Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

The Goblin Emperor
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As both a Hugo and Nebula nominee, The Goblin Emperor is owed more consideration than can be found in a simple star rating. Especially as I will be voting for the Hugo in a few months, I need to be able to fully articulate where I see this book standing in relation to both its fellows on the ballot and to the genre as a whole.

In both senses, I find it lacking. Which certainly isn’t to say that it is bad: it’s perfectly pleasant. It is, in fact, a delightfully easy read. I read it in an afternoon which shows that it is neither ponderous nor annoying. The characters, such as they are, are likable enough and their motivations (though broad) are plausible.

One notable positive was the book’s attempt to bring back some of the depth of the English language’s pronouns. It would occasionally use the now-archaic informal “thee/thou/thy” instead of “you/your”. And it used “we” as a stand-in for a formal “I” which English has never had (at least, as far as I know).

Unfortunately, “thee” and “thou” sound horribly formal to modern ears, even when those ears know better. And it was extremely confusing trying to figure out who sentences were about with no distinction between the formal first-person singular and the more typical first-person plural “we”. This confusion was magnified because man characters had multiple titles and names. Context didn’t always make it clear if one person was talking of themselves of of a group.

None of which should be taken as a criticism. I love playing with language and I was pleased to see the attempt to bring more depth to our pronouns. That the experiment fell a little flat is no failure and it was easy to sit back and let the exposition wash over me without worrying too much about which character was saying what.

That, I think, starts to hint at my true criticisms of the book: the characters largely don’t matter. They are all exceptionally cookie-cutter. There’s “corrupt vizier”, “loyal advisor”, “devoted guard”, etc. The fact that I couldn’t keep them straight didn’t really matter since I knew they would all act according to type anyway.

Nowhere is that more in evidence than in the “traitor guard” who was a “devoted guard” until the moment of his betrayal. Neither the characters nor the reader could see it coming because the guard didn’t really transition from loyalty to treachery; instead there was just a switch flipped from one to the other. It was forced and inorganic.

None of which is to ignore the main character who, aside from being the person the book is about, is hardly even present in the story. He moves from room to room and people say things and things happen to him, but he could mostly be replaced by a shop dummy with little change to the writing.

Until the very end where he suddenly becomes a great emperor, at least. Somehow. Maybe by asking questions? It’s not really clear — he goes from being completely out of his depth to being a good ruler with no real transition. That’s just how the story was supposed to end. So it did.

The rest of the plot is like that. There is an attempted coup which starts suddenly and then ends. It didn’t really affect anyone or anything (though “traitor guard” was replaced with “devoted [female] guard” to no real effect).

Absolutely none of which is to say this is a bad book! It’s fine. It’s a nice afternoon’s diversion and lets you play the game of imagining what it would be like to be emperor for the day (aka, “the King Ralph scenario”). It’s good clean fun. But to deserve that “Nebula Award Winner” sticker, a book needs more than a fun premise combined with flat characters. And I couldn’t find that something here.

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.