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”.

Manga Review: So Cute It Hurts!! Volume 4

Manga Review: So Cute It Hurts!! Volume 4 by Go Ikeyamada

Quick recap:  Meguru and Mitsuru Kobayashi are fraternal twins who look a lot alike.  Due to a zany scheme, they switched uniforms and went to each other’s school for a week.  While there, each fell in love with a student at their sibling’s school, complicated by the fact of the disguises.  Now the week is over, but the romantic comedy is just starting!

So Cute It Hurts!! 4

In this volume, the Kobayashi twins go on first dates.  Meguru is out with the dashing Aoi Sanada, a tough but gentle lad who reminds her of famous Japanese warlord Date Masamune.  They get along quite well, despite Aoi being afflicted with anxiety attacks whenever a woman (including Meguru and his half-sister Shino Takenaka) gets too close.  So they can spend time together, but not touch.

Meanwhile, Mitsuru finds himself spending the day with “mean girl” Azusa Tokugawa rather than the lovely Shino.  She blackmailed him into a day with her in exchange for not revealing his crossdressing adventure, but Mitsuru didn’t understand what she meant and showed up in kendo dueling gear, while she’s in Gothic Lolita finery.  Onlookers assume it’s some sort of cosplay date.   Azusa is confused by her own feelings, alternating between anger at this stupid boy and being charmed by his good points.

But drama lurks in the wings.  Aoi’s trauma runs deeper than he’s been letting on, and Mitsuru may have waited too long to reveal his true identity to Shino.

Again, this is an adorable series with innocent feelings, and some amusing reaction faces, particularly from Azusa.  The crossdressing is mostly over, confined to an extended flashback.

Abuse in Aoi’s backstory is hinted at, and Azusa’s bullying is mentioned.  There’s also some brief non-graphic violence.  But in general, this is safe for its target audience of junior high readers.

If you liked the previous volumes, this one is also good.

 

Comic Book Review: Parallel Man: Invasion America

Comic Book Review: Parallel Man: Invasion America Written by Jeffrey Morris & Fredrick Haugen, Art by Christopher Jones

During World War Two on an alternate Earth, the United States did not develop the atomic bomb.  Instead, they developed the ability to travel to parallel timestreams, which they first used to win the war.   Fair enough.  But then they decided that to be safe, they needed to take over the Earth themselves.  World War Three ensued, along with environmental catastrophe.  So they used their travel technology to find other Americas and other Earths to bring into their sphere of influence, using the resources of those other worlds to prop up their own dying one.  They became the Ascendancy.

Parallel Man: Invasion America

Now the Ascendancy has set its eyes on Beta 76, an America very much like our own.  Only a handful of “Futurians” stand in their way, including Agent Nick Morgan.   Which is bad news for slacker and video game enthusiast Nicholas Morgan!

This oversized volume collects the seven-issue miniseries from Future Dude, detailing the Ascendancy’s first attempt to take over “our” Earth.   Much of the background is explained to Nicholas as he becomes caught up in events when the man he thought was his grandfather is abducted.   A lot of world-building went into this series, with costume and machine designs to show differences between the worlds.

One of the details is that there are Alpha (worlds with history similar to the Ascendancy’s or with useful technology that seem to get full citizenship), Beta (“lesser” Earths suitable for second-class citizenship and resource mining) and Gamma (dangerous or severely altered timelines only visited if they have vital resources such as the crystals needed for dimension travel) worlds.

In exchange for its advanced technology (much looted from other timelines), the Ascendancy’s social evolution seems to have stalled in the 1940s, with racism and sexism still overt things. This sets up a secondary conflict, as Major Mackenzie Cartwright, daughter of the President, has her own ideas of how to fix the Ascendancy, which don’t mesh with the Futurians’ plans at all.

Oh, and those Futurians are led by Dr. Carl Sagan, who is still alive there.  President Obama also makes repeated appearances, as both responsible world leader and craven sellout depending on timeline.

The volume ends with the Ascendancy suffering a major defeat, but perhaps becoming more dangerous in the process.

The volume is filled out with concept art for both the comics and the animation &  game that tie into the story.

The art is good and the writing is decent; if you like alternate timeline stories, this one is worth looking into.  If it sells well, perhaps there will be a sequel!

Book Review: Double Jump

Book Review: Double Jump by Jason Glaser

Jeremy Chin didn’t notice anything odd about his world until the day it was destroyed by a sparkling dust dumped from an airship.  He dives into a swimming pool, and blacks out.  When he awakens in a hospital, Jeremy appears to be in a different world altogether.  He’s quickly recruited by Steel Serpent, a genetically enhanced soldier with a penchant for hiding in cardboard boxes, and Xartus, a snarky white mage (healer.)

Double Jump

In between deadly encounters, Jeremy learns that he is now in a place called the Lattice which was cobbled together from other destroyed worlds and which seems to run on video game logic.   As he gains other allies and develops strange new powers, Jeremy slowly begins to grasp what the enemy who destroyed his world is up to.  Can he learn the secret of the double jump before it’s too late?

This is indeed a tribute to a certain generation of video games, and many young adults will be able to tell who and what the various characters were inspired by.  The “world inspired by mashing together other fictional worlds” setting is one I’ve seen before (In this particular case, most recently in Wreck-It Ralph) , but it’s fairly well-thought-out here.

Jeremy is very much “the Chosen One”; events (and possibly the universe) revolve around him, he manifests new awesome powers as the plot demands, and he seems to break the local rules of physics.  Mind, this is a fairly common thing in video games, as the story points out.  He also seems to be remarkably unaffected emotionally by the destruction of his world.  Admittedly, the non-stop action doesn’t give him much time to think about that, and there are flashbacks that partially explain his numbness, but I hope that the inevitable sequel will have him dealing with the aftermath more fully.

The flashbacks are perhaps the most innovative aspect of the book; Jeremy’s memories are not internally consistent, something he realizes towards the end of the story.  Indeed, they suggest that the events are not necessarily taking place in “reality” in the physical sense.  I should mention for those who are easily triggered that suicide is a part of the story.

One aspect of the Lattice that may be problematic for some readers is the “Nons.”  There are less than ten thousand freewilled beings in the universe; the rest are automatons that blindly repeat actions and bestow quests.  The “heroes” have long since learned not to care about Nons since the quests are often dangerous and after a while the rewards are not worth it.  Jeremy has not learned this lesson yet, and does help out a few Nons…who know his name.  Hmm….

The female characters are depicted as competent, but there are some digs at the impractical costumes foisted on them in video games.  One, Min, is engaged in intensive study of the “Engine” (the rules that drive the Lattice) in an effort to overcome the embarrassing nature of her powers.

The suicide and some rough language may make this book unsuitable for younger or more sensitive readers; otherwise it should be okay for junior high on up.  (A scene involving Min would boost the rating to an “R” if it were visual.)

I am pleased to say that though this book was self-published, it looks good and has no memorable typos.  Recommended for video game fans and former video game fans.

 

Comic Book Review: Uptown Girl: A Long Forgotten Fairytale

Comic Book Review: Uptown Girl: A Long Forgotten Fairytale by Bob Lipski

Once upon a time, in a land far away (possibly Maine), there was a cursed village.  No one could leave the village, because it was ruled by the King of Birds.  The villagers did not know much about their king, save that he hated it when anyone asked questions about him, and could command birds.  Few visitors came, and none escaped.

A Long Forgotten Fairytale

Meanwhile in Minneapolis, ace reporter Uptown Girl goes on a fitness kick while her slacker friend Rocketman runs up his credit card bill.   This culminates in a trip to London that gets cut short–and they and artist Ruby Tuesday wind up in a certain cursed village.

This is a true graphic novel, a long-form story in one volume told in comics format.  It recycles a storyline from the out of print floppies, but adds a lot of new material and updates the modern day setting a bit.   The main plot should be easily understandable by new readers, but there are a couple of cameos and background references to other stories that may elude them.  (For example, Bandwagon Soda.)

The art style is fairly simple (almost all women have perfectly circular heads), which leads to a bit of mental confusion when the only difference in body shape between Uptown Girl and the advertising model that sparks UG’s fitness kick is that you can see more of the latter’s shape because she’s wearing less clothes.

The first part of the book is very humorous, with the story becoming somewhat more serious once the protagonists reach the cursed village.  Man-child Rocketman refuses to become less silly.  Some folks may find the motivations of the King of Birds less than satisfying, as he’s not forthcoming beyond a desire to rule, and no one else knows.

While the main characters are in their late twenties, there’s nothing here to make the book unsuitable for middle schoolers on up.  I’d recommend this to fans of small press comics, especially those that also like fairy tales.

 

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