Review “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline

I believe this is the kind of novel they call ‘young adult’. I am not a young adult, but I enjoyed it a lot, possibly because I am in the other category that might enjoy this – someone who was a teenager in the eighties.

The story is this – in a run down future, a lot of the population take refuge in a virtual reality program called ‘Oasis’. The earth is described as dying, and the divide between rich and poor has become a yawning chasm. Before he dies, the creator of this system announces a game, with the winner inheriting all his wealth and ownership of the Oasis system. Naturally this inspires the treasure-hunter types of this society, and the hunt begins. The story then follows a group of young people who are leaders in this hunt, mainly because they are total gaming nerds who have memorized everything they can about the system and its creator.

The characters are not overly complex, but relatable enough. They are all obsessive in their interests, and some readers may find it hard to understand this mindset. If you consider the real environment that is described (as opposed to the virtual one) you can understand why the population may want to dive into fantasy, and why those who live in poverty may dream of finding the ‘egg’ that gives them control of the Oasis. It can be hard to get a read on the characters, because everyone is interacting on a virtual level only, and in the real world they do not meet. This is deliberate – the author is commenting on the current internet usage, where a person can tailor what they show to others, and no one can really verify the information they provide. The virtual reality of the book takes this to its ultimate, and logical, conclusion.

It’s not a complex plot, and it’s not hard to guess the probable outcome, but I don’t believe that makes it a poor novel. After all, plenty of books and films are made based on fairy tales and legends, and the outcome being known doesn’t necessarily make for poor entertainment. The way the author takes the characters from A to Z is fun and inventive, with plenty of allusions to the games and movies of the eighties that populate the gamers’ world. I enjoyed the trips down memory lane. Nostalgia rules.

It’s a weird idea, that the culture of the eighties might hold such sway over the future. So much of what was considered trendy then would not be considered so today. I think this may have been deliberate too – eighties culture is often considered trashy, and the author describes a future environment that is genuinely trashy, so what could fit better than a trash culture for a trashed world?

I am not going to say this is a brilliant novel, because it isn’t.  It’s a fluffy light-hearted bit of entertainment, and there is nothing wrong with that. Suitable for young and old.

(Click on the link to buy a copy of the book)

Ready Player One

 

Review “Breakfast of Champions” by Kurt Vonnegut

“Breakfast of Champions” is overt metafiction and satire, and it may be one of the weirdest examples of Vonnegut’s work.

Loosely, the story is about a writer who has been published a lot but who is not well known, and a man who is mentally ill but no one has noticed. They meet, and this meeting is the catalyst for the mentally ill man to run amock. However, this plot is bare, the outcome is mentioned very early on, and the real intent of this book is not to tell a story. The author, instead, uses this as a hook on which to hang satirical comment about people and life, and to refer constantly to the writing of the book, to his own thoughts while writing, his own life, and, towards the end, inserts himself into the narrative as The Creator (in terms of the story characters, anyway).

Metafiction can be defined as a “form of literature that emphasizes its own constructedness in a way that continually reminds the reader to be aware that they are reading or viewing a fictional work”. Vonnegut consistently refers to himself, what he is creating, how he is writing, and what his intentions are

“I sat there in the cocktail lounge of my own invention, and I stared through my leaks at a white cocktail waitress of my own invention. I named her Bonnie MacMahon.”

Vonnegut explains that ‘leaks’ are his main character’s word for glass, and the character imagines that you can look through glass to a different universe. So Vonnegut here mentions his glasses in this way to emphasize this is a world he has made up. He refers to himself as the god of the universe he has made up. He decides for convenience that the mad character has done a course of speed-reading, solely in order to facilitate his reading of the writer’s book that’s going to give him a rationale for his insanity.

A significant moment occurs when one of Vonnegut’s own characters does, according to him, something he didn’t expect the character to do, thus inspiring Vonnegut himself to believe that free will may be a possibility after all. Of course, as Vonnegut is creating all of this anyway, his statement that the character has done his own thing is dubious (though many authors claim this of their characters). Is the reader supposed to believe him? It’s hard to tell.

Vonnegut manages to satirize a large number of aspects of human behaviour and society during this book. His references are American, but you don’t have to be American to understand and appreciate this. For example, he says?

  1. As children we were taught to memorize this year with pride and joy as the year people began living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America. Actually, people had been living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America for hundreds of years before that. 1492 was simply the year sea pirates began to rob, cheat, and kill them.

 

He goes on to say this about the ‘sea pirates’:

The chief weapon of sea pirates, however, was their capacity to astonish. Nobody else could believe, until it was too late, how heartless and greedy they were.

 

The truth of this is quite obvious, but said in a way that makes the reader nod and chuckle at the same time.

The constant references to genitalia, both male and female, might lead the superficial reader to believe this book was written by a twelve year old boy, but the author’s point is that we are so obsessed with sex that we might as well all be stuck in pubescence for all our lives. Sexuality is, like it or not, treated as a defining trait of a person (Vonnegut’s reference to the size of various male characters’ penises as a reflection of how ‘manly’ they are). Pornography sells (see Kilgore Trout’s books, which have pornography on the covers though the contents are completely different), and you only need to casually look about you at today’s advertising to know the truth of this.

So, in conclusion, if you are looking for a novel with a beginning, middle and end, this is probably not for you. But if you are in the mood for something different with lashing of wicked satire and absurdist metafiction, give “Breakfast of Champions” a try.

 

References

https://the-artifice.com/kurt-vonnegut-breakfast-of-champions/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metafiction

Review “The Shrinking Man” by Richard Matheson

First published in 1956, “The Shrinking Man” is a story that reflects its time. It’s a story about fear and powerlessness, undercurrents of Cold War era America. The title is the plot – a man begins to shrink. The cause is a mixture of chemicals and radiation, another nod to the fears of the time, nuclear or chemical warfare.

Central to this story is the protagonist and victim, Scott Carey. His journey from a normal life to something terrifying and unknown is very well realised. Scott is not a hero. He does not respond to his condition with dignity and courage, but with fear, anger, and some rather poor choices. He is verbally and emotionally abusive to his wife, he has a one-night stand with a midget woman he meets, and turns into a peeping tom with the babysitter. So a lot of the time he is not nice. He is no saint, just human, and as such very relatable.

As the story is told from his point of view, the reader is aware of the underlying emotions that motivate him. Through this the author is making a statement about the culture of white middle class America of the fifties. Scott fears loss of his manhood. He considers his decreasing size makes him unmanly, because he cannot provide for his family, or engage with his wife sexually. He is stripped of everything that he believes is necessary to him. He is essentially disenfranchised, disempowered. Incidents such as the near miss with the paedophile serve to reinforce this to him. It does not occur to him to question the motivation of the man in the car until it is nearly too late, and he is forced to confront his helplessness in the face of a world that’s daily becoming more dangerous. His notions of identity are quite restrictive, as he is a product of a quite narrow and restrictive culture that tells him that as a white man he is top of the totem pole. He is brought down quite literally, but in this way his understanding and maturity grows.

Writing his memoirs accomplishes two things – it provides for his family (his last act in his traditional male role), but more importantly it is his legacy. By this act he says goodbye to the world he has always known. He doesn’t realise it himself at the time, but he is severing ties to what he knew and preparing to face the unknown.

Scott’s ongoing battle, and eventual defeat of, the spider in the cellar is very important. The spider comes to stand for everything he has lost, his power, his identity, his place in the world – when he eventually defeats the spider he has slain the dragon, conquered his fears, and rediscovered himself.

“The Shrinking Man” is much more than a fantastical story. It’s thematically very rich and psychologically very complex. I would strongly recommend it.

 

Review “A Wrinkle in time” by Madeleine L’Engle

The release of the movie made me want to revisit this book which I have not read since I was a child. This trip down memory lane was fun, though with the eyes of an adult I can see flaws I would not have seen as a child.

The main theme is the tried and true good versus evil. Christian philosophy is used frequently to highlight the ongoing struggle against darkness, manifested here as an actual tangible substance. The writer makes a comment about the evils of conformity, illustrating a completely ‘dark’ planet as one where the individual gives up their identity and free will to the control of another. It reminds me of the phrase ‘the banality of evil’, stated by the author Hannah Arendt to describe a Nazi war criminal. The idea is that evil is completely unoriginal, and this is shown on the planet Camasotz, where everyone goes about their mundane activities in exactly the same way, with no deviation to be tolerated. In a sense, evil is boring. It also reminded me of the idea that people give up freedom for security. You can’t get more secure than a world where nothing ever changes and someone else does all your thinking for you.

The method of space travel is based on a scientific concept of folding space, though the way this is done (through some unspecified technique or power of the beings involved) is pure fantasy. The word ‘tesseract’ is used to describe this. In geometry, a tesseract is a four dimensional representation of a cube. “The tesseract is to the cube as the cube is to the square” *(thank you, Wikipedia!) The novel states that the fourth dimension is time, and the characters refer to their interstellar travelling as tessering. It’s a fun and innovative use of a mathematical concept as a hook on which to hang a story.

Image result for fold space

Character development is limited, unfortunately. The different characters are quite two-dimensional in their development. The children’s mother, though described as a scientist, is a stay at home mum with the kids while dad is off having the real adventures. The children are not much better, and the depiction of the genius child, Charles Wallace (and why is his middle name always used?) is spectacularly unrealistic. The witches/aliens/angels are somewhat better, if only because their tendency to cliché (Mrs Whatsit? Really?) can be put down to their essential alienness. The fact that it is a children’s book is not an excuse for failure to develop your characters. That being said, I don’t think it is so extreme that the target audience would be alienated too badly (though I have a vague recollection of being very dubious about the character of Charles Wallace when I was child).

I won’t put in spoilers by describing the climax and resolution, but most adult readers would struggle not to find it corny. I don’t think it would bother a child reader though, and I think the moral of the story is a good one.

With all the nasty things children can be exposed to these days, I would recommend “A Wrinkle in Time” as a quality and suitable children’s book.

References

*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tesseract

http://noahtravisphillips.com/HTMLCSSNTP/pattern-formula-magic-script-folding-space-NTP/pattern-formula-magic-script-folding-space-NTP.html

Review “The Light Fantastic” by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett looked at the world in a way that was true, relentless, cynical, and yet hilariously funny. “The Light Fantastic” is the second in his fantasy Discworld series, and it continues the story of the failed wizard Rincewind and his reluctant adventures.

The Discworld is a flat world, which rests on the back of four elephants, which in turn rest on the back of a giant tortoise (Great A’tuin) who flies through space. This world is full of magic, gods, elves, talking trees, trolls, wizards, and demons. Rincewind longs for a normal world, where things might get done in a normal way such as technology. He doesn’t find it. He longs for safety, which he also doesn’t find, ever.

Pratchett makes satirical parallels to just about everything. The character of Twoflower is a Tourist, something that the Discworld has not seen before. He embodies all the clichés of tourism, with his camera (where a little demon paints the view), his conviction that nothing bad will ever really happen to him, and his labelling of everything he sees as ‘quaint’, ‘picturesque’, and so on.

However, unlike many tourists, Twoflower has solved the problem of lost luggage. The Luggage is a character in its own right. It has multiple little legs it sprouts at will, helping it to run very fast and catch up with its owner. It also doubles as a kind of bodyguard, biting and even swallowing people who threaten its owner. The reader is told it is made of ‘sapient pearwood’, a magical wood, and is a weird cross between funny and kind of creepy.

Pratchett also manages to satirize computer programmers, in a chapter involving druids. Their stone circles are in fact large computer circuits, and they stand around discussing bugs in the system when the circles don’t ‘come on line’ as they should. The way the author finds innovative methods to create humour and poke fun at the real world seems endlessly creative.

He also likes to parody fantasy characters and scenarios. A prominent character in this story is Cohen the Barbarian. He has outlived his years as a muscle-bound hulk and is now an octogenarian. Regardless, he is still extremely good with a sword (assuming his back doesn’t seize up.)

I adore this author. His books are light, funny, and extremely clever. I would recommend this book and this author to anyone looking for a good laugh, certainly something we could all use more of.

 

 

 

Review “Maze of Death” by Phillip K Dick.

A group of people in an isolated place start dying one by one, which immediately sounds like a cliché. The story is full of unpleasant people being unpleasant to each other. It doesn’t sound good, does it?

And yet, somehow, it is. The extreme neuroticism of most of the characters becomes weirdly fascinating. It is so extreme the reader immediately starts to wonder what possible reason could there be for these people, who range from merely dysfunctional to psychotic, to be gathered together in one place. They cannot even begin to bridge the gulfs that separate them – communication between them is minimal, with characters repeating the same things over and over, as if they are talking to themselves instead of each other. While they understand that they are in danger and need to work together to survive, they just can’t manage it.

Each character accepts religious belief as being real and obvious, and some are even visited by manifestations of the deity. The religion is a strange amalgam of Judeo-Christian beliefs with an odd pop culture type flavour (for example their ‘bible’ is called “How I Rose From the Dead in My Spare Time and So Can You”, sounding more like some cheesy self-help book than holy writ.) You can transmit prayers electronically and can have some expectation of a result. Atheism is so unknown that it is not even a concept, as one character, when another character suggests there is no god, struggles to understand what he means.

There is an overwhelming feeling of paranoia and fear right from the start. One of the characters finds an artificial insect with a camera focused on him shortly after his arrival, and the fear of the characters that they are being experimented upon appears to be borne out by this apparent surveillance. The mysterious building that appears and disappears, the way the different characters see it, are all indicating that their minds are being tampered with and their already fragile mental health is being further eroded.

Near the end of this story there is a twist, which I won’t mention as it would be a huge spoiler. There was a moment where I found myself disappointed, as it appeared to send the story towards an ending which would have been extremely cliché. However the author twists the story again and surprises the reader, lending a whole new interpretation to everything that has occurred before.  It also means the story ends with many questions and different conclusions that the reader can reach. I enjoy stories that have a certain level of uncertainty, because they can provide the reader with enjoyable speculation about what exactly was happening.

I really enjoyed this book. If you like something that’s a bit out there, a bit weird, then give “Maze of Death” a look.

 

 

Review “Stormfront” by Jim Butcher.

This is the first of a series of books called The Dresden Files, about Harry Dresden, a professional wizard in modern day Chicago who has a business helping people with magic-related issues, and who also consults for the police.

I found this book to be great fun. The protagonist, Harry Dresden, is a world-weary, private eye type, and the influence of noir style fiction such as Chandler or Hammett is obvious. Harry has the obligatory dark past, is more powerful than is immediately apparent, and in classic noir style is something of a sucker for attractive women. This has caused some to label the author as sexist, and personally I don’t find this. The character himself can be sexist, but he usually learns not to underestimate the women in his life quite quickly. His power and previous history is the basis for an ongoing moral struggle inside Harry. He knows ways for resolving his problems, but they involve dark magic and he does not want to go that way (not to mention being under threat from other white wizards if he does.) I find that kind of moral dilemma, that resisting temptation, to be interesting in fiction. It’s certainly something to which most readers can relate.

There are quite a few female characters in this story. Murphy is the main police officer with whom Harry deals, and is portrayed as intelligent and capable. I would suggest she is a little stereotyped in some respects (the female police officer who is as tough and nails but can be nice underneath etc.) Other women include a reporter and sort-of girlfriend, a vampire, a prostitute, and an abused spouse. Male characters include a mob boss, his henchmen, another police officer, a disembodied spirit, and two other wizards. The supporting cast are mostly not well fleshed out, probably my main gripe with the novel, and end up being two dimensional as a result. Weirdly the supporting character who I felt was the best written was Bob, the disembodied spirit who is trapped in a skull! I also found the prostitute character interesting, and of all the female characters probably the one who was least identified by stereotyped characteristics.

There is a lot of action and a fair amount of gore. Dresden’s fights with demons, and his final confrontation with an evil wizard, are very well written and keep you guessing. The proof of a well-written action sequence is whether the reader can picture what is happening, and I found no difficulty in doing this. The plot moves quickly, taking Dresden on a journey that feels something like driving downhill in a car with no brakes, and the reader feels like he or she is inside that car along with Dresden, wondering how he can possibly avoid hitting the bottom and dying.

In conclusion, I would in no way call this a great novel. The flaws that I have mentioned preclude that. It was enjoyable, exciting, and fun to read, and I would recommend this to any fantasy fan.

 

 

Review “Good Omens” by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

The end of the world is nigh. The antichrist is born, and promptly mislaid. An angel and a demon, who have gone native, decide they really don’t want the world to be destroyed as they quite like it.

This is a very funny read. It takes a poke at religion, concepts of heaven and hell, apocalypse, as well as telemarketers, bikers, motorways, music, and various other aspects of life.  It can be dark, but not excessively so in spite of its topic.  It is often strange, peopled by characters that are more in keeping with Pratchett’s Discworld than Gaiman’s usual writings, up to and including their bizarre names (Anathema Device being a good example of this).

A main theme of this book is the concept of fate, and whether your destiny is determined or whether you can make your own. Crowley and Aziraphaele, Anathema Device, and the four horsemen (or bikers) all act according to what they perceive as their fate. In Anathema’s case, she lives her life in accordance to the prophecies of her ancestor, the witch Agnes Nutter (another Pratchett name.)  She believes she has no choice, and it takes the intervention of Newton Pulsifer to persuade her to ignore prophecy and take a chance. Crowley, Aziraphaele, and the other supernatural entities, all believe they are obliged to follow the ‘ineffable’ plan. When they start their plot to avert Armageddon, it is without any real hope that they’re going to succeed. They are too indoctrinated with the idea that the future is fixed. It is Adam (aka the Antichrist), ultimately, who champions the freedom to choose, as he insists that everyone should try minding their own business.

Assumptions about what constitutes good and evil form another strong theme. The conversations between Aziraphaele and Crowley bear this out. They often bicker about what each side is responsible for, and they manage to work together without any difficulty. The immortal beings that they each answer to seem alarmingly similar in the way they speak and operate. It is quite clear that Aziraphaele has a little sneakiness in him, while Crowley has a spark of decency inside.  In my opinion this reminds the reader that things are very seldom black and white.

Do not take this book seriously. It has no real relationship to the real world, or to any of the religious concepts mentioned. Suspend your disbelief, be prepared to have fun, and you will. I will be happy to recommend it for anyone who needs a good laugh.

 

 

 

 

Encounters with Ursula Le Guin

This week the author Ursula Le Guin passed away at the age of 88. As one of my favourite authors from a very young age, I wanted to write a tribute to her work, and how it has impacted me over the years.

Unlike many fans, my first encounter was not with the Earthsea trilogy, but with her collection of short stories “The Wind’s Twelve Quarters”. I remember feeling like I had never read anything quite like these stories before. They were a completely different style from, for example, Tolkien (another early favourite of mine). I couldn’t get enough.

“Rocannon’s World”, “A Wizard of Earthsea”, “The Dispossessed”, “The Lathe of Heaven”, and so on later, I have continued to be an avid fan. She was a masterful world-builder, and I always felt totally immersed in the stories I was reading. She wove philosophical concepts and social comment in to her work in a way that was not heavy-handed or tiresome.

One example of this would be the short story “The Ones who walk away from Omelas” – the metaphor is perhaps overt, but it is still a beautifully written and poignant piece of work. As it was in “The Wind’s Twelve Quarters” it was one of the first stories I read, and it has stuck in my mind to this day as one of my favourites. It points out that peace and prosperity are often bought on the back of someone else’s suffering, and asks the question whether the ends really justify the means. “Four ways to forgiveness”, a set of four stories woven together, talks about slavery from four different angles. For anyone who is concerned about modern slavery I strongly recommend this book. “Changing Planes” is another set of stories under an overarching story arc, and it is beautifully satirical, using it’s setting of worlds on different planes to comment on so many different aspects of society.

She was brilliant in the way she would present the main point of a story, often in ways the reader would not expect. One of my favourite examples of this is in “The Lathe of Heaven”. As a reader it is not expected for the central truth of a story to come from the mouth of the villain. However it is from the antagonist that we learn that all the tests he ran on the hero put him in the exact middle of the scale on absolutely everything. The villain reveals this in a sneering way – he is calling the protagonist average, ordinary and therefore unimportant. What he is actually telling the reader, however, is that the hero is the centre of things, the axis of existence. This is such a small moment that it is easy to miss. I didn’t pick it up until the third read. When you find it, the whole story takes on an extra dimension that is quite awesome.

Ursula Le Guin has left an enduring legacy of brilliant work, one which will be enjoyed by generations to come. I am planning on starting on a re-reading program, to encounter once again her astonishing brilliance.

 

Review “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert Heinlein.

This book is considered as one of the classics of science fiction. I enjoyed it immensely.

There are two stories going on in this book – one is a revolution, as the people in the moon colony, most of whom were sent as convicts, have decided they have had enough and wish to gain independence. The second is of a computer that has become sentient. The computer, named Mike by the programmer Manuel, the narrator of this story, starts as a very child-like entity, as you would expect, and gradually matures over the course of this story. In my opinion, the computer’s development is what lifts this story above a run-of-the-mill revolution story.

Mike is not emotionally vested in revolution. It makes no difference to him whether the Lunar Authority are in charge or not. However, there are three people he likes, and these people want revolution. He knows he can help them achieve it, so he does. However, it does not seem at any time during the story that Mike has any real comprehension of the situation in terms of lives lost. He does not see people in the sense that a human being sees, and as for the people on Earth, they are little more than statistics to him. Manuel’s careful stressing that certain things he wants Mike to do are not a joke, especially at the start, indicate he is concerned about Mike’s understanding of what is appropriate and what is not. Mike’s first interest and area of research is humour, and he presents his friends with reams of jokes he has found so they can tell him what is funny and what is not, and degrees of humour (ie funny once, funny always etc). His ability to ape human behaviour via his onscreen persona Adam is an indicator of his growth as a self-aware being. He is a fascinating character, and I find his development very believable.

Heinlein’s treatment of women in this and other stories gets a lot of flack. While I do not agree with the assessment that he was a misogynist, he was quite definitely sexist. Women in this book do fare slightly better than they do in some of his novels (“Stranger in a Strange Land”, for example), however that does not say very much. I don’t find this an insurmountable obstacle to reading his work – it’s really just a matter of understanding that he was a man of his time, and such attitudes were hardly unusual. Consequently the female characters in this story are somewhat two-dimensional. For all Heinlein frequently used female characters into his stories, I don’t know that I would call any of them memorable.

I enjoyed the narrator’s character. Manuel is a great deal of fun in his dryness, cynicism and his philosophy of TINSTAAFL (there is no such thing as a free lunch.) His function as the narrative voice through which we are being told this story lends it something of a fatalistic air. Manuel is something of a reluctant hero. He never intended to get involved, never intended to be one of those in charge, never intended to go to Earth, and never intended to be in charge of the defence. Really all of the events that happen to him can be traced back to one fact – he is the person who discovered the Moon’s central computer is alive. He never blames this on Mike, and that makes him a true friend.

I loved this book, and would strongly recommend it.