before putting them back together again in new and creative ways. It’s this quality that has shown to be definitional to me from the classic computer and D&D nerd to the fantasy football nerd with a collection of spreadsheets on top of their team wallpapers.

We like Monty Python, as an example, because they understood comedy, deconstructed the humor at a fundamental level, and built something from it that was stranger (and funnier) than anyone could have expected.

We learn the name of every droid in Star Wars because Lucas gave us a giant universe to play with. When we learn everything about it, we can play games with its rules and figure out, say, if an Imperial Star Destroyer could take the Enterprise in a fight.

We are what we are because it’s fun. Our hobbies and obsessions are complicated, but we use that complexity to play.

Absolutely none of which can be captured by a list of Atari 2600 games. Absolutely none of which has anything to do with a bunch of kids watching Blade Runner over and over so they can win a contest.

At least, this book captures absolutely none of the ways that I experience being a nerd. I couldn’t see myself in any of these characters. I couldn’t see anyone I know. All I could see were cheap caricatures and pathetic attempts to make me associate a bad book with things I love. (Obviously, if your experiences tend more towards the “here’s a list” side of things, we will disagree. I would never intend to exclude anyone from being a nerd. We are an exceptionally big tent, after all.)

Then, of course, there is the writing. It is possible to write an easy-to-read book that is also engaging (John Scalzi excels at this), but it is clearly harder than it looks. So much of this book is plain exposition followed by generic action sequences followed by the introspection of a teenager who has never been challenged by the world before. I have been that teenager, but even at my most inane, I like to think I could have risen past a 6th grade reading level. This book never does and the result is page after page of numbingly boring prose.

The writing skill-level possibly explains why this entire world is so infuriatingly non-sensical and disconnected from itself. For example, the country outside the cities finds itself in a Mad-Max scenario (to the point that busses must be heavily armored and armed), but they are able to keep a global network of fiber optic cable working without incident.

A fuel crisis has destroyed the world economy (half the world is starving and the wait-list to work at a fast food restaurant is years long), yet the main character is bullied for being poor. That makes no sense in a world where EVERYONE IS POOR. That is the point of an economic dystopia.

Also (and this is incidental, but it really bugged me)? The fast food business model depends on cheap fuel for factory farming and affordable transport of food to far-flung restaurants. A fast food restaurant could not exist in this world. Or, at least, it wouldn’t be considered an entry-level job: it’d be more like Taco Bell in Demolition Man (reference!).

Let’s not forget the OASIS. The world is utterly dependent on this VR world that is run by a single private company? How has this not been nationalized?

Not that the company really does much running of things. The bad guys (an evil corporation because of course it is) wreak online havoc throughout the book while the sysadmins do nothing. Did they burn all of the Terms of Service for fuel after the oil ran out? The OASIS actually has elections. And some sort of government. Except the custodian company decides what will be on the ballot. And even though they keep electing Wil Wheaton, he doesn’t even seem to try to enforce a “Don’t Be A Dick” policy. The villains set up a military operation on a protected school planet and all the corporation can think to patent the idea that they eventually uncover.

This laissez-faire approach to the virtual world makes even less sense when you consider the stated and extremely public goals of the evil company: to win the Quest in order to perform a hostile takeover of the OASIS and its parent company.

In the real world, one could assume that limited resources prevent a reasonable response to the situation. Certainly, we see that today with all sorts of crises that governments are not well-suited to respond to. But this is not the real world. The people who run the servers have god-like powers over everything that happens online. And they have a vested interest in stopping the evil company. That they are absent caretakers is mind-boggling.

It could almost be a commentary on theodicy; but I see nothing to make me believe that this book could ever hope to reach for that level of sophistication. The caretakers do nothing because the story demands it.

There are other examples of shoddy writing. The evil corporation is a cookie-cutter cartoon villain, but at least their motivations (power and money!) rings true. The rich guy showing up to save the day at the end is evidence of a rushed ending (and the less said about the “extra life”, the better). But it’s hard to get annoyed by things like these after reading page after monotonous page of expository text bout a world that doesn’t really make any sense.

But all of this wasn’t enough to make me hate the book. Ultimately, that verdict was decided when I read:

A dude just ahead of me line actually had a top-of-the-line miniature Sinatro OASIS console concealed inside a prosthetic testicle. Talk about balls.

The unexpected crudity of it combined with the puerile joke drives home just how truly juvenile this book is. Can’t you imagine a thirteen year old boy coming up with this joke and almost dancing with joy at the thought of sharing it with his friends when the teacher’s back is turned? Isn’t it a lot harder to imagine a grown man including it in a published book?

Yet it makes sense in this book because the whole thing is childish. The main character very quickly reaches max level in the game-world and constantly brags about this or that piece of magical armor. He goes from dual-wielding energy rifles to casting spells to flying around with a jetpack. He pilots a giant mecha and even turns into Ultraman. Throughout, he is throughly impressed with himself as though any of it really matters or we because he was actually amazing. It’s almost anti-climatic when his character becomes immortal at the end…

All of this was surprisingly familiar to me. When I was a kid, I used to pretend that a special tile on the lunchroom floor would transport me to my own Voltron or it would give me my own supersuit or any number of pre-pubescent fantasies.

But when I grew up, I put away these childish things. I certainly didn’t write a book about my old private games. It would have been gauche. And boring. And probably very poorly written.

Oh. Wait.

In summary, I cannot recommend Ready Player One.

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

A Darker Shade of Magic
A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s been a while since I’ve returned to my YA roots. I always say I like YA and I certainly have fond memories of many books from my own youth — yet other than Harry Potter or works by Mr. Gaiman, I rarely dip into that well. So it was exciting to pick up A Darker Shade of Magic.

And this book certainly hits all the right marks to be a great YA book! Magic and daring! Precocious young characters who find hidden wells of strength to overcome the obstacles placed in front of them! A well-defined (though still vague enough to not get bogged down in) magic system! It’s got it all.

I had also forgotten just how light a good YA book could be. So it was very pleasant to see the pages fly by. Moreover, this book is easy to read without being overly simple — a task that is harder to pull off than it looks.

So A Darker Shade of Magic is poised to be a classic. Except…

One key area where the book does fall into the trap of being overly simplistic is in the villains. Their villainy is shown through purposeless and gratuitous cruelty that seems to be motivated entirely by their knowledge that they are villains and need to act a certain way. Their evil plan seems to be “We have ruined one world; may as well ruin another because that is what villains do.” The reader can imagine deeper motivations for the Danes, but it’s a lot of work because the characters themselves seem unaware of anything more. They were plopped into the story as villains so that is what they will do.

Great stories derive from great conflicts, but great conflicts come along when the antagonist could be seen to be the hero of their own story and not the villain of someone else’s. The relationship between the siblings points to something richer but it goes entirely unexplored. Even Tom Riddle had a backstory, you know?

Similarly, the villainous plot is mostly perfunctory. I have mostly lost patience with SF stories that feature heavy use of unbeatable mind control. It gives the villain a great advantage without any real story work. Imagine the hero’s brother torn between multiple obligations who has to make a terrible choice between going along with the villains plans or staying true to the people he cares about. And imagine the villain subtly working to make the “right” choice be betrayal. That would be a great story! It would explore notions of family and honor and the no-win scenario! It would show off the villain’s chops as a manipulator and a master of the long game. This book, though, just uses a spell to achieve the same effect. Off screen.

It reduced the complex relationship between Kell and Rhys to just being yet another plot obstacle. It also made the Danes seem rather impatient and inept. After taking control of the king and queen, they had won! They could have easily leveraged that into whatever longterm goals they had. Instead, they goaded the one person on all the worlds who could stop them. It doesn’t make sense and makes the entire book feel forced.

All of which could have been avoided by eschewing mind control. Even YA deserves more than that these days.

Ultimately, A Darker Shade of Magic is a reasonably charming book that is light and fun to read but is somewhat done-in by shallow characters and drop-in plot contrivances. Still, the universe has potential and book two will probably be worth taking a look at.

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015
Link: James Joyner: Your Second Third Drink
Sunday, March 1st, 2015

In a recent episode of his podcast, Clay Jenkinson was discussing Thoreau and Walden. He focused in on the idea of “living deliberately”, a concept I could not help but conflate with some form of minimalism. It’s an idea that has been resonating with me lately as I have found myself increasingly discomforted by all the stuff I have dragged into my tiny house through the years. It’s almost overwhelming.

And I think, “How did it come to this?” and I have to admit that it is because I have not been living deliberately. When I see a new and shiny toy, I grab it to satisfy that immediate want — but I give no thought to where that thing will fit into my life in one or two or ten years.

The move towards replacing physical artifacts with bytes has helped tremendously. My Kindle has so many more books on it than I would be able to store as physical copies. Our iTunes library is expanding while our groaning DVD shelves are happy to not be called to further service. But these still come with an economic cost that I don’t always fully consider in the sense of living deliberately. And that doesn’t even begin to factor in the psychic costs of my nagging worry that Amazon or Apple will flip a switch one day and all my “investment” in those books and songs and movies will vanish in less than a puff of smoke.

So this deliberate living (in a minimalist possession style anyway — I will save thoughts of things like food for another day) starts to sound pretty good when I take a hard look at where my time and energy and money goes.

But how to start? There are two clear points: there is the commerce side where I bring possessions into my life and there is the other side where I have to live with them. The commerce side is more of a regular habit that must be handled with a new commitment each day. But the housing-life-possessions side — Ah! Now that presents and immediate and severe challenge.

SO I star taking stock: what do I need to be happy? I need a good chair to read in. And a good sofa for when I need a good lie-down. And a good TV. And a couple of good boxes to plug into that TV.

I need a good computer. And a good phone — these are how I make my living. I don’t need a good tablet (finally! A concession!) But I do need my Kindle.

I need a good pen and some bottles of ink and good paper and a good notebook, but I have at least convinced myself to stop buying more of these things for now. Even though I really want some.

And the list goes on (I haven’t even gotten to my small whisk[e]y collection…). I believe my definition of “minimal” may need to be calibrated. And that can no doubt turn into a life-long pursuit of contemplating and refining that definition. But one thing is decided not on the list of things I need and it breaks my heart.

I don’t think I really need all these books.

Our house is basically a library. We have filled it with shelves. We have filled those shelves with books. We have stacks of books. We have piles of books. We have bags of books. Our storage closet is filled with boxes filled with books. When we buy books now (and we buy books!), we can give only small thought about an organizational system as the pressures of reality force us to put them wherever there is an empty space or (in some cases) where we can convince gravity to look the other way.

I married someone who loves books as much as I do and it is glorious. And I love books a lot. I love reading them. I love holding them and smelling them. I love running my eyes along their colorful spines and reading their titles — each one an invitation. I love being surrounded by them and just existing in their presence. But I have to wonder: how much of that could be satisfied by a trip to the library? How much space at home am I sacrificing and is it worth it?

But…

I don’t know if I can get rid of them. Each fiction book is a miniature universe, filled with possibility. I can’t throw away an entire world so callously! My non-fiction books are even more valuable for they are filled with knowledge and the potential for self-betterment!

I find myself paralyzed by sentimentality and I do not know if I can overcome it. Even for books I have not opened in decades or technical books that are staggeringly outdated, I don’t know if I can stand to part with them.

I may have failed at deliberate living before even starting — and that is before discussing any of this with my spouse (a vital piece of any lifestyle experiment!). Perhaps I am doomed to live more like Jefferson (but without the astounding intellectual gifts that allowed him to gain enough status to mostly get away with it in his lifetime).

But I have a secret. None of those books on our shelves is Walden. I’ve never read it. I think I shall and maybe Thoreau will speak to me and help me overcome my own worst instincts.

But when I read Walden, I think I shall get a copy from the library.

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

Chindi
Chindi by Jack McDevitt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a certain genre of science fiction where human beings find a massive and ancient alien artifact or ship. They explore that artifact while being completely ignored by the it and whatever attendants it may have (automated or otherwise). They marvel at the age and history and unfathomable alienness of the thing. Then they leave, having found more questions than answers but opening the eyes of our species to a new level of cosmic wonder.

When done well, books in this genre can be a page-turning adventure story about a group of people overcoming tremendous obstacles — all set against an amazing and rich backdrop. When done poorly, books in this genre become monuments to how much math the author has done to arrive at something fantastical yet plausible.

This book was done well. The characters are fleshed out and engaging. The ancient artifacts are compelling and they leave the reader with the same questions that it leaves the book’s human civilization: “Who built this? Where are they? Can we find them? Can we talk to them? Can we learn from them?” The other relics of other civilizations our heroes find have their own shades and layers of mystery, leaving the reader with even more questions and idle fantasies while painting a picture of an and well-populated galaxy. The adventures are fast-paced and exciting. The AI is charming.

And ultimately, the chief adversary of the humans in Chindi turns out to be the hubris of members of their own team. Which, in a book that chronicles the self-destruction of countless other civilizations, serves as a solid theme and a good reminder to not do that.

This book was both satisfying and entertaining. I look forward to finding other entries in the series.