Friday, April 20, 2018

Ancillary Sword By Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword
By Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie was born in 1962 and since then has lead an interesting life. She has by her own count been, a waitress, a receptionist, a rodman on a survey crew, and a recording engineer. She released her debut novel Ancillary Justice in 2013 while living with her husband and it received mass critical acclaim. I have reviewed the first novel and you can catch the link at the bottom of this review. She would follow up with two sequels (the first of which we are reviewing here) and additional works released in the same universe. She currently lives in St. Louis Missouri with her husband Dave and two children.

The most powerful human state in the galaxy is the Radchaai Empire. They come from a Dyson Sphere, led by the immortal and many bodied Anaander Mianaai, a single person who thousands of years ago decided to unify humanity under their rule. Anaander Mianaai is a single person spread across many minds through the use of technological implants, binding all those specially made bodies under a single personality and will. After unifying the peoples of the Dyson Sphere (because a Dyson Sphere is a big place, much, much bigger than Earth and look how many different cultures and peoples we have here) he led his fleets outward to annex planet after planet. To reduce the burden on his loyal citizens, he had the ancillaries created.

An ancillary is a cyborg human body with its personality destroyed and its mind linked to the AI of a military ship. In many ways it’s a high tech zombie. The person that used to be is dead and all that’s left is a body under the control of a foreign will and intelligence. Commanded by a small but capable citizen officer class, the ancillary armies and fleet of the Radchaai were unstoppable. Until they were stopped; halted by the intervention of a terrifying alien race who intervened in an indirect but unmistakable way by arming one of the planets that was being invaded by the Radchaai. The people of that system were utterly genocided by the order of Anaander Mianaai and a treaty that stopped the expansion was signed with the aliens. That decades-old genocide has had and is having consequences, however. Anaander Miannai has split themselves into two sides. One side believes that the genocide was a mistake and the treaty should be followed. The other side holds that they had every right to order the genocide and any action to limit or halt the expansion of the Radchaai (and therefore themselves) is an alien plot to destroy them. Breq, our main character, is one of those consequences and she is dealing with others throughout this book.

Breq was once One Esk, an ancillary (how is she an ancillary while maintaining an identity? The original personality is destroyed... {Justice of Toren had an identity and the Ancillaries are part of that identity}) on Justice of Toren, a massive troop ship that was destroyed in the opening moves of a civil war that Anaander Mianaai is fighting against themselves. In the last novel Breq was out to try and kill Anaander Mianaai, now she has a different mission. She’s been given a ship, Mercy of Kalr, and has been made a Fleet Captain (basically an admiral). She is heading for the Athoek system to try and make some effort at... Well I wouldn't call it redemption but perhaps restitution.

We often confuse the two in our society. This is partly because Christianity is so utterly a part of our cultural matrix that we tend to consider the two to be one in the same but they are honestly two different things. Redemption involves moving past the sin in question and becoming a better person who will not commit that sin anymore. Restitution involves trying to make amends or repayment for the sin or injury in question. You can redeem yourself without making restitution and make restitution without redemption. In Breq's case redemption is moot. The sin in question, the murder of a Lieutenant who was executed on the command of Anaander Mianaai for speaking up against an injustice, was not something she could have said no to. As an ancillary, she had no free will and as part of the Justice of Toren she could no more disobey the Lord of the Radchaai then I could fly just by standing in a field and wishing to. That doesn't mean Breq doesn't feel guilty or ashamed of those actions or that they feel that they are morally freed of responsibility for those same actions. Because of that, Breq is going to Athoek, where the younger sister of that Lieutenant is living in order to do whatever that sister asks of her to make whatever restitution she can.

Of course the universe isn't going to let Breq have it that easy. The unfolding civil war has led to a collapse in easy faster than light traffic leaving the system and Athoek very isolated. This means that in her capacity as a Fleet Captain, Breq will have to take steps to ensure the system's safety and continued good government. Assuming she can get the rest of the system government to agree with her idea of what good government is.  Which might be a struggle in and of itself.

In the last book we got a good introduction to basic Radchaai culture. Their language has no genders (everyone is referred to using the feminine pronouns) for example. They also have a somewhat sophisticated polytheistic religion which lends itself rather well to assimilating the gods and goddesses of other cultures (because they believe that gods are simply expressions of universal focuses and powers and thus can be be expressed in many different ways). Story telling wise this is actually a good move, as it moves the Radchaai away from the sensibilities of 21st century Americans and allows us to look at a society that’s something other than America in Space! Or Great Britain in Space! Which is another favorite of space opera writers. This makes the society itself a character in the story and in all honesty lets the writer examine themes and flaws within that society without getting to mired in contemporary baggage.

Breq herself is a great character to have, she’s deeply familiar with the customs, beliefs, and actions of the Radchaai but is herself an outsider. She is after all not entirely human as you or I would think of it; she’s the remaining splinter of a Ship AI housed in a human body. The story is told entirely through Breq's point of view but because of her cybernetic implants, she is able to see things through the eyes of her ship and the station orbiting the world of Athoek. This actually helps get around a lot of the problems of a single viewpoint character and is fairly clever.

In Ancillary Sword, which is focused entirely on a single system we are given a much closer look at Radchaai culture, it's assumptions and the actual facts on the ground. Let me give an example. The Radchaai tell themselves that there are no ethnic divisions within the empire. Once annexed and civilized (or stripped of your culture and having it replaced by one more acceptable to your Radchaai conquers) all divisions based on language, religion, gender, and race, simply fade away under the benevolent light of civilization; and make no mistake the Radchaai do believe themselves benevolent. In Athoek however, we can see that those statements don't quiet hold up and that Radchaai civilization doesn't grip as deep into the planet's soil as many would like to think. The dominant ethnic group, the Xhai have made themselves very comfortable under Radchaai rule by collaborating, because of that their religious festivals are celebrated openly, Xhai are represented at the top levels of the system government and they fully reap the many benefits of empire. Other native ethnic groups like the Ychana however, are exiled to the outer fringes of society unless they fully assimilate and become Radchaai and even then there are invisible barriers. The Radchaai have kept control by mostly working on assimilating the Xhai further into Radchaai society and clearing space for people of other ethnic groups who assimilate, while ignoring those who don't.

Of course these are only the problems that Breq has to deal with the on the surface, her ship is not the only military ship in the system. While she outranks Captain Hetnys, the good Captain has been in the system for a considerable amount of time and knows about the civil war as well, so there are open questions about whether he has picked a side, will he pick a side, and if so what will he do. What has he done already? Breq has to look into this while dealing with an entirely new ship and a mostly new crew and figuring out the intrigues and intricacies of the system. She will have to deal with crime, social injustices, and possible international incidents. The book gives us a good ground eye's view of what it means to live in the Radchaai empire, where there are many who do benefit but also a good number of people who are ground down by the system. We also see the many justifications the people on the top of the ladder use for why the people at the bottom, well, stay at the bottom. It's never that the system is rigged against them after all, it's always their own fault that they can't climb up (if you ask the people already at the top of course). But you should remember that the people at the bottom have their own ideas and while they may be denied education and resources, that doesn't always make a person stupid. Sometimes it just makes them angry.

The book series as a whole has been very adept in considering the costs and hypocrisies of empire, because the plain truth of human existence is that you cannot build an empire without taking advantage of someone or some group of people. In this book we get to see a microcosm of the Radchaai empire, how the lies that the Radchaai tell themselves feed into the social problems that they're experiencing and in some ways made the civil war that’s being fought mostly covertly inevitable. Even when your ruling class is more or less a single mind, when it gets big enough, disagreement is inevitable. While the civil war doesn't take up much space in the book, it lingers in the background driving various characters motivations and beliefs, causing conflict and action.

This isn't the first space opera to take the stance that empires and imperialism are bad or evil of course. Empires are a staple of this kind of science fiction, both as settings, and as antagonist/protagonist factions. Space opera stories are full of the fall of empires, glorious rebellions of freedom against empires, the rise of empires, and the glorious victories of empires over dastardly rebel scum. What Ms. Leckie does here is take a moment to look at what empire means. An empire is a single group of people establishing a single political and economic rule over many different groups of people and often dictates a certain set of behaviors, many of them exploitative and oppressive. It's also true that empires are often massively beneficial to a great many of its subjects creating united trade routes, bringing greater cultural and economic opportunities but those benefits come at a cost often paid for by the people at the bottom of the heap.

Ms. Leckie prevents this from becoming an anti-imperialist screed by making these things part and parcel of the story by having Breq be more concerned with the immediate tasks of making government work for everyone while making the system safe for the one person she came to be of service to. By simply having those elements sitting there and having her characters deal with them explicitly, she does a better job getting people thinking about this than any moral haranguing. Ms. Leckie doesn't beat you over the head with moral stances but rather lets you see the situations and problems that arise from the Radchaai’s relentless push to empire and the conflict between their stated beliefs and actions. I honestly really enjoyed this story, although it's easy to get lost if you haven't read Ancillary Justice so I am applying a penalty for that. Additionally the pace can get a little slow in the book as a number of side plots are dealt with, with the main plot all wrapping up at the end. Because of that I am giving Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie a B+. This is a good example of what modern space opera can be if it applies itself and it's a great example of rather good world building paired with interesting characters.

Next week, we finish the series! Join us for Ancillary Mercy, Keep Reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Review of Ancillary Justice can be read here:

Friday, April 13, 2018

Warp World IV: Final Storm By Joshua Simpson and Kristene Perron

Warp World IV: Final Storm
By Joshua Simpson and Kristene Perron

“My name is Amadahy Kalder and I came to this world to stop Slavers.” Ama page 440 

Just like last week, a disclaimer. I've been friends with Joshua Simpson for over a decade now, we met online after I came back from Iraq. We've played games together, screamed at each other over politics and swapped stories. He's a good friend. Like I said last week, while everything I give you is my honest opinion on the story, I feel it would be dishonest not to tell my readers when a prior relationship exists. So with that in mind, let's start the review (The same disclaimer goes for me, the editor, dear readers. Any worries you may have about Frigid’s objectivity however may be allayed, as I am more likely to give my friends fantastic amounts of shit, and have higher expectations of them then I do the average prole.).

Joshua Simpson is a native of Texas who has a colorful life behind him and that's just talking about the jobs he had. Over the course of his life he’s been a garbage man, nuclear power plant safety inspector, professional truck driver; and now writes books as well has performs pain release therapy. Which, from what I can tell is a fancy way of saying he inflicts pain on you with his bare hands and that somehow makes you feel better (That’s basically it. He treats nerve adhesions, which is is when scar tissue and the like from injuries or surgery obstructs the movement of and irritated nerve fibers. Physiotherapy for this is basically extremely painful deep tissue massage.). Kristene isn’t any less colorful; she’s a former stunt woman for film and television and she has lived in Costa Rica, Japan, and the Cook islands as well as other places. Her written works have appeared in a number of magazines and she was awarded the Surrey International Writers Conference Award in 2010. Today she lives in her native Canada with her husband.

Final Storm is their fourth book in a five book series. I've reviewed the other 3 (links at the bottom of the review) over the time of this review series and it's been a hell of a ride. Let me recap. Seg Eraranat is a cultural theorist. He’s trained to study foreign cultures, infiltrate them, determine their weak points and lead raiding teams on them to gather slaves (Woah! This is definitely applied cultural theory…) and vita for his culture, which refers to itself as the People (proving that creativity is a rare virtue as that's a common name used by tribal cultures everywhere [But Josh gets points for accuracy. In this context it has another meaning, as seemingly they don’t treat other cultures like..well...people!]). The slaves are used for labor and entertainment, vita is a... Well magical energy generated by belief and mass emotion. Over the course of three books, we seen Seg claw his way up from junior officer to warlord of a major organization that he personally built brick by scheming brick. Seg is cold, logical and ruthless because the People of his birth would have murdered him in his sleep if he was anything else (or maybe not like people…You know, it strikes me that a non-sociopath who has to do sociopath things is probably going to be a traumatized and broken person.), but we'll get back to him. The People have developed into a parasitical culture that only survives by raiding the unaware; the reason they have developed into a such a culture is the Storm. The Storm is a massive paranormal phenomenon that in some ways behaves as it namesake but it doesn't bring water and wind. The Storm brings death, sucking the life out of anything it touches. It has turned the world of the People into a wasteland incapable of supporting more than the barest scraps of life. It has afflicted the world of the People for generations untold to the point that the World (because of course the People can't think of any other name for it) before the Storm isn't even mythology anymore, although that frankly has more to do with what the People have turned themselves into. The People sustain themselves by the theft of lives and Vita, the vita goes to power the shields that protect their cities and the gates that allow them access to other worlds, that they may raid again. They force slaves to do all the labors that they find to dangerous, dirty, or deary to do themselves. The culture of the People has been drained of anything I would consider a redeeming value, as the men and women who made up that culture have embraced decadence and made virtues of being the kind of monsters who attack the unsuspecting to destroy their holy places and enslave their children. That said, the People having been running on borrowed time for generations and are about to learn one of the constants of the universe. All debts come due and must be paid, one way or another.

Seg has struggled throughout three books to try and create something redeeming, to forge a better way for his people even in the face of massive resistance. However he learned in the last book that there was no point in it, as he found another world that had been inflicted with the Storm. A world that had died completely. With this evidence in front of him, Seg realized there was simply no point in trying to reform his society. It was doomed, so instead Seg turned all his energies to escape (Damn. I would have descended into nihilistic ennui at that point and probably offed myself. Good for Seg!). He's going to get his people off the World and he's going to take as many of the victims of the People with him as he can. He faces enemies without in the form of the CWA (the institution that opposes the Cultural Theorist Guild that educated Seg in the first place) and enemies within, in the form of spies and traitors. At least he and Ama are reunited.

Amadahy Kalder, known as Ama for short, is not a member of the People. She's a Kenda, a racial group from another world that was raided by the People in the first book. Ironically, Seg was the point of the spear in that raid and they formed a relationship that led to Seg creating a temporary alliance with the Kenda because they were an oppressed people. Ama is also not a typical human, seeing as she’s developed gills. This is a huge cultural deal for the other Kenda in Seg's group. He recruited a number of Kenda to serve has his private armsmen. In fact we learn that there are a lot of variations on the human form across the multi-verse that the People stalk through. Which is interesting in and of itself. I would love to see more stories simply touring the wonders and horrors of this multi-verse. Mr. Simpson and Mrs. Perron, through hints and meeting various individuals through these stories, have created a multi-verse that is diverse and interesting. Amadahy has gone through a number of changes herself throughout this book series, including becoming the first person in recorded history to be taken by the Storm and returned. Because of that she has been granted powers and understanding beyond human ken, she has also been cursed with a hunger for Vita that makes her a danger to others if she cannot learn to control herself.

This is the most military of the books, and in a lot of ways it serves as the climax of Seg and Ama's story arc as they move ever closer to their final confrontation with the corrupt and venal edifices that govern the World. While Seg has decided the only worthwhile goal is to escape and save whatever he can, Ama hasn't given up on tearing everything down before she goes (Oh I like her…). This actually tells us a bit about Ama's character. While it's easy to think of her as the nice one in the pair, I have to point out that upon hearing that the People who have lived in terror of being drained by the storm their whole lives are going to be destroyed, she's the one who decides their ultimate demise is not enough. She has to personally tear down and ruin their awful society before she goes.

She might be the one more prone to act of kindness but you still don't want to get on her bad side. Ama spends a lot of this book trying to grapple with the changes the Storm made to her, both good and bad. While the Storm healed the damage that the People did to her body, it also made her something not all together human, and because of that she is finding herself the focus of supernatural belief amongst Seg's people. While a minority believe her to be some kind of demon, many more believe her to be some kind of Divinity, sent by the God of the Kenda to bring justice and deliverance. This creates some internal conflict as Ama does not believe herself to be anything close to Divine. Ama and Seg spend a lot of time together in this book, which I enjoy since they've been split apart for at least a book and a half. Their relationship is a actually a very healthy one, created by the fact that they talk things out and are very clear about their expectations and why they are doing the things that they are. This is supported by the fact that they have learned to trust one another, so when one of them says this is something that they’ve got to do, the other backs them to the hilt. Neither one of them plays second fiddle to the other mind you but they do learn to work together and make their goals complimentary. It's a great relationship and it's the kind we need to see more of in fiction.

Other characters show back up to grace the pages, the charming rogue Viren (who remains a favorite of mine) finds himself saddled with the one thing he’s always managed to avoid: responsibility. Seg makes him the commander of his army. We don't get to spend a lot of time with Viren but I enjoy every moment. Shan the cranky but gifted pilot returns as well, and continues her own character arc. I like how Shan has moved away from a typical member of the People and grown as a person without changing her fundamental personality. She may see individuals who aren't members of the People as people now but she’s still as full of social grace as an annoyed rhino. The fact that she's paired with Viren is kinda amusing, most writers wouldn't be able to make a pairing of such opposite personalities work but Mr. Simpson and Ms. Perron manage it with some flair. The ever loyal Mantu is here as well (although he doesn't get a lot of character work). Also with us is Gelsh, who was introduced in the last book as an escaped slave who was kidnapped from his world by the People. He's not only dealing with that, but adjusting to the fact that Ama is with Seg romantically (Ama had lost her memories last book and started a relationship with him before remembering [Ouch. That’s gotta hurt]). In addition to that, he’s dealing with all the changes being wrought on his society by Seg and Ama not the least of which is a new element of hope.

But Seg and Ama aren't the only people with plans. Within the Guild of Cultural Theorists, in the halls of the CWA, in the lower decks of Seg's own fortress, schemes and plots are all being hatched with conflicting goals and objectives. This is another element of the book that I enjoy: watching everyone craft their schemes, carefully set up their plots and set events into motion... Only for the last 150 pages to be a example of everything spinning out of control as all the plots and schemes slam into each other at high speed and start piling up. Our authors actually do a good show of what combat would be like as no plan survives enemy action and everyone is left doing frantic improvisation to achieve their goals. Ama and Seg have an advantage here as chaos is inherently helpful to them since among their goals is to wreck this entire loathsome den of evil and piss on the ashes on our way out but, that's balanced by the fact that their enemies are shown to be somewhat intelligent and capable of using their greater resource base to good effect. The fact that their enemies land real blows and cause real loses helps make the struggle seem more real and gives the victories that are achieved more weight. A number of those blows are also landed by random chance, not out of nowhere mind you but by factors that have nothing to do with the main plot, reminding us that Ama and Seg operate in a world that isn't strictly about them.

There's also a lot going on in this book and if you haven't read the past 3 books, you are going to be completely lost as to what’s going on. I would call this a self contained episode but one in a ongoing series that draws heavily on what happened before. Thus I would strongly advise starting at book I. Even if you have read the last couple of books, you're going to be finding yourself a little dizzy from the sheer speed. Although Mr. Simpon and Ms. Perron do try to put in some slow moments to let you catch your breath, this book has a lot of ground to cover and only so many pages to do it in. This is a hazard of having more than one viewpoint in your story. It lets you explore your world and your story more deeply but it also means that each character and story line has less total time to be focused on. For example Gelsh's issues kinda get pushed to the background; which is fair because we have a lot more important stuff to cover but we really don't see a point where he accepts Ama's relationship with Seg or comes to any decisions about Seg (Maybe he never actually does? Poor schlub.). This book also ends with the ever-dreaded cliff hanger and I have no idea when book V is coming out. So I am docking points for that. Still this was a great read and was a book that had a lot of payoffs if you are a fan of the series itself. For the record I do recommend getting the entire series (the first book is completely free in electronic format! You have no excuse! I'm only mostly kidding here.). That said I am giving Warp World Final Storm a B+. It would have hit an A- if not for the bloody cliffhanger.

See the other reviews here:

Next week, we move forward on another series with Ancillary Sword! Keep reading!

Friday, April 6, 2018

Platinum Magic By Dr. Bruce Davis

Platinum Magic
By Dr. Bruce Davis

Before we begin, I must as always issue a disclaimer. I believe a reviewer should always be honest with his audience and admit when there is a prior relationship. I know Dr. Davis personally. I have been a guest in his home and I count his eldest son as one of my greatest and closest friends (Note from the editor: Dr. Davis helped raise me so…). Dr. Davis' family has been very kind to me over the years and has given me friendship, respect and more. As you can imagine I am very fond of all of them. That will not be affecting my grade, as I will, as always, be working to give you my honest opinion on the story itself, based on its own merits and flaws. That said, it would be dishonest of me not to tell you, my readers, that I knew the writer beforehand.

Dr. Davis is a trauma surgeon who lives in the Phoenix Area in Arizona (that's right, another creative writer laboring in this furnace of a valley, if it's not the water, or lack thereof as my editor insists, there must be some special kind of sun-caused madness). Dr. Davis graduated medical school at the University of Illinois in Chicago in the 1970s (which means he's been a doc longer then most of us reading this have been alive). He then joined the navy to serve as a naval doctor doing his residency at Bethesda Naval Hospital. He would meet his wife serving together in the Navy and he served with the Marines in the first Gulf War. He currently lives with his wife, family, and large dogs. Platinum Magic was published in 2018 by Brick Cave Media, founded in 2006 by Bob Nelson. They're currently headquartered in Mesa Arizona.

Platinum Magic is a police procedural set in a fantasy world, however this isn't your average Not! Europe fantasy world but one where a magical industrial revolution has taken place. As such, people use magic mirrors that fit in their pockets to communicate with each other, drive magically powered sleds through the air, enjoy the convenience of running hot and cold water through magic indoor plumbing; the whole nine yards. This is because human wizards methodically and carefully studiedthe magic they learned from the near immortal elves and sussed out rules that allowed them to create repeatable and predictable magical effects that didn't take much magical talent to use. The world isn't perfect however, until very recently it was split along racial lines and in a lot of ways still is. For example the Elves live in the Havens, the Orc homeland is the Azeri Empire, and the Dwarves have their own homeland where they live behind anti-magic barriers. Most humans live in the Commonwealth which is a mixed race society, humans, dwarves, elves, and orcs all live in the Commonwealth with the other races coming in to escape the confines of their own societies.

However, the Commonwealth is not a utopian paradise. The world of Platinum Magic has a history of wars and strife that we would likely recognize from various fantasy novels. As such, dwarves don't like orcs, orcs aren't fond of humans, and the elves look down their noses at everyone (Of course given how many humans with elvish blood there seem to be, it might be only the older elves doing so). For example there's a native orc population in the Commonwealth mostly shoved into reservations or they've moved into ghettos doing the manual labor in magic factories that no one else wants to do. Layered on top of this are class divisions that run within and across racial boundaries born from a combination of only some people having magical talent and the fact that industrialized societies tend towards very unequal societies. That means crime and terrorism, and just like in the real world crime and terrorism often hit the people who can do the least about it. Of course wherever there is crime and terrorist acts, there’s a police force to contain and control it. Enter our main character King's Agent Simon Buckley and his partner and foster father Haldron Stonebender. When they get a tip about an illegal bomb factory set up in a suburban home, they expect to find a bunch of orc terrorists. What they get is the estranged sister of the ruler of the Elvish Havens doing illegal blood magic and more. When she dies in the raid, our King's Agents find themselves on the edge of an international incident that could threaten their careers, their lives, and their good names (Interesting order those are in…). They'll find themselves digging deep into a conspiracy that could set the nations of their world at war and made up of the unlikest co-plotters. What does the family that rules the Elvish Haven have to do with a group of Orcish terrorists anyway?

The story is told through the first person perspective of Simon Buckley, as he digs into the mystery of what the hell was going on in that suburban home he raided. It's bad enough that he has to deal with the Elvish government breathing down his back and that he has to conduct the investigation with a way-too-attractive Elvish Ranger named Sylvie whose appearance invokes a lot of memories for Simon (Unintentional sexual harassment panda?). He also has to do this with a Lt. who is desperate to curry political favor and all too willing to offer up Simon's head on a stake to get it (Hmmm. I’ve seen this before. In The Wire. Anyone man enough to walk the streets with Omar?). Simon is going to have to work off the books, with someone he's not sure he can trust but is finding himself emotionally pushed to trust anyway.

Simon is an interesting if straight forward character. He's not stupid or naive but still believes in laws and justice and thinks racism is wrong but dances around confronting Hal over his racism against Orcs (I was gonna comment on my racial profiling suspicion earlier…). For that matter for all his belief in laws, he is perfectly willing to break a law to prevent something worse from happening. As the investigation spirals into bigger and bigger problems and pulls up memories from his past he’d rather not deal with, we get a good luck at who Simon is. He is a good if flawed man, trying to do his best. Doc Davis' strength is he can write a character like this without drifting into melodrama or getting Simon to stuck up his own rear to get anything done. Which can be a hard needle to thread, but Doc Davis does it rather well.

We learn a bit about Hal and Sylvie as well in this story. Hal is an older married dwarf who, like many dwarves, lives in the Commonwealth. That said, there are a lot of questions about what went on in Hal's past, if Hal literally has a lifetime of experience on Simon, why is Simon his Sgt instead of the other way around? Seeing as the Captain of the peacekeeper station they work out of is a Dwarf, I highly doubt it's a race issue (unless Dwarves have a different seniority track to offset their longer lives?[that actually would make a degree of sense, otherwise younger officers would live and die unpromoted]). Hal doesn't display any envy at his adopted son being promoted over him. If anything Hal is proud of his human son, and is mostly concerned at his physical and mental well being. So I find myself wondering at Hal's backstory. I kinda hope to see more of this in the future and if Doc Davis writes more I hope he digs more into Hal and Simon's relationship because I don't think we've ever had an adopted father and son fighting crime before, or at least I haven't (Other than Batman and his various adopted emotional proxies er, I mean children). Sylvie is interesting herself, presenting an alternative take on elves as opposed to the scheming politicians who keep throwing roadblocks in Simon's way. She also moves pretty quickly for an immortal, making her romantic interest in Simon clear after a couple days. I suppose when you've been alive for awhile you learn what you like and worry less about it. Or maybe she's in a hurry because she's worried Simon could die any decade now. Time must look a lot different to her then us after all. Since this is all from Simon's viewpoint we actually don't get a lot on Sylvie. For that matter we don't get to see a lot of the rest of Simon's squad, the dwarf/human pair of Jack and Ham, or the new-kid mage Laim. Again one of the weaknesses of choosing to do your story completely from inside the head of a single character.

I really enjoyed the world building in this novel. Instead of presenting us with Not Europe! or an exact copy of our own world but with magic, we get a completely alternate world with a completely different history. Which is, frankly, realistic. A world with more than one sapient species in it and with the ability for people to shoot fireballs at each other with a word is going to be radically different from ours. Ethnic divisions within humanity are going to matter less when there is a literal horde of bug eyed monsters coming to eat your children, to give one example. It's not just that, there's a lot of little things that stack up to create the feeling of a very different world. The characters use understandable but very different phrases. No one says hi or goodbye in this book, they say good meeting or good parting. No one says alright, they say all good. Little things like that help create a very real sense of being somewhere else. Doc Davis also plays the history of his world close to his vest. There are no massive infodumps here, you pick things up by their mention in natural conversations between the characters. Let me define my terms here. Infodumping is a term for when characters have a long speeches detailing some part of how their world works, either the technology or the magic or the history of the world even when all the characters present would already know this information. Another term for it is the dreaded As You Know Speech, after the phrase that usually starts an infodump. There are some writers, (looking at you Weber) who won't even bother to put that information into the mouths of the character and just dump it into the story as plain text. I know there are people who enjoy reading a good infodump and I would agree there are some stories that work with that but in all honesty it's very easy to break the pace of the story with an infodump and bog it down. Doc Davis instead prefers to give us passing details about the world and focusing on really letting us get to know Simon and pulling us into the mystery at hand. Which works because having to fill in the gaps is a good way to get your readers pulled in, especially when you have the world building supported by little details that enforce the feeling that these characters don't come from our world.

The pace of the book is fairly fast. The novel is barely over 300 pages; which is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand there are things in the story that I wish had more time and space devoted to them. I honestly wanted to see more of the other characters and there just wasn't space in the novel for them. For example Molly, Hal's wife and Simon's foster mother, looms large in Simon's thoughts but she doesn't get a lot of time on page. Hal could have used more screen time, as well as the rest of the squad. On the other hand in this era of bloated fantasy novels that could be used as hand to hand weapons due to their size and weight, it's good to see a writer actually buckle down and tell me a story without wondering all over the damn place. If you're used to reading Robert Jordan or George RR Martin, this is going to be a fairly big change of pace. I do hope if we revisit these characters in future books that we get to spend more time with them and see a bit more of their world. Another thing about the novel is the mix of predictable and unpredictable plot beats. There are some that are lifted right out of a 1980s cop movie and others that are fairly unique. Part of it is the world, there are times where it almost feels Victorian and other times when it feels perfectly 21st century and still other times when it feels like the pure fantasy novel it is. This is all done fairly well and Doc Davis uses elements that we've seen a hundred times before to hide the surprises in the plot until the very last minute like a stage magician. I honestly very much enjoyed the book, but if you're not a fan of police stories this isn't going for work for you. That said I'm giving Platinum Magic an A-. Much of the issues come from the relentless single view point of the story but it's done really well and will likely bother you a lot less then bothers me.

Next Week, we return to Warp World!  Keep Reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen. 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Sidebar IV: Crouching Author, Hidden Minority

Sidebar IV: Crouching Author, Hidden Minority

Welcome readers! This sidebar is gonna be a little different, since it’s usually just me babbling about the topic and our good editor doesn’t even see them until I post them. Today, our editor Dr. Ben Allen will be joining us in the conservation since he has relevant experience (God Frigid, just tell them I’m gay, it’s fine.) I served during don’t ask don’t tell Doc, habits are hard to break. Anyways! We’ll be talking about minorities in fiction, most specifically minority characters you didn’t realize were minorities until the end of the story (*coughcough*Dumbledore*coughcough*). Dumbledore is a good example of that, as is Aceh from Ready Player One. Let me get into this.

Minority characters and representation can be a touchy topic. Certain types of people are underrepresented in lot of fantasy and science fiction stories. In all honesty I tend to be harder on science fiction and stories set in the modern day like urban fantasy (Because presumably cultural mores in the future and now are such that, say, gay characters are likely to be out of the closet, and travel between regions that might have different racial and ethnic groups is easy. As opposed to say, fantasy, where black people might have to cross a desert to reach NotEurope(™)). Although I’ll note that Rome in its heyday had a substantial African population, given that the Empire ruled a part of Africa. A varied population helps bring home the idea that your city is massive and important folks, just a thought. Now I’m not saying you should have a bloody racial or gender quota or what have you but having discussed this with fans who are of a different race or orientation then myself… I see where they’re coming from. If there’s no one like you in fiction, it starts to feel like your society is trying very hard to pretend you don’t exist and that would bother most people (While that is true, it’s a bit more than that too. Science fiction, fantasy, comics of various sorts… those are our versions of mythology. They tell stories about who we are as a people, what our values are. They give us heroes we can identify with and look up to at a young age when we’re figuring ourselves out. It’s harmful to be excluded from that.).

So I’m hoping most of you can see how this is kinda of a big deal, I mean imagine that for years you’ve been reading about characters that you like and identify with but there’s a gulf there because of a difference in experience (let’s not pretend that race, gender and more doesn’t change your life experience either folks) but you finally find a character who does match up. Maybe it’s a character that’s open about their faith and it happens to be your faith and this character practices it, not just pays it lip service. Now imagine this is the only character you’ve ever found that does this. How exciting would that be to finally have that? Now imagine that instead of seeing the character go to service, or pray or do rituals connected to that faith… The creator of the character just mentions it a year or so after the series has ended (ROWLING!!!!!!). How would you feel about that? The experience wouldn’t be the same at all would it?

And now for non-parenthetical commentary. What Rowling did is… look, it’s what I’m going to call post facto tokenism. It’s like, she felt like she had to include a gay character for the sake of diversity, but didn’t want to make the effort of actually having Dumbledore’s sexuality impact his character in some way or matter in the plot. She gets the props for including a gay character (after the fact), but didn’t take any of the risk. It’s cynical and insulting. I can see why it might have been difficult to include in the main story, but she’s a good enough writer she could have done it in the sections about Grindelwald. There could have been a conversation about Grindelwald and Dumbledore being a thing, and Harry being either confused or astonished by this. Hermione could have been pleasantly surprised at how progressive the Wizarding World is in this respect, while dismayed at his taste in men; not that she has much room to stand on. Seriously, why did Ron exist? (Ron isn’t the worst choice she could have made, it’s all the other men she’s attracted to that are questionable if you ask me but we aren’t getting into that). And this is in a setting where people of every other possible group is represented in some way. There is even a lengthy episode in book two that goes into the oppression of an entirely fictional slave caste. Now, in Fantastic Beasts part II, we have a not-explicitly-gay Dumbledore, in a plot arc where it bloody well should matter! I just have to hope Jude Law (that sexy manbeast) puts All The Subtext into his performance in such a way that it transcends the script, or I’ll be pissed. For fuck’s sake, Newt Scamander is a textbook autism case(And he’s awesome!) but noooo! Can’t have gay Dumbledo(Ahem) I’m ranting. I’ll stop.

Now I can see how a writer would be hesitant. It’s a lot easier to screw up writing a character with a different gender (look how often it’s done!) or race then yourself and writing someone with a different orientation is considered in and of itself a political act in the anglosphere. Writing a character of a different race can cause some of the more faint hearted writers to be leery because well, if that character is primarily negative or has a memorably negative personality trait, you’re inviting the audience to wonder if you’re making a statement about that’s character race. Honestly this can be counteracted pretty easily though, by having more than one character of each race (which is why avoiding tokenism is good for the author as well as the audience). There’s no reason your group is limited to one black man, or one Jewish girl or… You get the idea. Additionally if you present your minority characters in stealth mode, you can claim to be colorblind or trying to present the moral that these differences don’t matter.

Except they do matter, obviously. Being gay, or trans, or black, or jewish informs who a person is, and it informs their relationships with their society and other individuals. Someone who “doesn’t see race”, for instance, is also putting the blinders on with respect to how race impacts the experiences of their characters, and that isn’t just bad writing, it is itself a form of racism by way of erasure. Try telling a black guy, heaven forbid a black woman, that their experiences are irrelevant (Telling them that their experiences are the same as yours or that their race didn’t impact those experiences is also a bad idea. I’m gonna suggest trusting me on that one.). Try telling me mine as a gay man don’t inform who I am. It won’t go over well.

Now not every story needs a super diverse cast. If you’re writing a historical fiction set in the countryside of 1620s England, then having members of the Zulu tribe show up is gonna be a little.. Odd. Interesting mind you, but odd. But if you’re writing a science fiction set in the far flung future of 3422 and traveling to other planets is as easy as flying a plane is today… Why not have several different ethnic groups interacting? Why not have some diversity in your characters? For that matter when writing fantasy, remember that before the Bronze Age Collapse, you had people traveling from Britain to Egypt to sell Tin. It was a long, dangerous journey (in literal row boats) but it was still done often enough that it wasn’t considered outrageous for those people to be there (As another example, there are cultural artifacts from the Middle East that show up in Scandinavia, indicating there was trade in both directions, either directly or through intermediaries.). Still that said, not every story needs a diverse cast and nor should this turn into a checklist you need to check off.

That said, if you’re going to include a minority character you should bite the bullet and let them be openly a minority character and don’t shy away from it. Just throwing their minority status on the table at the end of the story is frankly more of a checklist behavior than anything else. If you want to include a minority character but you’re not confident you can do it correctly, talk to us. I’m writing a Psi Corps fanfiction right now (The Corps is Mother the Corps is Father), and I have a section that deals with what it means to be Jewish inside the Corps. I’m only (very)vaguely Jew-ish (the hyphen matters). So what do I do? I ask a friend of mine who was raised Orthodox to check it over and make sure I got it right. There’s something to be said for writing what you know, so you might not want to dive too deep into a subculture you don’t have direct experience with for your viewpoint character (especially with a first person or third person limited perspective), but an outsider’s perspective is fine for secondary characters.

So in conclusion, the trend of hidden minority characters might seem like a good compromise but in the end doesn’t really work on any level. It’s better to either just have the minority character in the story (this excludes stories where the character hiding their minority status is plotline within the story, but that means you’ll have to actually write about it) or just not have the minority character at all.

So what do you think readers? Feel free to leave a comment or an argument below. But either way, keep reading! See you next Friday.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Ready Player One: The Movie Directed by Steven Spielberg

Ready Player One: The Movie
Directed by Steven Spielberg

First, a quick note on how this review will go. Because this is a book review series, the movie will be receiving two scores. The first one will be on how well it holds up on its own as a movie; the second will be judging it on its merits as an adaptation of the novel. Fair warning there may be spoilers. Ready Reader? Let's go!

The movie rights for Ready Player One were bought before the book was even released to the public, what followed were a number of negotiations for rights to various characters that were actually completed fairly quickly all things considered. Now some rights were not able to be obtained, for example the rights for Ultraman, who plays a big part in the plot of the book, are the matter of some dispute at the moment. So the movie creators weren't able to get a hold of them because no one is really sure who to even talk to right now. So instead the Iron Giant was substituted. Most of the Spielberg references were removed on the insistence of Spielberg himself, because he felt it would be vain to pack the movie with references to his own work, even if his list of films is a massive cornerstone of the 80s. Let's take a look at Spielberg for a moment shall we?

Steven Spielberg was born December 18, 1946 to an Orthodox Jewish family in Cincinnati Ohio. Later as a child they moved to Phoenix, Arizona (once again a creative genius spends his childhood in this sun-blasted locale, I begin to wonder if there something in the water? [Editor: What water? Long live the fighters of Mua’Dib! Okay okay, it only has the temperature and dust storm of Arrakis, there are several rivers that have been fully drained by the time they hit Phoenix proper, and several artificial reservoirs. But if the metro area keeps growing the way it is… That’s gonna change.]) where Mr. Spielberg would take the first steps on his path by earning his photography merit badge using his father's movie camera, because the still camera was broken. At age sixteen he wrote and directed his first independent film. His parents would move to California and divorced before he graduated from high school. He moved to LA with his father and was accepted to California State University. While attending college he got a unpaid internship (Spielberg had one before they were cool/completely ubiquitous exploitation of free labor.) with Universal Studios, it was during that internship that he got a chance to make a 26 minute short film called Amblin'. The film won several awards at various film festivals and impressed Sid Sheinberg, a Vice President at Universal, who offered Spielberg a seven year director contract, making Mr. Spielberg the youngest ever signed director in Hollywood history. He would not complete his degree until 2002 (God, can you imagine being his film professor? Talk about imposter syndrome. “Hey Steve, you wanna just teach the class for the week? I’m going through a divorce and just… can’t handle this right now” or “Well Steve, I’d planned on having the class analyze one of your films but that’s right out now. Thanks.”) but considering we got ET, Jaws, and Raiders of the Lost Ark... I'm gonna say Mr. Spielberg likely made the right call there. Let's move on the movie itself shall we?

Ready Player One takes place in Columbus Ohio, in the Year of Our Lord 2045 AD. Wade Watts lives with his Aunt Alice and her crappy boyfriend Rick. His only escape is the OASIS, where he competes in the race for the copper key. The OASIS is a virtual reality internet, created by James Halliday. When Halliday died, he announced that whoever could get all three keys (Copper, Jade, and Crystal) by defeating all three of the challenges, accessed by solving riddles which would lead to the challenge locations, would inherent all of his money (half a trillion dollars) and full control of the OASIS. As you can imagine this made some people excited. Someone figured out that the first riddle led to a race, where King Kong jealously guards the finish line. No one has made it past him in five years, until Wade finds a clue that lets him beat the race. This attracts the attention of the one of the more talented egg hunters Art3mis, a young lady that Wade has been a fan of for years and more dangerously attracts the attention of the villains of the piece Nolan Sorrento, leader of the corporation IOI. A corporation that has used predatory loan practices to amass a slave army of workers and Sixxers, young men and women who compete in the challenges using faceless avatars under the agreement that if they win, IOI gets full rights to the OASIS and will remake it in their corporate image. Wade now has to race against time and with the help of his friends defeat the corporation, save the OASIS from ruthless exploitation, and learn something about himself in the meantime (There’s the Spielberg schmaltz we all know and love).

Ready Player One the movie is a fairly standard plot held up by amazing visuals and locations. Like a dance club with zero g dancing or that race track I mentioned. While the plot is done well and the characters are decently acted and written, frankly if you've seen a movie about a plucky underdog out to save the world from the powers that be and grow up at the same time... You can call this plot beat for beat and get a handle on the characters pretty quickly (but I'll talk about that in the second part of the review). That said the visuals are amazing and the writing and acting is better than your average Michael Bay Movie, so if you liked those, you’ll like this. If you came only to see those action set pieces and all the references in the movie you'll have a blast. Otherwise the movie is pretty average and I'm gonna have to give Ready Player One a C as far as movies go.

Now let's talk about this an adaptation, so if you don't care how the novel and the movie compare you can stop right here. I'm not going to pretend I'm a fan of the novel, I gave it a C- after all. That said, there were interesting and clever things in the novel and most of them have been ripped out of the movie because they weren't safe. Let me start on the changes to the characters, Wade is kinda bleached out of his individual characteristics to make movie protagonist #4; a young man who wants to make it big with a heart of gold. Gone is his cheerful, unaware hypocrisy where he criticizes sixxers for selling out while agreeing to endorse products he's never used for money. Gone is his general cynical view of humanity and his distrust of groups. Now instead of talking about using 500 billion dollars to build a spaceship to escape Earth and start over, he babbles about living in luxury. The movie softens him to a degree and makes his poverty less real as a result. Movie Wade does not feel like a kid living in poverty, he feels like a middle class boy chasing the dream of wealth. Book Wade did feel like a boy who came up from poverty, having a willingness to do things simply to get out of poverty and stay out of it. Also drained of gray characteristics is Nolan Sorrento. In the novel Sorrento is allowed to have some skill and actual grasp of the pop culture everyone is obsessing about. Not only that but in the book Sorrento isn't presented as a coward. The film goes out of it's way to make him look like a craven suit, bumbling to control something he doesn't like or understand but wants because it'll make money. Bluntly, this drains him of menace and dimension. Art3mis is given what I feel is an unnecessary tragic backstory and turned into your bog standard rebel fighter against the evil empire. She's also changed from Canadian to American (Why? I can almost understand but never approve white washing but… Red-white-and-blue washing? Why? The only cultural differences anyone would notice in a movie are accent, apology frequency, poutine, and saying zed instead of zee {Because everyone must be from Ohio in this movie… EVERYONE!}). These are all safe changes made to the characters to make them more like stock movie characters. There's nothing wrong with stock characters on their own, they serve as a shorthand for the audience but when you take a character and turn them into a stock archetype, you're basically deciding not to take any risk and to avoid doing work getting the audience to understand and connect to the characters in their own right. Now some of the changes were good, having Aech be a modder and craftsmen who makes money by creating new items on the OASIS was a nice touch and I liked that nod to the modder community in general. I am utterly annoyed by the changes made to Daito and Shoto, who in the novel were Japanese shut ins, referencing a real social problem in Japan, and it made the OASIS feel bigger to know that there people from other nations in it. It made the OASIS feel more like the internet we have today. Instead in the movie there's no reference to their nationality, but given their age and the fact that they show up in Ohio in person... I have to assume they're Asian Americans (*Editor Twitches*). This makes the movie OASIS feel smaller and more like a virtual reality arcade then an actual internet. We didn't need all five of our protagonists to come from the same city! Not in a movie about the bloody world wide web!(Of course we do Frigid, that’s how Spielberg rolls. He has to have his small-town Schmaltz, and if he can’t have that, it’s parental issues. So many parental issues.)

Additionally much of the indepth nerdery was taken out to pander to a wider crowd. So instead of Dungeons and Dragons adventures which are solved by Wade learning the right Latin word at the right moment, we get the race instead (Oh for the love of… The people who go to see this movie are going to at least know what Dungeons and Dragons is, and everyone pretty much recognizes Latin when they hear it even if they don’t speak it. I really don’t see the point of this one, even for the sake of pandering to the widest possible demographic. It can be de-geeked a little bit without losing that completely. What the hell?). The obscure animes of the 80s are replaced with references both visual and audio to major movies and video games. This makes it feel less like a celebration of geek culture and more a pandering trip to the widest lane on the nostalgia highway so as to hit as much of the audience as possible. I'm being a bit of a snob here, there's nothing wrong with preferring King Kong, Overwatch, and Doom over Dune, D&D, and Joust; but when you remove major references from the novel, I can't help but feel the motive was to pander to a wider audience so you could get at their wallets. In my view the film drains away what little subtly there was in the novel and replaces it with more pandering when the story was already dangerously over the top with it as it was.

I'm also going to take a shot at the changes made to the message of the story. In the novel the message was that pop culture obsessions cannot and do not take the place of real communities or relationships with real people. There’s nothing wrong with hobbies or liking certain kinds of entertainment but you need to balance that with spending time with actual people. Wade had to learn that by burning bridges with his friends and struggling to rebuild those bridges and work with them to win in the novel. Here it's reduce to a quick, power of friendship and a message that you damn kids need to go outside and stop staring at those damn machines so much. Given all of this. as an adaptation I have to give Ready Player One the adaptation a D+.

Well... Next week we're heading back to the books! We're reviewing Platinum Magic by Dr. Bruce Davis. Nut first, this Sunday a joint-sidebar with both your editor and I, your reviewer discussing a topic I like to call Crouching Author, Hidden Minority. Keep Reading!

Monday, March 26, 2018

Sidebar III: Snow Crash vs Ready Player One

Sidebar III: Snow Crash vs Ready Player One

I find it interesting that the two books are even compared at all really. Usually comparison arises when books are published fairly closely together, have similar characters or subject matter. Instead Hiro and Y.T are very different from Wade and the worlds they inhabit are fairly different as well. The stories themselves are different in a lot of ways a well. Still let's take a look at the two shall we?

First let me map what I found the books shared. Both books have a semi-humorish tone to them, Snow Crash's humor comes from the near parody like nature of it's world. Where it rides that fine line between absolute parody of cyberpunk and maintaining a fairly serious world. Ready Player One's humor comes more from the situation of imaging a teenager in 2045 being obsessed with Atari games and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. The humor is fairly different though, Snow Crash invites us to share a chuckle while Ready Player One works really hard to make that outlandish behavior make sense and feel serious. I'm going to be honest and Ready Player One is actually fairly successful in that by tying that ridiculous behavior into a high reward in the story (If you can remember the lines to War Games, you might have a shot at winning enough money to match the GDP of a medium sized country after all). Both Hiro and Wade are fairly skilled with computers and like Y.T, Wade is growing up in a world that is flying to pieces. The biggest common ground however is the existence of a virtual reality internet in both stories. The Metaverse in Snow Crash and the OASIS in Ready Player One. Let me take a look at them.

The Metaverse is fairly constrained and honestly somewhat pedestrian compared to the OASIS. It presents itself as a single vast globe that can be traveled by train or programmed vehicles. People buy virtual estate in the Metaverse and build offices, homes and headquarters for their internet needs. People move about in avatar with most people using black and white flat avatars with computer experts using more realized avatars and the wealthy buying off the shelf colored avatars for their convenience. All in all it's not a terrible view of the internet but it is constrained by the fact it was written in 1992 when the web was in it's infancy at best and no one really quiet knew it's full potential. Additionally the Metaverse does not get the same amount of attention lavished on it as OASIS does as most of Snow Crash takes place in the real world.

Meanwhile in Ready Player One, the OASIS is where the action is. The OASIS is bigger, more realized and immersive then the Metaverse. It's not a single globe, it's a galaxy of planets you can teleport around in if you have the money or fly using spells, spaceships or anything a programmer can dream of. People conduct business, play games, go to school, work, hang out, fight and love in this place. The OASIS feels like the internet turned into a truly amazing Massive Multi-Player Online Game. Everyone starts off with fully rendered and 3d avatars just like most MMOs but through grinding or money you can upgrade pretty quick. Ready Player One details the world of OASIS fairly deeply and devotes a good deal of time to it because the OASIS is most of the story takes place. Given that the book was written in 2008, it's no surprise that a greater understanding of the internet and it's culture is displayed in this book.

Let's take a look at our characters. I'm going to stick to our 3 main characters for brevity sakes. Hiro is a loner who could take a respected position in his society of hackers and programmers but refuses to due to distinct distaste for authority and a fear of being turned into an assembly line worker. Y.T is young woman who has rejected most of her society because it requires her to dumb herself down and pretend to be less capable then she really is. Hiro chooses to do most of his work in the Metaverse but has no problem getting his hands dirty in the real world (or even resorting to reason if necessary) if the stakes become high enough. Y.T is unrelentingly a citizen of the real world and embraces it fully. Both Hiro and Y.T accept their world and don't waste a lot of time thinking about how things were better in the past. That may be because Hiro as African American would look at the past as a time when he would have been locked out of his rightful part of things for something as petty as his skin color and Y.T simply inclined to think that way as she's very much someone who focuses on the present. Wade makes no bones about the fact that he thinks he lives in one of the crappiest times in history (I would say he's wrong but would admit the world he describes can't be called good). He, unlike the two above is very focused on the past and how things were better back then. Wade is also someone who has a community but refuses to take a bigger part in it out of a combination of pride and shame. Shame over his poverty and pride in refusing to ask for help instead clinging to the hope that he can strike it big on his own efforts. While it would look like something he shares in common with Hiro along with a love of computers, there's a difference. Hiro is coder and a programmer, one of the men who actually built the Metaverse, line by line. Wade is a gamer and while not a terrible programmer it's not his main skill set nor did he have anything to do with the creation of the Metaverse, Wade's struggle to take over a fully created world that he had no choice but to be in. Hiro's struggle is to understand the world he's help create, his role in it and to protect it. I suppose Wade might grow up in way to be like Hiro but I find it unlikely. Wade is honestly more set in his ways then Hiro and more committed to a course of action. I would honestly say both men reflect the generations they come from with Hiro being full of Generation X confusion bordering on apathy and Wade showing the self belief and frustrated determination of the Millennials.

This leads me over to the themes of the books in question which are also both very different. Snow Crash is a consideration of what Memes mean and what they do, how they tie into language and the very power of language over how we view the world. After all if you don't have a word for something how can you fully understand it? How can you explain it to others without words to give the concept meaning? What if someone could use a word to take that understanding away from you? What if someone could use a word to take you away from you? Weaving through that is a theme of coming to understand yourself and what it is you want to do in the world. Although I would consider that a lesser theme in Snow Crash. In Ready Player One, what Wade has to learn is that his obsessions are not a replacement for real relationships with real people. That while it's perfectly fine to have interests that you devote time and energy to, you also need to devote time and energy to being a member of society and not shutting yourself away from everyone. Wade's struggle to connect to his fellow human being is part of his coming of age. This is a young man who only had one close friend that he had never met in real life and never been on so much as a date by the start of the story.

Although now that I think about it there are a couple of other things that the books have in common. Wade, Hiro and Y.T are all status quo heroes. Wade wants to protect the current status of OASIS from being changed by the greedy corporation of IOI. Hiro and Y.T want to protect their world from being overwritten by a businessman who thinks he can become a god. Both are trying to maintain the world in it's current state against people would change it, in their opinion at least for the worst. This doesn't mean that they're against change but the changes that Hiro, Y.T and Wade do push forward in their stories are changes on a personal level in how they relate to their world and those around them. They don't seek to make sweeping changes to that world for good or for ill. It also interesting to note that in both books the villains are corporations. IOI is faceless villain for the most part, the sixers all look alike and Nolan Sorrento the leaders of the sixers is only a lackey for faceless powers that be. Meanwhile the corporation in Snow Crash has a face in Bob Rife, who is the owner of the business and the mastermind of the plot that Hiro and Y.T work to foil. The motivations are different however, as IOI seeks to seize the OASIS as a profit engine and possibly gain control over a major engine of the world's economy, while Bob Rife intends to flat out rule the world through being able to control the populace directly.

In the end I don't think Ready Player One stole anything from Snow Crash, the idea of a virtual reality style internet is one that has been around for a long time. If nothing else the existence of stories like Tron and Lawnmower Man would inspire someone towards that end eventually. Also corporations as villains is a staple in dystopias and cyberpunks and the motivations, organization and operations of the two villains in question are so different that I can't see Mr. Cline has taking to much inspiration from Snow Crash. I would argue that these are two very different books and I remain surprised at the threads on reddit and the various articles that insist on comparing them.  While there are similarities, they're fairly skin deep ones in alot of ways.  I remain steadfast in my belief that Snow Crash is the better book and the better story but I can also see how some people would prefer Ready Player One as the themes of that story and the journey that Wade goes through are very modern ones and might resonate more with certain readers then the themes in Snow Crash.

Next Friday, we take on Ready Player One the movie and after that Platinum Magic. This has been your reviewer reminding you, keep reading!

Friday, March 23, 2018

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One
by Ernest Cline

Ernest Cline was born in March of 1972, in Ashland Ohio. Before becoming a novelist Mr. Cline performed at Austin Poetry Slam venues with some success, becoming a national champion in 1998 and 2001. In 2005 he sold a screenplay for a movie called Fanboys,  was released in 2007. It didn't do well. Part of that was the great deal of drama around the movie where massive changes were made to the story-line and then frantic attempts were made to repair those changes. Another part is likely the limited release; it simply didn't play in very many theaters. The last part would be that according to most who saw the film, it just wasn't very good. Still to Mr. Cline's credit he picked himself up, dusted himself off and jumped right back in. Today he's lives in Austin Texas with his wife Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz, a nonfiction writer and poet, and their children. Let's take a look at Ready Player One.

Ready Player One was a New York Times bestseller and was praised by NPR, CNN, io9 and more. Described as everything from large hearted to a page turner. Warner Brothers bought the screen rights to the book before it even hit bookstore shelves. While it was widely celebrated at the time, I didn't read it. I saw it at the bookstore, read the back of it, and decided to buy another book. It wasn't until last year when I heard a movie was being made and one of my best friends mentioned he loved the book and read it every year that I decided I should give it a shot. Let's discuss shall we.

Ready Player One takes place in the increasingly not so distant year of 2045 where humanity is something of an energy shortage but still has plenty of electricity to power a virtual reality internet (World of Warcraft according to the best information I could find uses 75,000 CPUs across 10 data centers to provide 24/7 access to a player base in the mere millions) that everyone is using. Our Hero is Wade Watts, a young man who’s rather grim life. Both his parents are dead, his father dying when he was very young and his mother overdosing on drugs when he was eleven. His aunt would tell you that she took him in, but considering she doesn't let him sleep in her part of the trailer and only uses him to commit food voucher and welfare fraud, I wouldn't believe her on a bet. Wade was basically raised by the public school system and OASIS, the virtual reality internet system created mostly on the efforts of one insane genius James Halliday. As a result despite being somewhat socially awkward, he is really good at games and computers in general. In the real world Wade lives in a haphazardly welded together tower of trailers (Editor: FOR THE LOVE OF MARX!  WHERE ARE THE BUILDING CODES!?{Have I mentioned I'm not responsible for my editor?}) north of Oklahoma City (I'll come back to this [editor:screams in terror]) and has to ride a bike to generate enough electricity to access the OASIS . What's interesting about the OASIS is that you can access it for the one time cost of $0.25 for a lifetime account with a single avatar. With that avatar you literally gain access to an entire galaxy, whole planets of games, information and services. Wade even goes to school within the OASIS, a program started by the government to cut down on fuel consumption (and honestly not a terrible idea) What gives him hope and keeps him going is the idea of finding the Easter Egg.

When James Halliday died, a video was released, promising that anyone who could find the hidden Easter egg would inherent Halliday's billions (How did he make billions off a service that’s a $0.25 lifetime subscription?  Advertisement?  Licensing for developers?  Do the Users have to pay for premium content or something?{A combination of selling virtual goods and selling virtual real estate, to move from one world to another  you pay a fee to the OASIS owner, to own “land” you pay the OASIS owner, etc} ) and ownership of the OASIS. This was protected by a iron clad will and a standing army of lawyers that would terrify national governments into submission. Large groups of men and women have devoted themselves to this task calling themselves gunters. Many of them are organized into clans, cooperative efforts to find the egg and share the prize, while others hunt alone, refusing aide. Given Halliday's obsession with 1980s era entertainment and trivia, they pore over the video games, movies and music of the time hoping to find a clue to the riddle that will let them even begin the search. This has led to the 1980s becoming a major fad among teenagers and the younger adults. However they're not the only ones looking for the egg, the corporation of IOI is also looking, with a paid army of hunters, called sixers. Sixers give up all rights to the prize in exchange for a wage, steady work, health care and dental (Behold the way capital exploits the working class and alienates them from the value of their labor.  Look, communism doesn’t work, but I’ll be damned if good old Karl wasn’t a fantastic diagnostician). IOI is widely despised for their plans to turn the OASIS into place you can only access for paying a monthly subscription fee and to unleash advertisers all over the OASIS. Wade is a gunter but honestly doesn't expect to find the egg, it's just something to give him hope... Until he solves the first riddle...

The world building is honestly kind of uneven. The OASIS is very well done with attention given to detail building off of current internet standards and expanding them and moving them forward. As such I can fully believe that the OASIS works more or less the way Mr. Cline says it does. It's an amazing world to write and play in and you could honestly set entire stories within the OASIS and not ever touch the real world; which might be a good thing, because the “real world” of Ready Player One isn't one I can buy at all. For one thing I was brought up from childhood in and around Oklahoma City, you are not going to have rickety welded together skyscrapers of trailers there (That might happen in Texas though, where the state doesn’t even have a fire code, leaving those to county and municipal governments.  Honestly, any society that gives as few shits about the poor as this one seemingly does, is gonna have some pretty ramshackle slums.). Oklahoma gets on average 52 tornadoes a year. Oklahoma county, the county containing the Oklahoma City metro area holds the distinction of having the 2nd most tornadoes hitting in that state! Moore Oklahoma, (which is right bloody next to Oklahoma City) was hit by 4 high powered tornadoes in a sixteen year period. You can verify this with a five minute web search. If I wanted to be nasty I could make the comment that this novel is really just Wade's last dream as he lies under the shattered remains of his home dying from blood loss after it was leveled by an F5. For that matter I found the villains entirely too black and white to be believable. IOI's plan is to make the OASIS accessible only to people who pay a monthly fee is an act of a profit hating lunatic. A modern corporation wouldn't endanger it's monopoly like that, not out of any morality or goodness mind you but because it's way more profitable to allow people to continue to access the OASIS but add a bunch of pay to win features. You want to level up your avatar? Sure you could grind newbie quests and hunt rats... Or you could buy XP, $16.99 gets you 10,000 XP! Ultra rare artifacts in our loot crates, only $35 a crate! For that matter the vast mass of people on the OASIS is itself a commodity, simply change the user agreement giving IOI the rights to sell your data for targeted advertisements that only you will see tailored to your tastes and experiences! These are business models that not only exists but have often brought in way more profit then the pay to play model. There's a reason so many tablet and phone games are free to play but littered with micro-transactions, and Facebook has proven that you can build a wildly successful company using your consumers as your product. That's not the only issue, frankly there isn't a lot of thought given to the real world set up beyond a vague hand wave and a firm declaration that everything sucks so people lose themselves in the OASIS. We're not shown this bluntly, we're told this by Wade. I found myself constantly trying to hold myself back from trying to outsmart the world. Wade mentions that the oil ran out (I'm sure this is a simplification by a 18 year old boy who really isn't paying attention due to his addiction to Virtual Realty) and thus cars are barely used etc. I find myself asking what about biodiesel? Liquid Coal? Did you know you could make a car run on natural gas? Hell, Electric cars? We're already building the infrastructure for them (Did this society completely reject the splitting of the atom?  I mean, with sufficient Glorious Nuclear Power Plants, we could use hydrogen fuel cells for transport pretty easily, or pull the CO2 from the atmosphere and make our own hydrocarbons for liquid fuel if we had to.). I'm honestly being picky but it just kinda shows how little world building went into the real world side of the setting where I'm questioning the central premise in under 10 pages. For many readers this isn't gonna matter, for me, it gets in my teeth.

Which brings me to the biggest problem in the novel, we're told a lot of things but not shown them. The entire novel is written from Wade's point of view as a memoir of sorts. Which is a good and interesting narrative framing device but does slap some hard limits on your story. Since we can only be aware of things Wade is aware of and the our knowledge of the world is only as good as Wade's. We're told that VR classrooms are amazing but we don't get to see them. We're told that Art3mis and Wade had built a relationship through spending a lot of time together but we don't see it. So I find myself not very invested in it and just kind of shrugging when that relationship runs into bumps and rocky points. We do get shown enough of Aech and Wade together (barely) that their relationship feels like a real one but not as close as Wade would claim it is. Now I did like the inclusion of non-western characters in the form of Shoto and Daito, a pair of Japanese gunters that Wade would claim as friends as well and the interactions we see were really well done. The brief parts of the books that were devoted to it really captured the wariness and problems of forming a relationship with someone you're competing with to win enough money to make Tony Stark look twice but we're told about the major episodes in this relationship instead of shown them! As a result the relationships don't feel... Real. I reject the idea that this is a result of those relationships being formed on the internet. Some of my closest friends are people I met on the internet and have only seen in person a handful of times. Don't get me wrong, you need friends in your local area but that doesn't mean your net buddies aren't real friends either. That said if you're going to write a book where your main characters creating relationships with other people is important to the plot... Then show me the character doing it. Don't say “Oh and I hung out with protagonist C every other Saturday, we became good friends by raiding dungeons!” Show me protagonist C and you raiding a bloody dungeon! Make it a chapter in the book! Because otherwise the relationship doesn't feel real or organic, it feels like PLOT. It's not that you and protagonist C are buddies because you've raided the dungeons of the Mad Liche Bard of Byzas together. You're buddies because the PLOT says you are.

Since this book is told uncompromisingly from Wade's point of view, I'm going to tell you up front if you end up hating him, you'll hate the book. Personally I'm okay with Wade. He's a good kid, has a lot of growing to do but in your late teens who doesn't? Wade is also a fairly believable character.  He's a young man who, because of a lack of practice and role models to learn from, has a lot of trouble interacting with people outside of narrow fields of interest. Wade would likely struggle very hard to keep up a conservation with a stranger in a bar unless that stranger brought up something he loved. I can sympathize with that and that's a fairly realistic weakness to have in my view. Because of this Wade loses himself in a subculture that places a low requirement on social skills and will accept him as long as he learns about the same trivia and appreciates the same cultural artifacts that they do. There are millions of people who do that. The whole idea of fandom is kinda based off being accepted as long as you like the same thing everyone else in the group does and gunters in the end are kind of a short hand for fandoms across the internet. Wade is a fairly well done character, he manages to be clever but believably so. He's also rather flawed in his obsession with Art3mis and in being a bit of hypocrite. He's very disdainful of the men and women who signed up to be sixers as sellouts (he demonizes the competition, it’s normal) but once Wade makes it big? He signs every endorsement deal he's offered without a thought, for the money. Which is... Well.. Selling out. Given his abject poverty, it's perfectly understandable that he leap at a chance to have money but... You get what I mean.

The beginning of this book is also very rough (based on the first 20 pages alone the grade would have been lower.) and there are pacing issues as well. That said the plot is fairly well done, I thought the riddles were interesting and Wade's various plans and schemes were usually in my opinion passingly clever.  That said other characters are allowed to solve problems or come up with ideas that work.  So I wasn't left feeling that Wade was the only smart character in a world full of idiots. Sometimes he just comes off as lucky, or has to play catch up to other characters which helps reinforce the idea that Wade isn't the only person here with a working brain and motivation. There's a good story here and there are good characters buried in here. Unfortunately we're only really told about most of these characters as opposed to actually spending a lot of time with those characters. We're told more then we're shown, which in my opinion doesn't make for a good book. I honestly think Ready Player One could have used another draft or two to cut down on the amount of telling and devote more space to showing the relationships between Wade and the other players. For that matter we could have done with fewer references for the point of having references. All in all this honestly does feel like Mr. Cline's first novel and one that wasn't polished enough before release. I'm not without hope for improvement in the future and I can understand why some people would enjoy the novel.  However, that doesn't counter the book’s many problems for me and I'm giving Ready Player One by Mr. Ernest Cline a C-. The book isn't the worst thing ever but that doesn't make it good.

Next week, I tackle the movie. This Sunday we look at RP1 vs Snow Crash.  Keep Reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.