Book Review: Ready Player One

Book Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Wade Watts is a gunter.  That’s short for “Easter egg hunter,” which has nothing to do with the holiday.  Born into grinding poverty as the child of refugees in the energy-starved dystopian future, Wade was orphaned at an early age and put into the hands of a neglectful aunt living in a skyscraper trailer park/junk heap.  Gifted at repairing discarded and broken hardware, Wade’s one chance at getting out of this hardscrabble life is winning a contest.

Ready Player One

It seems that the billionaire creator of OASIS, the virtual reality that nearly everyone in the world uses for games, business and school, set up a game before his death.  James Donovan Halliday (Anorak on the internet) had a massive obsession with the pop culture of the 1980s, the decade he’d been a teen in.  The first person to solve a series of puzzles and complete tasks based on Eighties trivia, movies, games and music will inherit Halliday’s company and all its wealth.

Thus it is that Wade and his fellow gunters have also developed an obsession with the Eighties, as they scramble to be the first to find the Easter egg that will make its owner incredibly rich.  However, in five years no one has managed to pass the first gate.  Until, of course,  Wade stumbles across an obvious in retrospect clue.

In a bit of a surprise twist, he’s not the first to do so, but manages to be the first to accomplish the associated challenge.  The game shifts into overdrive as Wade (or rather his OASIS codename Parzival) becomes an overnight celebrity and target.  To win the contest he’s going to need more than a command of Monty Python jokes!  He may even need to go…outside.

This book reads like a young adult cyberpunk novel…written for geeky forty-somethings.  I’m a bit older than that, but still managed to get most of the references due to having been very geeky during the 1980s.  One of the notes that makes it obvious this is a book for grownups is that our protagonist gets a day job to pay his bills so he can devote time to being a gunter.

The main villains of the story are the IOI corporation and its Oology Division.  IOI wants the cash cow that is OASIS, and to make it “pay to play”, shutting out poor people like Wade and the others who live in the Stacks.  (They’ve already managed to get laws passed to legalize indentured servitude.)  IOI is fully willing to use its monetary and manpower resources to gain unfair advantage over ordinary gunters, and Wade soon discovers just how far the corporation will go to have its way.

Wade starts the story already gifted in the skills and knowledge he’ll need to accomplish his goal…except interpersonal relationship skills.  His background has made Parzival a paranoid solo operator, and over the course of the novel he must learn to build bonds of friendship with the other elite gunters he meets.  A common theme is that all of these people only know each other from virtual reality, and their avatars conceal (or reveal) important information about their true selves.

Though we wouldn’t have a story without it, I can’t help feeling that if Mr. Halliday had found some way of getting people to work on solving the “real world” problems of the dystopian future as hard as they were trying to perfectly recreate the 1980s in cyberspace, things wouldn’t be nearly as bad for Wade and others.  At least one of the gunters, Art3mis, does intend to use the money to try to fix things.

Apparently future society has stagnated or regressed on certain civil issues, back to the Nineties or so.  There’s also references to offpage sex.  It should be okay for junior high readers on up, but the heavy emphasis on things that were cool back in their parents’ time might be off-putting.

Recommended primarily to geeky forty-somethings, with some overlap for geeks on either side of “80s kids”.

Anime Review: Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex, Vol. 03

Anime Review: Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex, Vol. 03

It is the year 2030, and after the effects of World Wars Three & Four, Japan is relatively unscathed, having become one of the world’s economic and technological powerhouses.  In particular, they lead the world in cybernetics, and various cyborg upgrades are commonplace.  Of course, this means that cybercrime is even more of a threat than in 2002 (when this series first aired) and the government agency “Public Security Section 9” is detailed to deal with those crimes, especially if they also involve terrorism.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Vol. 03

Section 9’s top agent is Major Motoko Kusanagi, who is a full-body cyborg, a “ghost in the shell.”  She has been in this state since childhood, and is adept at transferring her consciousness into alternate robot bodies (though she has a strong preference for ones shaped like female human beings.)  Along with her superior combat skills, this makes her a whiz at secret agent missions.

The Major and her colleagues will need every bit of their skill to battle the world-class hacker and cyberterrorist known as The Laughing Man, whose real face is impossible to see by anyone or anything with cybernetic connections, replaced by a bizarre logo adorned with Catcher in the Rye quotes.

Standalone Complex is a science-fiction anime series based on the Ghost in the Shell cyberpunk manga by Masamune Shirow.  While it shares many characters and most of its background with the manga and previous adaptations, it is not necessarily in continuity with those, so there are some minor contradictions.  “Motoko Kusanagi” (a name rich with connotations in Japanese culture, equivalent to naming a British secret agent “Victoria Excalibur”) may not even be the Major’s real name.

The structure of the show is interesting; odd-numbered episodes are “complex” and tie into the Laughing Man plot arc, while even-numbered episodes are “standalone” and tell individual stories.

As it happens, I got the third DVD volume of the series for Christmas, so let’s take a closer look at that.

Episode 9, “Chat! Chat! Chat!” takes place almost entirely within a virtual reality chat room for discussion of the Laughing Man phenomenon.  This…is not a good episode to come into the series on, as it is largely just people sitting around having conversations.  And not even the main characters (except the Major in disguise) but a bunch of people who probably didn’t appear before and won’t appear again.  We do get some background on what is public knowledge about the Laughing Man (not much) and some discussion of whether it’s even the same Laughing Man from previous incidents or a copycat.

Episode 10, “Jungle Cruise” focuses on Batou, a former Army Ranger with obviously cybernetic eyes.  A serial killer is loose in the city of Niihama, who skins his victims alive in a distinctive fashion.  The identity of the killer is quickly revealed when two CIA operatives from the American Empire (World War Three was not kind to the United States, which split up into three countries, of which the Empire is the most active in world affairs) appear to ask Section 9 for help capturing him.

We learn that the killer was part of a CIA black ops mission in Southern Mexico known as “Project Sunset.”  It involved murdering civilians in particularly horrific fashion to break the will of the enemy.  Batou, as part of the UN peacekeeping forces, encountered the killer, but was unable to stop him.  The killer’s war has not ended, now brought to the shores of Japan,  Does this also mean that Batou’s war is not over?

Episode 11, “Portraitz” follows Togusa, the least cyberized field agent of Section 9 (just a “cyberbrain” that allows him to communicate with other people who have cyberbrains) as he infiltrates a facility for children  with Closed Shell Syndrome, a condition where one becomes too dependent on cybernetic communication, making it difficult to operate in the real world even while becoming a savant with computers.  There’s something sinister going on in the facility; but is it one of the staff who’s responsible, or one of the patients?

Episode 12, “Escape From” is two related stories.  In the first half, a Tachikoma (an artificial intelligence robot that serves as a small tank for Section 9) goes walkabout without orders, heading into the city and learning about the human concept of death.  Along the way, it picks up a mysterious box.  In the second half, we learn that if someone cybernetically connects to the box, their “ghost” vanishes inside it and won’t come out.  The Major must investigate, but will she too be seduced by what’s inside the box and lost forever?

This one manages to touch on some deeper philosophical topics:  death, the rapidly developing individuality of the Tachikoma AIs, escapism and artistic integrity.

Each episode ends with a short comedy skit starring the Tachikomas, usually tying in with the plot of the episode somehow.  Also included in this volume are interviews with Batou’s actor and the sound director.

The opening credits are full-on CGI, which is a bit jarring, and really showcases how silly the Major’s default outfit looks, especially from behind.  (It reminds me of the US superhero comics fad for putting their heroines in costumes that were basically glorified swimsuits.)  The music is good, though.

I liked “Jungle Cruise” best of the episodes in this volume.

Content notes:  “Jungle Cruise” does involve skinning people alive, and we see some of the results.  There’s a nude female statue in “Portraitz”, which some parents might find unsuitable for younger viewers.  (But honestly, if you let them watch the previous episode…)  The dub version may have some rough language.

Overall, I am looking forward to seeing the entire series so that I can make more sense of the Laughing Man episodes.  Recommended to fans of other Ghost in the Shell versions, and cyberpunk fans in general.

Here’s the opening music, for those who like that sort of thing:

Anime for Speculative Fiction Fans (2015)

Once again this year I participated in the “Anime and Manga for Speculative Fiction Fans” panel at Minicon.  As promised at the panel, here’s a list of the items mentioned–I make no representations regarding the quality of the ones I have not seen.

.hack:  A series of interlocking video games, anime, manga and light novels about a virtual reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) called “The World.”  The anime involves a player who abruptly discovers that they can’t log out, and their memories of their real life have vanished.  Some parts of the universe have never appeared in a legal English edition, so the explanations contained in these are missing.

Akira:  Members of a biker gang in post-apocalypse Tokyo get involved with psychic children, enmeshed in a government conspiracy.  Both a really good manga and a decent movie (one of the first anime movies to come to the US labeled as such.)

Assassination Classroom

Assassination Classroom:  A junior high class must kill their teacher before graduation or he will destroy the world.  Manga and now an anime series–see my previous review.

Attack on Titan:  The Earth has been overrun by gigantic humanoids that eat people.  The last remnants of humanity huddle behind enormous walls, but now those walls have been breached.  It is up to a small army of specially-trained warriors to defend the humans from being devoured.  An adequate manga that became a very popular anime.  Violent and gory.

Berserk:  The nigh-unstoppable warrior known as Guts battles demons invading a medievalish world.  The twist is that his former best friend Griffith is the leader of the demons–but the public at large sees him as a savior.  A long-running but very slow manga, and two anime series (the first cuts off at the worst possible moment.)  Warning:  extremely violent, including sexual violence, lots of gore.

Bleach:  Ichigo Kurosaki can see ghosts, which is mostly an annoyance until he meets a mysterious girl who gives him the ability to become a Soul Reaper, a kind of psychopomp.   After some adventures fighting the evil spirits known as Hollows, Ichigo gets caught up in Soul Reaper politics.  Long-running manga and anime, which has been in its final arc for the last two years.

A Certain Magical Index/Scientific Railgun:  Interlocking series of light novels and anime taking place in a world where mystics and mutants both exist and attend school together.  The series differ primarily in their viewpoint characters.  “Index” stars Touma, an unlucky lad with an anti-magic punch, while “Railgun” stars Misaki, an electricity-wielder.

Corpse Party: Originally a survival horror video game, this has also been manga, anime and a live-action movie.  When a new school is built on the site of the former Heavenly Host Elementary (torn down after a massacre), some of the students decide to perform a mystic ritual of friendship which goes horribly wrong–they wind up in the old school with the ghosts of the murder victims.

Cowboy Bebop: In the not-so distant future, the solar system has been colonized, but a skyrocketing crime rate allows there to be a subculture of bounty hunters.   We follow the quirky crew of the Bebop as they try to stay afloat in the business.  Anime series and a really cool movie.

Crest/Banner of the Stars:  A light novel series that became an anime and manga.  Jinto’s home planet has been taken over by the Abh, a humanoid alien race which has the largest local empire.  His father sold out his homeworld in exchange for a position of power, and Jinto has been sent off for education in the empire’s ways.  He meets and befriends the Abh princess Lafiel on the way, but they get sidetracked by a war with the remaining human alliances.

Deadman Wonderland: In the near future, Tokyo is destroyed and a prison is built on it, where prisoners are required to battle for the pleasure of viewers.  A boy is framed for the murder of his class, imprisoned, and discovers he has bizarre blood-based superpowers.  Both manga and anime.

Durarara!!:  A light novel series and now anime about the odd happening in the Ikebukuro district of Tokyo,  It’s urban fantasy with some added elements; everyone has a secret, but few of them are the secrets you might immediately guess.  Very entertaining.

Eden of the East:  A naked man with a cellphone and a gun but no memory is met by a Japanese tourist at the White House.  This begins a rollicking adventure as they try to unravel who he is and why he doesn’t remember anything.  Anime series and a couple of wrap-up movies.

Evangelion:  In a now-alternate timeline, the Earth is being attacked by alien monsters known as Angels, and must be defended by fourteen-year olds in giant robots.  However, not all is as it seems, and the reason the robots require teen pilots is sinister.  Started as anime, has had a couple of manga series, is being done as a series of reboot movies.  Very influential.

Fairy Tail:  Lucy Heartfilia is a young wizard who runs away from home to join the wacky Fairy Tail guild, teaming with a fire specialist named Natsu.  They and their guildmates have exciting and long running adventures, both in the manga and anime.

Ghost in the Shell:  Cyberpunk action with a special ops group in a future Japan overrun with cyborgs, robots and less definable cyber-beings.  Major Motoko Kusanagi, a full-body cyborg, is our main protagonist.  Manga and several different anime, both TV and film.  Very influential.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time:  A high school student discovers the ability to jump through time (literally) and promptly abuses the heck out of it.  Eventually, she comes to realize that just overwriting events doesn’t mean they didn’t happen, and there’s a hidden cost to her powers…oh, and they’re about to stop working.  Very well done.

Higarashi-When They Cry:  A small mountain village is trapped in a time loop–each repeat ends in murder.  The characters slowly realize what’s going on, but can they stop it?  Originally a “visual novel”, also now anime and manga.

Jojo's Bizarre Adventures
Dio and Jonathan

Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure:  A series of series about people with strange powers, all of whom have a “jojo” sound in their name.  Check out my review of the first two seasons of the anime adaptation!  (The third season, “Stardust Crusaders”, is currently running.)

Kill la Kill

Kill la Kill:  In the indefinite future, a girl seeking revenge for her murdered father comes to a high school ranked by special uniforms, and must partner with a sentient costume to battle against what turns out to be a much larger threat.   Warning:  nudity, sexual harassment.  See my review!

Laputa–Castle in the Sky:  A Welsh boy has a girl drop in from the sky–it turns out she’s the last rightful heir to the flying island of Laputa.  Another descendant of that dead land wants to use it to conquer the world, and the kids must seek help from sky pirates.  Vintage Miyazaki.

Last Exile:  An “aeropunk” series set on a world at perpetual war–courier pilots must protect and deliver a girl who is the key to a peaceful resolution.  Anime with a manga adaptation.

Legend of the Galactic Heroes:  A sprawling epic space opera concerning the clash between two great star nations, and the heroes on each side.  Originally a novel series, turned into a lengthy anime.  Very rich in character development.

Log Horizon: Another MMORPG gone horribly wrong story–this one is notable for the development of “non-player characters” who suddenly are developing actual personalities and free will.

Medaka Box:  A girl who’s good at everything takes problem solving requests from a suggestion box at her school.  Several volumes in, it turns out superpowers exist and (according to the fans of the manga) it gets really good.  Was turned into a less well received anime series.

Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya:  A girl forms a club at her school to look for science-fiction beings, not realizing that she and everyone else in the club are themselves science fiction character types.  Light novels, adapted into anime–skip all but the first and last episodes of Endless Eight.

Millennium Actress:  A Satoshi Kon film about an actress who played many roles over several decades who’s being interviewed for a retrospective.  It interweaves her life story with the history of Japan’s film industry.  Some magical realism.

Moribito:  A richly-imagined light novel/anime series about a spearwoman who becomes bodyguard to a prince supposedly possessed by an evil spirit.  The truth is much more complicated.  The author is an anthropology major and it really shows.

Patema Inverted:  An experiment to control gravity as an energy source goes horribly wrong and much of Earth suffers inverted gravity, killing billions.  The story picks up much later when two young people with different gravity orientations meet and their civilizations clash.  This is an Internet-original series.

Record of Lodoss Wars:  A Dungeons and Dragons inspired series set on the fantasy island of Lodoss, wracked by periodic wars between good and evil.  A band of adventurers discover that there is a hidden hand behind the chaos.  Two different animated series–the second is much longer and involves a second generation of heroes.

Redline:  A “Wacky Racers in Space” movie–much motor action.  The art style takes some getting used to.

Revolutionary Girl Utena:  A girl was rescued by a prince as a child.  Now Utena has come to Ohtori Academy to become a prince herself.  But first she must fight a series of duels.  Lots of symbolism and hidden agendas.

Usagi

Sailor Moon:  Wimpy junior high student Usagi discovers that she is actually the reincarnation of a moon princess and becomes a magical girl to fight evil, along with the rest of her Sailor Senshi pals.  Manga, anime, live action series, and now rebooted as Sailor Moon Crystal.

Samurai Flamenco

Samurai Flamenco:  A metafictional series about a male model who decides to become the first real-life superhero.  Goes all the way down the rabbit hole and pulls it out the other side.  See my review!

Samurai Jack:  Japanese warrior trapped in a future where the evil spirit Aku has already won.  Not anime, but clearly inspired by it.

Space Dandy:  An “alien hunter” (he tracks down new species to register for the government) and his wacky companions run into various bizarre circumstances.  Each episode appears to happen in a slightly different reality.  Heavy on the fanservice.

String (?):  Someone mentioned this, but I have no information on it.

Summer Wars:  A math prodigy is invited to his crush’s family reunion to pretend to be her fiance.  Meanwhile, an amok AI is taking over Japan’s primary Internet provider.  These events are more related than they appear.  Very heartwarming movie, but the English dub is heavy on swearing.

Aincrad

Sword Art Online:  Our third series about an MMORPG where the players are trapped inside.  Very uneven–the first arc is pretty satisfying, but the second is painful and subsequent storylines become divisive.  See my review!

Tenchi Muyo–Ryo-Ohki!:  Teenage boy discovers that he’s part-alien and has all sorts of alien girls coming on to him.  This installment heavily features Ryo-Ohki, the adorable alien cabbit (who might also have a crush on Tenchi.)

Twelve Kingdoms:  A very well-done example of the normal(ish) teenager sucked into a fantasy world plotline.  Good world-building, and she’s not the first person to be brought over.

Yokohama Shopping Log:  A quiet series about a gynoid who runs a cafe after most of humanity has gone away.  Very peaceful.

Yukikaze:  After an alien invasion, a pilot with an intelligent plane tries to battle the invasion despite interference from other humans.

 

Your thoughts, comments, anime or manga you’d add?

 

 

 

 

 

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