Thursday, December 22, 2011

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Before turning to the topic at hand, a brief digression (that will end up being somewhat relevant to the review itself, so bear with me here.)  I, along with who knows how many other people, am the owner of a Kindle.  As regular Kindle users know, it recently became possible to use the Kindle to check out library books, joining the modern ranks of e-readers.  My local library is pretty on the ball with technology and has access to Overdrive, which is the publisher-required middleman for e-book content.

You may be thinking that this is how I obtained my reading copy of Ready Player One, and that is correct.  But I’m also really wondering about my own personal moral standing and the future of the library.  As it happens, you can only check out three Kindle titles at a time – you also can’t forget to return it, since the book simply evaporates after your time is up.  Also, the library has to buy an e-book license for each digital copy, so if the library only has one license then only one person at a time is allowed to have access to the e-book.  If you want you can put yourself on a hold list.  And some publishers have requirements that the library must re-purchase the license after the book has been checked out a certain number of times (HarperCollins earlier this year set the number at 26, I don’t know if they ever backed down on that or not.)  Librarians obviously hate the idea that they have to continuously shell out money for a digital book which has a marginal cost of zero and isn’t suffering the degradation that a real book will if it ends up in the wrong place such as anywhere in the vicinity of a toddler.

So let’s recap here – we’ve got the technology to instantly magic the complete text of any book in existence to anyone who’s got a computer or an e-reader and to do this with no additional cost, and yet the process sucks.  The publishers are intent on making this a more painful and less pleasant prospect than physically going to the library and more expensive to the library than actually buying a physical copy of a real book.  Which means that the future is less about awesome technology than about the laws, regulations and social norms that constrain everyone’s use of that technology.  And then there’s people like me which are lending credibility to this asinine system by participating in it, which probably means that despite all my complaints I’m still part of the problem.


Ready Player One is a book about nostalgia for nerd culture of the 1980s.  Everything else about it is what you would call an Excuse Plot, such as when you’re watching a movie and the cable repairman turns out to be played by Karl Hungus, and then you know that cable repair is probably not going to be a critical plot element exactly.  So in evaluating this book you have to keep in mind that every single thing that happens in this book is designed around composing cool setpieces of vintage nerd references, and everything else is pretty secondary to that.  This could be done in a truly terrible and/or cloying matter, at which point this book would be complete crap, which I fortunately report is not the case.  But at the same time I’m not totally sold on it either.

Now, I was a nerd in the 1980s, although I think I’m maybe 5-7 years too young to really be the right-on-target demographic here because I was also teething and learning the alphabet during a lot of that period.  (Although my first video game was a Space Invaders clone for the Kaypro II).  I was really a nerd of the 1990s if you count the ability to do reasonably independent stuff.  Why waste a paragraph on my own circumstances when describing someone else’s book?  Simple, any analysis of nostalgia is going to be self directed because that’s the whole point of it.  If you’re going to reference, say, The Legend of Zelda for the original Nintendo, then the only reason that anyone would care is their own experience playing that game.  Maybe you remember your friends taunting you because you kept getting killed by an Octorok, or the hassle involved in getting down into the seventh dungeon, or endless arguments over A Link to the Past or whatever.  If you’ve never played any of those games and don’t have any personal experience with them then a reference/homage to them isn’t going to give you any warm fuzzies and might even be incomprehensible.

The action in the novel revolves around, essentially, treasure hunting, since the creator of OASIS has died and left his $240 billion fortune (still the greatest personal collection of wealth in the 2040s, take that, future inflation) to the person who can complete his online Easter egg hunt.  What is OASIS, you ask?  Something of a combination of Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse from Snow Crash, a little bit of World of Warcraft, some Facebook, and a few elements of blazing a butterball-sized crack rock.  Everyone’s on OASIS pretty much all the time, and why not?  The world has hit peak oil, so there’s constant wars, riots, global climate change, dogs and cats living together, etc.  So it’s a pretty crappy time to be alive.

Enter our hero, Wade Watts, alliteratively named by his father who died while looting a convenience store, and raised by a single mom in an Oklahoma trailer park.  And who is obsessed with nerd culture of the 1980s because that’s what the creator of OASIS was into, so that’s the secret to finding the clues to the Easter egg.

Now I mostly like Wade, he’s a pretty good portrayal of what someone like this would actually be like.  He’s not physically intimidating and he’s smart, but in a pop-culture and game-centric sort of way.  So he’s not going to be winning any fights or turning heads at the Sorbonne.  Nonetheless I’ve known some dudes like this, he’s basically a decent sort and I didn’t mind spending time with him.

Do you think there is any chance that you’re going to get through this book and find out that Wade doesn’t manage to outwit, out-game and out-trivia the murderous cabal that’s also after the prize and become the world’s richest man, and that he won’t get the girl?  I’m sure there’s someone out there who’s never read a book or seen a movie about an underdog before and it will come as a surprise to that person.  Other than that, you basically know what’s coming, and there’s a bunch of really fun nerd references in there.

I liked it.  It was pretty good.

Now, having praised this book, let me go ahead and bury it.  Remember all that business at the beginning about Kindle library loaning?  Wade learned to read and write through OASIS since every kid is apparently allowed free access to all the public libraries and Sesame Street.  And all through this, in the back of my head, I was thinking – that would certainly be cool, but really?  The book publishers are going to allow unlimited access to all their books and CTW is going to just let everyone spend unlimited time with Elmo without a royalty?  For that matter, did AT&T and Verizon not try to strangle OASIS’ bandwidth, charge extra fees, demand a cut of the action?  Did the movie studios and television networks go gentle into that good night?

I’m not going to shill for Paolo Bacigalupi’s vision of the future, but his harrowing post-peak oil collapse stories and novels paint, I think, a better version of what that crisis might be like.  I don’t really think that in the face of what’s going on in this story that keeping the power on to a trailer park in Oklahoma would really be a big focus of anyone in power’s priorities.  I felt that there’s a much greater chance that all his potential would go to waste – well, even more so.

So, as much as I wanted to get into this book, I kept feeling a huge tension between the story that was going on and the fairly well done setting and backstory.  It appeared to me that what I was being told about the world made all the events at best extremely unlikely, probably impossible, and that mismatch made the whole thing feel even more artificial than something dealing with the 80s should be.  Nonetheless, this is a pretty interesting first novel and I’m interested to see if Cline can get something in better focus with the next one.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Trouble is my Business by Raymond Chandler

I get unaccountable pleasure from reading crime and detective novels, especially those in the prewar era and extending into the 1950s.  I’m sure that a lot of this is selection bias, since anything that’s going to be available at all these days will have stood the test of time and be way better than most of the pulp fiction written in the actual era.  Anyway, Raymond Chandler is one of my favorites, but his work is inexplicably difficult to find.  I’ve been searching the used book stores for years trying to find the twelve-story version of this book, since there are two different collections; one contains twelve short stories, the other just four.  But I had to settle for the four story version, because that’s what I could find. 

The Philip Marlowe contained within these stories is a little different than the character that we know and love from Chandler’s novels, and well he should be, since these stories were originally written with other detectives in mind and then re-edited to put Marlowe’s name in there after the novels became hits.  But Chandler was writing about an archetype and the Marlowe novels themselves vary in quality immensely (Playback, for instance, is really not very good), so these could just as well have been written for Marlowe originally.  Why not?

Perhaps the pleasure I get from reading these comes from the slightly through-the-looking-glass milieu that is contained there.  Everyone’s speaking English and it’s allegedly America but it’s really not the same place we live in today.  You can get a beer at a drive through window and even a street bum is wearing a suit, there’s everyday casual racism but everyone’s surprisingly polite and eloquent about everything.  For instance, suppose you’re coming back from a business meeting and get jumped by two armed gunmen in your apartment.  Could happen to anyone, I guess.  And since you’re in something of a bad mood and a little drunk you decide to take them on anyway and beat them up.  Afterwards the ringleader gives a little explanation and a compliment, noting that you’ve got “nice arm action there, pal.  I will say that for you.”

I’m pretty sure in all times and places a real-life lowlife thug would throw in some cursing there as well, no matter how pretty your swing is.

The portrayal of the cops is pretty astounding too.  They’re not all corrupt or on the make – although some are – but it’s pretty typical for them to manhandle every perp after every arrest, just on principle.  They also smack around anyone who is suspicious, looks suspicious, or may become suspicious in the future.  Or anyone who wise talks, which is everyone.  No one’s surprised at being threatened with violence or death, at learning of the deaths of their associates, of being beaten into unconsciousness.  Just give a stoic or smartass remark and go on.

I won’t lie, this is great stuff, and Chandler does it better than anyone.  Except maybe Dashiell Hammett.

And it’s good that the writing and atmosphere is so excellent, because, with all due respect to Marlowe, he’s a terrible detective and no one should read these stories for the mystery.  Marlowe almost never has to do any actual detective work since everyone comes to him.  Seriously, it usually pans out that he doesn’t have a clue where to begin until some shadowy thugs come to try and menace him, and this gives him the information that he needs to find the next thug, and so on up the chain.  A word of advice to any villains who discover that Philip Marlowe’s on your tail – do nothing.  He’ll never find you.  And if he does suspect you, then the mere fact that you haven’t hired some goons to hit him in the head with a blackjack and dump him in a ditch somewhere will throw suspicion off you.  I think Chandler did realize that he tended to abuse these sorts of situations, so he tried to make the confrontations as exciting as possible; he also throws in a couple of deadpan internal critiques as to why he even bothers carrying a gun, since everyone takes it off him and beats him up anyway.  Although someone who had sustained as many blows to the head as Marlowe did might not be capable of much abstract reasoning.  Just saying.  (There's also a famous story that while filming the movie version of The Big Sleep, Humphrey Bogart asked the director who had killed one of the victims, and the director contacted Chandler, who didn't know either - so definitely an author who didn't get little things like that get in the way of the plot.)

Marlowe’s a great character because he’s such a pain in the ass.  There are plenty of times when, if he would just leave well enough alone, he could get out of a situation with no liability, no bruises, and occasionally some money as well.  He doesn’t have a commitment to justice in the abstract and is just as likely to help cover up a murder as bring a murderer in, so that’s not it – he just absolutely hates to not have a situation resolved to his satisfaction.  Also he reads poetry and plays chess, that’s a fighting man I can get behind.  But what exactly drives him is never really gone into or explained, you just have to puzzle it out from his actions, which are infuriatingly contradictory sometimes, as he’s just as likely to perform some sort of altruistic act as to use sarcasm or violence.

In possibly the best of the four stories, “Red Wind”, Marlowe is drinking in a cheap bar when a man walks in, looking for a woman.  No one’s seen her, but a drunk gets up and shoots the man dead, then leaves.  Soon, both the woman who was being sought and the shooter end up at Marlowe’s apartment, the woman to ask for help and the shooter to eliminate the witness (see what I said about leaving well enough alone?)  This one’s a little unusual since Marlowe, for once, wasn’t looking for trouble, and he ends up doing something pretty nice for no particular reason other than it is a good thing to do.  For some reason, I enjoyed that best of all.  “Goldfish” was the weakest of the four in my opinion, it felt the least like Marlowe and was somewhat more of a gimmick than you usually see in Chandler’s work.  The other two are pretty solid and have a lot of double-crossing and violence in the best pulp tradition.

I still don’t know what makes Marlowe tick and I certainly wouldn’t want to live in his world, but I did enjoy this collection.  When your greatest complaint about a story collection is that you want eight more stories, that’s a good use of your entertainment dollar.