After the school year ended this past June–along with my short tenure of attempting to teach high schoolers why they ought to care about the Gilded Age–I realized that the only thing that would console me was a good story, but on a few conditions. First, I could not be bothered to actually “read” this story. That would have been far too much work. Second, this story could not be “good” in the sense that it would impact my thinking, for that would not have allowed me to indulge in my secret desire to imitate my students’ yearlong refusals to think. Finally: I needed to somehow consume this story while also playing video games. This final act of leisurely decadence was surely not possible without the foregoing two conditions, so it probably underwrote them. It also counted out the more commonplace solution of watching Netflix.
Fortunately, America’s tireless dedication to the whims of the consumer supplied me with a fulfillment of my desires. Like the McGriddle which answered Americans’ desperate need to hold a pancake sandwich without getting syrup on one’s hands, Audible.com answered me, cradling my mushy brain in its benevolent arms via the cheap access of audiobooks. Many of you do not have an Audible membership and do not know the joys of hands-free “reading” you are missing. Mine will (sniff) expire after a month or so as it has become lately difficult to justify the cost, but if you can pony up the $15 a month, you really should. I cannot think of anything more wantonly illustrious than having a professional actor or orator read you a book as you sit quietly, playing Spelunky maybe not even listening all that hard. It’s a common argument that the modern technology has supplied middling people with the experience of vast riches, but it was not until Audible that I really understood how true that was. It’s like the King of England summoning Chaucer to read his poems while he played backgammon idly. Well, these books aren’t exactly Chaucer, but they fulfilled my royal wishes. All except the last, which failed the second condition, though I was ultimately grateful for it.
These two books are companion pieces. The Fold is not a direct sequel to 14, but they are cousins that share a basic premise. Each can be enjoyed on its own, but I suggest going with 14 first. I went the other way round and if I could do it again, I’d’ve switched.
H.P. Lovecraft has become an obsession of modern fantasy writers for good and ill. Everyone seems entranced by his creatures, but not the psychological toll his horrors visit on his protagonists. Most disappointingly, none of his latter day imitators seem interested in the most crucial of Lovecraft’s tropes, that the protagonist may only be tormented in his mind. The connection between psyche and horror is lost on most authors who would count themselves inspired by Lovecraft’s fiction. Lovecraft essentially wrote against modernity’s hubris: that the attempt to understand Everything ultimately either destroys the mind or unleashes incomprehensible primordial horrors and in the mind of the protagonist, it doesn’t really matter which one. The memory of the bloody 20th Century resonates with Lovecraft’s themes, lending some historical justification to his macabre imagery–the closest I’ve seen anyone come to truly capturing this particular feature of Lovecraft’s stories is a series of video games called Amnesia, particularly the second installment ominously subtitled A Machine for Pigs.
Sadly, Lovecraft’s thematic landscape is also lost on Peter Clines, though not his penchant for bizarre creatures and nightmarish situations. You’ll be thrilled but not haunted. What Cline does understand the enticement of a mystery. 14 is, essentially, a long Scooby Doo story (a similarity frequently referenced by the story’s characters throughout the book) about a group of apartment tenants who decide to get to the bottom of some strange features of their LA apartment block. The main difference is, let’s just say it’s not exactly Mr. Farnsworth the Carnival Owner who’s behind it all. Clines seems to intentionally make characters bland and stereotypical in order to keep the enticement of the mystery front and center. It’s an effective ruse, but sometimes the characters’ doltishness, earnestness, or needless sex appeal gets a little too ridiculous to take seriously.
The Fold is weirder, featuring enen less believable characters and a fantastical premise concealing an equally fantastical secret. It requires a triple suspension of disbelief and so didn’t win my affections in the same way as 14. If you read 14 and can’t get enough of Cline’s world, give The Fold a shot. Otherwise, there isn’t anything novel about The Fold that one hasn’t already enjoyed in 14.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
It’s all too common nowadays that best-selling book was clearly written to be a film. Never was this so much the case as with Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. As it happens, Cline is getting his wish, as master of nostalgia Steven Spielberg is slated to direct a film adaptation of a novel.
Ready Player One is, essentially, a modern update of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. A young, unlikely boy enters a worldwide contest to win riches promised by an eccentric genius responsible for creating the world’s most immersive computer game which is jam-packed with nineteen-eighties nostalgia. There is Voltron, Rush, Dungeons & Dragons, Wargames, Godzilla, everything that may have been on the shelves or plastered onto the walls of a 1980s Gen Xer comes alive in The Oasis, the novel’s World of Warcraft-esque computer game in which most of the action takes place. Inside The Oasis, geeks compete to uncover the secret at the heart of the program and inherit a many billion dollar prize that is promised to the first player who can discover and complete the challenges.
There’s a kind of madness at the heart of Ready Player One, a race to include as many pop culture references as it can before its boilerplate YA plot runs thin. Due to its medium, these moments don’t exactly thrill. As a novel, every one of these easter eggs have to be carefully spelled out and described. You can’t “notice” any references hovering in the background. In a book, you have to tell, not show. Because of this, Cline can never be sly with the culture he references, but as I’ve noted, this book was obviously written in hopes of becoming a movie, so expect the film’s homages to come off much cleverer. Spielberg will have his work cut out for him acquiring licenses to realize onscreen the dizzying array of pop culture characters and products that Clines packs into his short book.
A book describing a teenager enveloped in a fully virtual reality video game environment cannot avoid some evaluation of the desirability of this situation. Without giving too much away, Cline does approach this task, though haltingly. The book is conflicted about the role of technology in modern lives. For every potential upside, there is a downside. At one point, it seems that peoples’ escape into The Oasis is to blame for the world going to pot, but perhaps it’s just a well-deserved escape from a world already gone to pot. It cuts people off from a meaningful community, or maybe it facilitates connection for marginalized people who are commonly rejected from real-world social life. Ultimately, Cline’s ambivalent attitude serves a positive appraisal of digital technology and hyper-reality as a tool of experience. Like James Cameron’s Avatar, technology is the portal through which people are exposed to imagination and possibility. This leads Cline to leave some of the moral quagmires of the internet age unexplored. The dangerous implications of the fact that one cannot truly know a person one has only known is left aside in favor of the idea that because the internet veils someone’s appearance, it is the avenue for a truer relationship. It never seems to occur to Cline that people are capable of masking their personalities as well as their visages, and his sunny appraisal of online friendship does not account for the many dangers involved with getting to know someone online nor does he tackle the psychological impact of modern teenagers’ increasing digital isolation.
Cline’s earnest materialism, presented early in the book with a juvenile screed against religion, tradition, and the human race at large, prevents him from making Ready Player One into anything more meaningful than a campy, YA romp. That’s a shame since he has created an exaggerated version of modern life: people living their lives on the internet and in games, for whom pop culture trivia and nostalgia is as important as current events. But a dystopian tale requires utopian hopes against which one can perceive what has gone wrong and why. Without any ethical starting points, Cline can only offer the very softest appraisal of the internet age. His (or at least his protagonist’s) pop naturalism imbues him with a cool skepticism toward any metaphysics or claims to meaning, and so the state of things goes largely under-evaluated. Tantalizing themes like people leading double-lives online and off and the deterioration of the real world as more people spend their lives online are not placed at the heart of the tale and only factor into the plot in a cursory way. For our heroes, the ultimate meaning in life is to connect with other humans and doing so in the real world is presented as only a slight improvement over connection in the digital world. Any difference between the two isn’t dealt with. One’s True Self is a constant and inviolable spirit rendered visible either by polygons or flesh and blood. The difference doesn’t seem to matter much.
It’s not being too presumptuous to say that for science fiction, this isn’t quite good enough. All great sci-fi is about what the human being is, using fantastical situations in order to throw eternal human themes into greater relief than would be possible in a familiar setting. That may be asking too much of a page-turner like Ready Player One, but sci-fi YA fiction has a storied history of combining exciting plots with thought-provoking situations (Ender’s Game, The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Giver.) Considering its enticing premise and well-conceived world, Cline doesn’t have a lot of excuse for ignoring that tradition.
Ultimately, Cline is unable to settle on a consistent perspective about the proper place of technology in the life of a healthy human being, and far too distracted with including the next reference to the kid culture of the 1980s to care–joining in with the current vogue of regarding that decade as The Best Time Ever. Ready Player One might have been a timely little fable about double lives, the meaning of the self, but as it stands it’s basically a novelized previsualization for an upcoming movie. The events of the finale only begin to prod at larger questions, but any conclusions are drowned out by easy paeans to the highest good of Friendship. Even in this, Cline’s ambivalence about the digital world intrudes, and his characters are never forced to make any hard choices between their relationships and time spent in the digital realm. Their final solidarity is ultimately as ambivalent as Clines himself seems to be, coming off like Kip’s love song at the end of Napoleon Dynamite:
I love technology…
but your love is so much more you see…
but I still love technology…
Always and forever.
World War Z by Max Brooks
I’ve long been told by well meaning friends that a book called World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is worth my time. I have never believed them. Fortunately, my standards lowered by summer, I decided to give it a shot and from the first chapter I realized how wrong I had been.
I like most right now, feel inundated by zombie fiction. The popularity of zombie fiction has gotten to the point that I suspect that many my age would actually prefer a world overrun by the undead than going to work on a Tuesday. I also felt that all thematic currents had been bled dry. Everything that can be said by depicting the world’s populace transformed into shambling ghouls has been said by Romero’s classic films and their many imitators, by Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, by The Walking Dead comic series, The Walking Dead TV series, and above all, Edgar Wright’s brilliant satire Shaun of the Dead which managed to be a better zombie tale than any entry into the genre it spoofed. Anyhow, what else could possibly be said about the vulnerability of a technological society to global pandemic, the authorities’ will to power trumping humanitarian concerns, and the catharsis of wiping out a complicated world and starting over?
As it turns out, quite a lot more can be said. Brooks’s first strength is eschewing the typical format of a zombie story: a ragtag group of survivors trying to get by while finding rescue, a cure, or falling in love along the way. Instead, he writes in the voice of a journalist interviewing those survivors from a time after the zombie threat has passed. His subjects come from all over the world and from all walks of life: government officials, celebrities, ordinary families, military operators, priests, and businessmen. The result is another kind of drama: a globetrotting tell-all set in a deeply plausible alternate history.
The most overused narrative conceit of zombie fiction is that the protagonists are cut off from the outside world. “How do you think [insert government/state/country] is handling all this?” one character inevitably asks, followed by shrugs all around or some weak pontificating on how there is no more structure to hope in, only survivors like us. The zombie apocalypse means the end of structured life.
World War Z is so compelling precisely because Brooks recognizes what utter hogwash it is to say that a global disaster spells the end of civilization. What Brooks brings to the zombie genre is precisely what the rest of it lacks: an awareness of the enduring nature of human culture. World War Z is about how human peculiarity, history, tradition, and self-regard are enhanced, not leveled, by unimaginable horror. Sometimes those human traits spell disaster, sometimes they save peoples’ lives. World War Z is a story of how people, nations, and cultures are challenged by global disaster. People evolve, fuse their traits to one another, some change into something new, others rediscover how the old ways were best. This is a welcome change from the typical zombie story’s focus on how technology changes or becomes obsolete.
Technological change is present in World War Z, but the human element is in the foreground. For instance, England reconnects with its feudal roots by discovering that medieval castles are ideal redoubts against zombie hordes and old broadswords are satisfying and empowering weapons against the undead. Brooks pays attention to the fact that it would be aristocrats and professors who would figure this out first. Indeed, the fun of World War Z is discovering how different nations and people groups react to the challenge. Some fare well. Others not so much. My favorite is how Russia handles itself–I can’t give it away, it’s too good. The best part is that Brooks doesn’t harbor any consistent theory of which kind of nation would survive best and which sort wouldn’t. There are no “good” and “bad” guys here. One never gets the sense that he is indulging in the cheap satisfaction of depicting certain kinds of people he doesn’t particularly like meet grisly ends fueled by their own hubris (except, perhaps a deliciously vicious chapter about the fate of celebrities who try to wait it all out in a coastal fortress while filming a reality show.) Every type of person is given a fair hearing: the religious, politicians, businessmen, soldiers. Each people group and part of the world is taken on its own merits and adapts in its own unique way influenced by its own particular culture and history.
It is refreshingly clear that Max Brooks did a whole lot of research while writing this opus. The result is plausible speculative fiction on the order of Michael Crichton swapping out obscure scientific concepts for contemporary politics and culture. The reader is rewarded for having a working knowledge of current events and the rewards are great.