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”.

Magazine Review: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016 edited by C.C. Finlay

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction started publication in 1949.  According to Wikipedia, it was supposed to be a fantasy story version of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine as it was at the time, classic reprints mixed with new material of a higher literary quality than was common in the pulps of the time.  Science fiction was added to expand the possible pool of stories.  F&SF has managed to publish fairly regularly ever since, though in recent years it’s bimonthly.  It has a reputation for literate fiction.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016

The cover story is “The Cat Bell” by Esther M. Friesner.  Mr. Ferguson is a successful actor in the early Twentieth Century, even having a fine house with servants.  One of those servants, Cook, greatly admires Mr. Ferguson.  Mr. Ferguson greatly admires cats, and has nineteen of them that Cook must feed every day.  One day there are twenty cats, and Cook finds herself in a fairy tale.  Content note:  Cook suffers from several of the less pleasant “isms” and isn’t afraid to say so.

“The Farmboy” by Albert E. Cowdrey is set on a distant planet being surveyed by a scout ship.  The crew has discovered a massive deposit of gold, but even if they had room to take it with them, the government would simply confiscate the wealth, giving nothing to the survey crew.  Several of the crew members come up with a scheme to make themselves very rich at the expense of the rest of the crew.  But if you can’t spot the sucker at the poker game, it’s probably you…some unpleasant sexism.

“Between Going and Staying” by Lilliam Rivera takes place in a future Mexico even more dominated by the drug cartels.  Dolores is a professional mourner using the newest bodysuit technology.  She’s been making very good money performing for the wealthy, but this funeral is personal.

There are two book review columns, one by Charles de Lint, in which he admits not being fond of psychological horror.  The other is by Chris Moriarty and focuses on books about human survival.

“The Vindicator” by Matthew Hughes is the last story in his current cycle about Raffalon the thief.  Raffalon is a mediocre burglar in the sort of fantasy city that has a Thieves’ Guild.  For some reason a Vindicator (assassin) is after Raffalon, and the Vindicator’s Guild isn’t being helpful for calling it off.  Raffalon hires a Discriminator (private investigator) and the truth turns out to be explosive.

A relatively rare Gardner Dozois story follows, “The Place of Bones.”  A scholar and his companion discover the Dragonlands, where dragons go to die.  More of a mood piece than a proper story.

“Lord Elgin at the Acropolis” by Minsoo Kang involves a police officer and writer meeting to consider the problem of a museum director who believes that one of the paintings in the museum is fake, despite no other evidence.  Is he just crazy, or is there another explanation?

“Special Collections” by Kurt Fawver is a horror story about a library with a section you must never enter alone, which is the first rule.  And then there’s the second rule….

David J. Skal reviews High-Rise for the film section, and compares it to the J.G. Ballard novel.

There’s the results of a contest for updating older science fiction works to today’s world.  Including a “Dishonorable Mention” update of 1984.

“A Fine Balance” by Charlotte Ashley is set in a city where all disputes between the two major parties are settled by specially trained duelists.  Except that one side doesn’t want to play by those rules any more.  Very satisfying story.

“Passelande” by Robert Reed takes place in a depressing near future with electronic backups for people who can afford them.  Backups who have their own feelings and motivations.  This one grated on me, as I felt the characters had their motivations poorly explained/depicted.

“The Rhythm Man” by James Beamon is a variant on the legend about talented musicians selling their souls for skill or fame.  A lot of set-up for one great scene at the end.

And the stories wrap up with “Merry Christmas from All of Us to All of You” by Sandra McDonald.  It’s a dystopian tale of a gift-making community that ensures none of its children can truly escape.  But perhaps there is a ray of hope?

There’s an “Easter egg” in the classified ads, and then an index of stories and features that appeared in 2016’s issues.

I liked “The Vindicator” and “A Fine Balance” best, though “The Cat Bell” was also quite entertaining.  “Passendale” was the weakest story for me.

This magazine has consistently high quality stories and some nice cartoons; consider a print or Kindle subscription.

 

 

Anime Review: Lupin the Third: The Italian Adventure

Anime Review: Lupin the Third: The Italian Adventure

Arsène Lupin III, alleged French-Japanese descendant of the famous 19th Century criminal Arsène Lupin, is a master thief.  If he says he’ll steal something, Lupin the 3rd most certainly will.  A master of disguise, able to open any lock, and possessed of great cunning, he steals treasures and hearts with equal ease.  Lupin usually works with gunman Daisuke Jigen, swordsman Goemon Ishikawa and femme fatale Fujiko Mine, though they aren’t always loyal to each other–particularly Fujiko.  The gang is perpetually pursued by the dogged Inspector Koichi Zenigata of the ICPO.  Now Lupin the Third has come to Italy; what is he up to this time?  Is he really just there to get married?

Lupin the Third: The Italian Adventure

This Italian-Japanese co-production is the latest anime series based on the Lupin the Third manga by Monkey Punch.  The manga in turn was loosely based on the original Lupin stories by Maurice Leblanc.  Back in the 1960s, Japan didn’t enforce international copyright, so when the Leblanc estate finally found out about the manga, they couldn’t block it or insist on a cut of the profits, but were able to tie up international rights, meaning that most Lupin III products overseas had to use other names like “Rupan” or “Wolf.”  (The original Lupin stories entered the public domain in 2012.)

The series begins in the small independent republic of San Marino, as Lupin marries bored heiress Rebecca Rossellini as part of a plan to steal the greatest treasure of that tiny country.  However, it turns out that Rebecca has her own plans, and with the aid of her faithful manservant Robson turns the tables partially on the master thief.  Since he never formally consummated his marriage with Rebecca, but neither is he formally divorced from her, Lupin decides to stay in the Italian area for a while.

One of his thefts brings Lupin into conflict with Agent Nyx of MI-6, who has superhuman hearing, among other gifts.  Nyx turns out to be a less than enthusiastic agent, who wants to retire from spying to spend more time with his family…but MI-6 needs him too much.

Things take a SFnal turn when it turns out there’s a virtual reality/shared dream device out there which ties into the return of Italy’s most brilliant mind, Leonardo da Vinci!  Lupin, his allies and adversaries must figure out how to survive the Harmony of the World.

The series is largely comedy, but with serious moments, and some episodes are  very sentimental indeed.  (This contrasts with the original manga, which had a darker sense of humor, and a nastier version of Lupin who would not hesitate at murder or rape to get his way.)   All of the major characters get focus episodes that explore their personalities and skills.

Placing the entire series on the Italian Peninsula (with brief excursions to France and Japan) gives it a thematic consistency that previous Lupin series have lacked, and this is all to the good.  Having new recurring characters also allows a bit more variety in plotlines for the episodes.  Mind, Rebecca can get annoying from time to time and feels shoehorned into a couple of episodes.  (A couple of Rebecca-centric episodes were removed from the Japanese broadcast order.)

While the primary appeal will be to existing Lupin the Third fans, this series does a good job of filling newcomers in on everything they really need to know.  If you enjoy stories about clever gentleman thieves with a soft spot for pretty ladies, this one is for you.

Here’s a look at the Italian version of the opening theme!

Book Review: Lois Lane: Fallout

Book Review: Lois Lane: Fallout by Gwenda Bond

Getting in trouble her first day at East Metropolis High School was not Lois Lane’s plan.  Keeping her head down, fitting in, allowing her family to settle in for her general father’s new long-term assignment, that was the plan.  But when she witnesses a student’s report of bullying being laughed off by the principal (especially odd as Anavi Singh claims the Warheads are somehow bullying her inside her own brain), Lois’ curiosity and hatred of injustice are aroused.

Lois Lane: Fallout

While her interference is not appreciated by Principal Butler, local newspaperman Perry White sees some potential in Lois, and invites her to join the staff of the “Daily Scoop”, a teen-oriented website attached to the Daily Planet.   Lois decides to make school bullying her first news story, but she may be getting in over her head.  The Warheads are not ordinary bullies, and almost every adult in Lois’ life is against her pursuing this scoop.  Good thing she has an online friend “SmallvilleGuy” that can help out some–now she just needs to make friends in real life!

This young adult novel re-imagines veteran comics character Lois Lane as a modern teenager just starting out on a journalism career path.  This works pretty well, and Lois makes a good YA protagonist.  She’s mouthy, incurably curious, stands up for what she thinks is right and is clever enough to get herself in trouble but not always clever enough to get herself back out solo.  Her background as a military brat is a plausible explanation for such skills as she has, while allowing her to clash with her authoritarian father.

Romance is mostly on the back burner (thankfully); while Lois does have some romantic thoughts towards the fellow she met on an UFO website after reporting she saw a flying man, she’s well aware that SmallvilleGuy is keeping secrets such as his actual name and appearance from her.  He does seem to be a good friend, though.

Other characters tend not to develop much; a couple have hidden depths that are likely to provide subplots for further stories.  (There’s already a sequel.)

While Lois hasn’t realized this yet, she does live in a superhero world, and there’s some science-fictional technology that plays a part in the story.  Notably, it is not played as inherently bad, though it can be abused.  (In some cases, relatively harmlessly, as Lois’ little sister Lucy demonstrates.)

The main problem for me was the central mystery of the book–possibly it’s because I have decades of experience reading science fiction and superhero comics, but I figured out all the twists by about Chapter 4 of 25.  This meant that the story dragged for me while I waited for Lois to catch up.  I hope that this will not be so much of a problem for the intended audience of young adults.

Overall, it’s a good first installment in what could be a long series, and I recommend it to fans of plucky reporters who enjoy knowing something the heroine doesn’t.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights by too many to list.  Trust me, a lot of great names.

Between the late 1940s and somewhere in the 1990s, one of the most pervasive fears of the American public was atomic war. For the first time in known history, humans were truly capable of destroying all civilization, perhaps all life on Earth. One of the ways people dealt with this fear was science fiction. After all, the SF writers had forseen the possibility of annihilation well before such a thing was actually possible–and their stories would tell us the ways things might fall out. At DC Comics, this became a loose theme called “The Great Disaster.”

The Great Disaster

Unlike other Showcase volumes, this one collects not one series or character’s appearances, but a thematically linked set of stories, dealing with the aftermath of atomic war. As such, it provides a wide array of notable comics writers and artists.

The volume opens with a couple of stories about people traveling from after the Great Disaster to the present, or vice versa. This is followed by a collection of short-shock stories all titled “The Day After Doomsday”, presenting varied scenarios for what life after the Bomb might be like. Perhaps the most effective of these is the “Adam and Gertrude” trilogy.by Len Wein and Jack Sparling, but they all have their charms.

Then we have the feature event, the “Atomic Knights” stories. These were all by John Broome and Murphy Anderson. World War Three began in October 1986, and lasted less than a month, but wiped out much of human civilization, leaving a world without many animals or plants, and only a few pockets of humans struggling for survival. Into this world comes Sergeant Gardner Grayle. When he joined the Army, they discovered he was exactly average both mentally and physically, but during the War he was trapped in a bomb shelter that collapsed from a near-hit. The experience gave him traumatic amnesia, and only months after the disaster does he come to himself.

Grayle happens to be near a town named Durvale that was relatively untouched by the war, which is to say it’s a total wreck. It’s come under the thumb of the Black Baron (so named because of his hair color) who has managed to corner the local food supply. By coincidence, Grayle and a local school teacher, John Herald, discover that the suits of medieval armor in the museum have become resistant to most forms of radiation, including the ray-pistols used by the Black Baron and his men. There are six sets of armor, and soon Grayle and Herald recruit twin ex-soldiers Hollis and Wayne Hobbard, as well as scientist Bryndon (who is feared and despised for being one of those who made the bombs that ruined the world.) The last suit is deemed too small to be usable by any combat-ready man, so the Atomic Knight five set off. John’s sister, Marene Herald, who is small enough to fit in the last armor, takes it upon herself to follow them, and helps out in a tight situation.

The Atomic Knights became the new force for law and order in the post-apocalyptic world, fighting bizarre radiation-spawned monsters, evil dictators, the remnants of Atlantis and the mysterious mole people (who it turned out had actually caused the war.) Bit by bit, they began to make Earth liveable again.

These stories were all about the cool ideas, and were aimed primarily at children, so scientific plausibility and deep characterization were generally skipped.  Bryndon being reluctant to discuss his pre-War research and the Hobard brothers being jazz fans was about as much as we learned about them as persons.  Speaking of jazz, the early 1960s habit of only depicting white people in comics was on full display on a visit to New Orleans, where names of black performers are dropped, but there are no people of color in town.  Marene, of course, is often excluded from dangerous missions and seems to have no particular skill set beyond “being feminine.”  She even muses to herself that she’s “just a woman!”  Perhaps appropriately, the last official Atomic Knights story from 1963 has her disguising herself as a boy and demonstrating some athletic talent.

Next up are stories of the return of the gods.  There’s a one-shot about Atlas by Jack Kirby that doesn’t tie into anything in particular, but shared a resemblance to his Kamandi series, also set after the Great Disaster. The Kamandi series lasted long enough to get its own Showcase volume, so the next set of stories are Hercules Unbound, which ran 1975-77.

We open with Hercules bound to a rock, as he has been for the last millenium or so. Suddenly, the chains holding him snap–could this mean that Ares, who treacherously bound Hercules there, is dead? No time to think about that, as a blind boy and his dog are battling sea monsters nearby. Kevin, the blind boy, explains that he was in Greece when World War Three broke out, and he set out in a sailboat to see if he can get to his father, an ambassador to the Vatican. As it happens, Ares is in Rome, and very much alive, pitting the remnants of armies against each other for his own amusement. While Hercules triumphs against Ares’ champion, the opening chapter ends in tragedy for Kevin.

Hercules and his companions begin wandering the post-apocalyptic earth, encountering mad gods and mutants. There’s one person of color, a loincloth-clad hunter named Cerebus (not the aardvark) who is repeatedly referred to as “Nubian.” Yeah. The new-fangled “Women’s Lib” is mentioned a few times, mostly in association with Jennifer Monroe, a woman who was a model before the war, and mostly serves as a damsel in distress for Hercules.

Over the course of the series, it ties into OMAC, Kamandi and the Atomic Knights, despite these series not precisely being in continuity with each other. The last couple of chapters return to the question of why Hercules was chained to that rock in the first place; it answers some lingering subplots, ignores others, and flatly contradicts some of the earlier characterization. (The series had changed writers more than once in a dozen issues.)

After that are a few back-ups from Kamandi, and one last “The Day After Doomsday” shock story. To close out the volume, we have a Superman story from 1983. By this time, it was looking less and less likely that we would actually have an atomic war in 1986, and even if we did, it wouldn’t have the future-Fifties design aesthetic and cultural behavior seen in the Atomic Knights series. So when Superman suddenly finds himself in the Atomic Knights future, he is quick to point out the scientific implausibiliy of the scenario. Yes, this is hilarious coming from Mr. “The laws of physics are just mild suggestions.” Turns out it’s a virtual reality scenario gone horribly wrong, with the moral being “The task before man-kind isn’t to survive an atomic war! It’s to work in this world we’re living in to make certain such a war can never begin!” The story is also notable for giving Marene Herald a much more important role.

All together, this is a mixed bag with something for many comic book fans, including rare stories. It’s well worth a loan from your library, and if you’re a collector, consider buying it.

Manga Review: Sword Art Online: Aincrad

Manga Review: Sword Art Online: Aincrad original story by Reki Kawahara, art by Tamako Nakamura

Disclaimer:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Aincrad

It is the year 2022, and commercially viable virtual reality equipment is now on the market.   Of course, one of the first applications that comes to mind is Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs), and the first one out the gate is Sword Art Online.  Kirito (his online handle, real name Kazuto Kirigaya) was one of the lucky beta testers, and is looking forward to the full launch of ten thousand players.

Except that shortly after the game begins, all the player characters are summoned back to the beginning town, remodeled to look like the players themselves, and unable to log out.  A figure who claims to be the game’s designer, Akihiko Kabaya, announces that they’re all trapped in the world of Aincrad, and won’t be able to log out until the 100th level of the game is beaten.  Oh, and the respawn feature has been disabled, so if you die in the game, you die in real life.

And in case you were hoping for rescue from the outside?  If anyone removes the VR gear or tampers with it, it will automatically kill the player, and this has been announced to the media.

Realizing that the area around the Town of Beginnings will rapidly become too overhunted for him to level up quickly, Kirito decides to go solo, as his beta tester knowledge allows him to punch above his weight, so he can go to the next town even at first level.  He does invite along a noob (new player) named Klein, but Klein won’t abandon his friends, and Kirito doesn’t think he can protect more than one ally.

The story picks up again about two years later.  with the Aincrad dungeon about three-quarters cleared, at the cost of four thousand deaths.  Kirito has been very successful as a solo player, but suffers stigma as a “beater” because his character level is so much higher than most people’s that he triggers monster encounters that are lethal to anyone near him.

It’s at this point that Kirito runs into a girl named Asuna, who is known as “the Flash” for her superior sword skills, is highly placed in the powerful Knights of the Blood guild, and happens to be one of the few skilled cooks in the game.  Oh, and she’s very pretty.   Asuna won’t leave Kirito alone, and they’re soon in a relationship.

However, the already lethal world of Aincrad is about to turn it up a notch, and there are secrets not even the beta testers know.

This manga is based on a light novel series, which has also been turned into an anime.   (One of three so far where the basic plotline is a person being unable to log out of a virtual reality game.)  It adapts the first storyline, the Aincrad world.

This version of the story trims out many minor characters, including most of the women (which makes the gender imbalance even more noticeable.)   It also has a tendency to make good characters good-looking and bad characters less so; the most prominent minor villain doesn’t even look human, and remember, that’s his real face.

The main villain is a real piece of work; in addition to what’s already been mentioned, it turns out he’s disabled another important player safety feature, but left it able to feel their pain.   (It’s likely he didn’t realize the full implications of this particular act, he’s very low-empathy.)

This volume is mostly aimed at teenage boys; the female characters are all defined by their relationships to Kirito, and there’s a sequence of Asuna in her underwear with no equivalent scene for any of the male characters.  (We also learn that it’s possible to alter the “moral code” setting to allow in game sex, but it’s not clear if the characters actually do this.)

Kirito is a loner with deep manpain through most of the story, though he lightens up a bit towards the end when he falls in love with Asuna.

The art is generally good, but many of the fight scenes are poorly choreographed, resulting in the manga equivalent of “shaky cam”.

If you are already a Sword Art Online fan, this is a perfectly good addition to your collection.  I’d also recommend it to teenage boys who like online gaming.  Other people might want to flip through it in the library to see if the art style takes their fancy.

Update:  The sequel to AincradAlfheim Online, is considered to be a severe step down from the first storyline, taking all the parts that were problematic and goosing them up, as well as managing to be much more sexist.  From the bits I have read, I strongly recommend stopping at the end of the Aincrad story and considering that the end of the series.

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