Category Archives: Fantasy

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

I feel a little bit odd that I wrote the first draft of this post by hand, because the book is so technologically bound. (In my defense, I was using a sonic screwdriver pen.) It’s the type of book that might benefit greatly from being re-read on an iPad or Kindle Touch – something that can give you links to the references or have the songs playing in the background at the appropriate moment. It doesn’t need this, of course, but it might accent and enhance the experience. It’s also the type of book that cries out for annotations – again, not that it needs them, but to make the experience fuller. It invites study of the level that it describes. If I get bored or stuck in my unemployment, I might start collecting a database.

But it doesn’t need any of that to be a good book, which it is. It’s a near-future SF, set in about 2044. The world economy has essentially collapsed, thanks to climate change and the depletion of nearly every natural resources. There are two major technological factors in American life: IOI, a corporation that seems to control most of real life, and OASIS, an immersive virtual reality. The creator of OASIS has died by the time the book begins, and has left his immense fortune and control of OASIS to whomever can solve a series of riddles and Easter eggs. The evil corporation wants it, of course – and so do our heroes.

It’s a classic quest story – our hero [real name Wade, avatar’s name Parzifal] has no real family, picks up companions along the way, some of which leave him at various times and for various reasons, and they encounter many obstacles that not only advance the quest but help Wade grow as a person. The corporation tries to stop them (usually violently). And it’s filled to the brim with 80s references: films, music, anime, and video games mostly. (This is why I want annotations!)

As well as being a good plot-based story, it’s also pretty good on some of the deeper themes that come up whenever you talk about technology: addiction, privacy, feminism, identity, to name the major and more obvious ones. But it’s not all a doom-and-gloom, today’s-society-is-wrong message. Parallels with today are drawn, of course, but in both good and bad ways.

Let’s start with the good: OASIS demonstrates, absolutely, the power that technology has to bring people together and to educate. The schools, for those who can get access through financial or meritocratic means, are fantastic if for no other reason than the program won’t let class be disrupted. You can’t leave your desk, you can’t access non-relevant information (like emails, for instance) during class, you can’t do anything non-school related. There are bad teachers, of course – or at least not-great ones (the Latin teacher comes to mind) – but because the teachers don’t have to spend so much energy on discipline, they can focus on actually teaching.

OASIS can also make experiences much more accessible. Money is still a factor, of course, but the lack of it isn’t quite as limiting as it is in the real world. Era is no barrier, physical location is no barrier. If you want to take a class trip to see the Roman Forum, you can – if you want to investigate the composition of the moons of Jupiter, you can. You can experience anything you want.

And because it’s a virtual reality world, interaction between people can be a lot more realistic. Because of the devices and the immersive nature of OASIS, you can actually feel physical interactions with other people.  You can see their avatars, not just words on a screen. There is actually less anonymity, in some ways, than in today’s online interactions – you can see people’s reactions to your words and actions instead of waiting for a typed response. I’ll get to this more in the identity conversation, but basically, you can choose to appear however you want to appear: the way you see yourself and the way other people see you can be much closer.

Of course, all of the arguments against technology are there too, especially addiction and isolation. For all the mental connections that Parzifal and the others make, they have very few physical connections. Parzifal spends several months withut ever leaving his apartment, and has to force himself to initiate a fitness program before he turns into Jabba the Hutt (surprisingly, not a reference made in the text). It is acknowledged that it would be far too easy to stay in OASIS and die in the real world. Nothing is programmed in  to avoid this, though – it’s entirely up to the user whether s/he wants to commit suicide via VR.

Privacy is also a very real issue. IOI manages to access, legally or illegally, the personal information of every gunter (our hero and his friends), including real identity and home address. The avatar and the human may only be linked in one place, a place that is supposed to be completely encrypted, but that one place is enough to open up everything else.  The first clue is blown open because someone else happens to know that both Parzifal and Aech go to school on the same “planet” – that one little detail, apparently unconnected to anything else, becomes the lever that reveals the secrets of everyone else. It’s terrifying, both in the context of the book and its real life implications.

The big thing, of course, is identity, and I touched on that a bit ago. In OASIS, you can be whatever you want to be, appear as anything you want to be. If you want to be treated – or not treated – in a certain way, you can change yourself enough to make that feasible. I don’t want to spoil things, but it is mentioned some in a non-spoilery way near the beginning: Parzifal has developed a crush on a blogger named Art3mis – and expresses repeated concern that she is a middle-aged man named Chuck living in his mom’s basement. Because she so easily could be. In another example, if you are a black female teenager and want to be taken seriously, you could change your avatar into an older white male. It’s sad and unfortunate that that would work (and even worse that when I read about it, I thought, “oh, that’s an effective way to do it”) – I can only hope that one day, people read this book and don’t understand why someone would feel like they need to change their race or gender in order to be taken seriously.

Since most of the book takes place within OASIS, people’s “real” physical identities are never really an issue – even when Parzifal expresses doubts about Art3mis, he follows them up with a sense of “but I don’t really care, because our connection through this is real.” And possibly the best line for this comes from Parzifal and Aech’s first IRL meeting, when they realise that they do already know each other – it’s only the “minor” things like gender and race they didn’t know.

By contrast, IOI takes away the identity of nearly everyone they employ. The IOI avatars have numbers, not names, and even they can be taken over by any of the various employees as needed. Indents (indentured servants) are essentially forbidden from any sort of personality expression, ranging from how they interact with IOI customers to what they watch in their “free time”. It’s an obvious but vivid contrast to the expressions of individuality that the OASIS can provide.

I could probably go on, and I’m sure other people will, and this doesn’t even get into the 80s nostalgia and pop culture references that permeate the book and provide both the rationale and the background for the plot. But I’m at nearly 1300 words – and really, I just want to read it again.

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The Hunger Games/Catching Fire/Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

I knew I would read The Hunger Games (trilogy) before watching the films, and I pushed it higher up on my list after my sister spent Christmas reading it. On vacation. In San Diego. Where there are whales and pandas to watch. I been avoiding spoilers as much as I can (even when the articles on the film looked really interesting), so all I really knew was that the main character was named Katniss Everdeen, the Hunger Games were a reality-tv competition where the contestants had to literally kill each other, and there was a girl named Rue who was black.

It’s easy to read The Hunger Games – the first book, at least – as an indictment of reality TV and our collective enjoyment of watching people suffer, in whatever way, for our entertainment. But for me, the trilogy is much more an indictment of what we choose not to pay attention to, especially as people in the higher income strata of the world. Social awareness has come a long way since the days of Jane Addams, etc., but things like the Mike Daisey story (to keep with relatively current events) show how far we still have to go. So many times the real people involved in things are forgotten or ignored – or worse, like Haymitch, ignored except when they are useful. We get complacent about the things in our lives, and forget to recognize where they come from. We start thinking that our problems are the only problems, and the worst problems, and we forget that there are other people who also have problems, who have more fundamental problems, or who are willing to share the burden of our problems.

And that’s true of the people in the Capitol – the ones who paint their faces and throw food away while other people are starving, the ones who only think about the Districts during the Hunger Games, or when a supply chain breaks down. It’s true of us, in the “western” world, the affluent world, who don’t really think about where our products come from or the background to our entertainments.

But it’s also true of Katniss. She has such a hard time with unconditional love, both giving it and receiving it. She has grown accustomed to seeing people in terms of what they can do for her – which is completely valid given the circumstances of her life – and is well aware that she is seen by many others only in terms of what she can give them and what she symbolises for them. It takes ages for her to accept that Peeta, for example, loves her for herself, not for anything she can do for him – only to have him turned by the Capitol. Is it any wonder that she has no trust in other people’s motivations towards her? But that ends up hurting her in the long run: because she can’t trust other people to see her as anything other than a tool or a symbol, she misses out on quite a lot of allies.

Another thing that The Hunger Games presents, in several different ways, is how not to run a country. Fear and oppression publicly paraded is effective for a while, but it is fragile. All it takes is a spark of rebellion, and the awareness that the few cannot always oppress the many. Unfortunately it takes unity to rebel. If one participant, one district, rejects the rebellion, it fails. The Hunger Games themselves couldn’t have happened, and wouldn’t have lasted, if the champions had refused to kill each other – but only if all the champions had refused. Some of Katniss’s initial power as a symbol comes from her refusal to bow completely to the Capitol’s whims – but the rebellion would have been a lot easier if all the champions in the Quarter Quell had been with her, or if all the districts had joined together peacefully. And it nearly fails.

I really enjoyed these books – as much as you can enjoy dystopian worlds where people kill each other for the entertainment of others, where the main character is used and manipulated by everyone around her despite her best efforts to rise above it, where the allies can be just as evil as the enemies. The world is sadly realistic – it’s not our world, but it’s not too far off what our world could become. I definitely want to see the films, but even more I want to reread the books.

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The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham

This book often makes it onto “best of” lists – sci-fi/post-apocalyptic, etc. I think it’s even in at least one edition of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, if not all of them.

If you don’t know (I didn’t, really), it’s the story of the very  beginnings of a post-apocalyptic society. There are two distinct parts to the apocalypse. The actual event is a green comet/meteor shower, and anyone who sees it goes blind by the next morning. The second, continual threat, is the triffids – aggressively carnivorous plants with apparent intelligence and communication skills.

Where this story excels is its depiction of the various forms of survivalist community that become established. Pretty much every iteration is explored in both “moral” and practical ways. There’s the fend-for-yourself time, the small groups of sighted and unsighted trying to forage with or without leadership, the free-love/rebuild the world society, the cling-as-hard-as-we-can-to-our-old-lives groups, the new feudalist groups, and ultimately the not-hippie commune. I put moral in quotation marks up there because it rapidly becomes clear that this book understands relative morality rather than absolute morality, and certainly doesn’t recognize any previous moral authority (church, government). It’s a very Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest world, both physically (who can survive) and mentally/morally (who can let go of their old roles/strictures/ideas, and who should be helped to survive).

Where this story really doesn’t excel is in its treatment of women. If it weren’t for Josella, the love interest, and Susan, a child who doesn’t even appear until about two-thirds of the way through, there would be no positively portrayed females. There’s even a rant about how women are lazy and too accustomed to leisure to be at all useful – except, one presumes, as breeders. One woman is completely stupid (and in shock) and simply repeats that “the Americans will come” to save them all. Even Josella, as capable as she is, is ultimately nothing more than mother and (monogamous) wife.

But the rest of the book explores such interesting scenarios that I’m able to mostly overlook the fact that the only woman-as-leader is obviously a narrow-minded failure, doomed to death as soon as the men leave. Or at least, I can put it down to time period and inadvertent, not deliberate, misogyny. I’ll also overlook the classism – the fate of the “aristocracy” is never mentioned (not even the Royal Family, in London), and theh working classes are translated into one man who switches accents based on his companions, and a brief mention of some Welsh miners who have isolated themselves. Everyone else is firmly upper-middle-class.

Oh, look, I couldn’t completely ignore it….

Despite those flaws, it’s got some fascinating stuff, and I’ll certainly be giving Wyndham another try.

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Blackout/All Clear, by Connie Willis

Connie Willis is brilliant, and in this novel set she revisits her favourite continuum (Oxford time travel: see also, The Doomsday Book, Fire Watch, and To Say Nothing of the Dog) and my favourite of her themes (chaos theory). In Blackout and All Clear, three historians go through to various points of early World War 2: one to an manor housing evacuees, one to observe the Blitz, and one to observe the Dunkirk evacuation. They are under strict instructions not to put themselves into danger, and not to do anything that could alter history. Of course, they inadvertently do (or think they do) – you can’t introduce an element into a closed system and not affect it – and fear that the timeline is trying to correct itself when their access back to 2060 gets blocked off.

Of course, now they’re all in approximately the same position as the “contemps”. They may know the details that the original timeline had, but they don’t know what, if anything, has changed, and they don’t know if anyone can or will rescue them. The parallels of terrifying, imminent danger are very well-done.

Another thing that Connie Willis does extraordinarily well is weaving in phrases and motifs so subtly that you don’t notice them until you realise their importance. She gives minor characters or overheard conversations phrases that are totally appropriate to the scene and the setting, but piled all together make a great running theme, and reassurance for the reader. Of course, that does lead to the only minor query that I have. Agatha Christie is a bit of a motif (referenced at least three times, in different ways), but would the British consistently have referred to Murder on the Orient Express as  Murder in the Calais Coach? (Wikipedia has Calais as its American title.) I trust Connie Willis’s research, but I spent a couple of  minutes trying to work out which mystery people were referring to, and was very taken aback when the title was revealed as Calais. It’s also kind of pivotal at one point, in a way that Orient Express wouldn’t have been.

My favourite theme, though, is chaos theory – something that she’s worked with before in both the Oxford series and Bellwether (which I think is my favourite Connie Willis novel). Non-linear, non-obvious cause and effect, fractals (not mentioned here, but part of the math of chaos) and the obscure consequences of something like wrapping a parcel (classically referred to as the butterfly effect) are things that fascinate me and have for years. Tracing the connections between seemingly random events is impossible except in hindsight – there are simply too many variables to keep track of, all interacting – but she weaves them together so well that the conclusions are inevitable math of chaos) and the obscure consequences of something like wrapping a parcel (classically referred to as the butterfly effect) are things that fascinate me and have for years. Tracing the connections between seemingly random events is impossible except in hindsight – there are simply too many variables to keep track of, all interacting – but she weaves them together so well that the conclusions are inevitable.Bellwether does the same kind of thing: establishing all the seemingly random events is overwhelming and the (realistic) half-sentences and interruptions are frustrating, but the clarity when chaos resolves into order is absolutely worth it.

I don’t think I would recomment this as a starting point for Connie Willis, though. The Oxford continuum’s history anand time travel laws are already well-established when this book starts, so there’s not a lot for a novice to grab on to. Start with either  The Doomsday Book  or  To Say Nothing of the Dog, but then devour these two.

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The Sterkarm Handshake, by Susan Price

This one I found at the charity shop. The back-of-book blurb sounded interesting, and as I’d just finished Terry Pratchett’s Bromeliad trilogy, I was in the mood for something similar.

The Sterkarm Handshake is not similar. I was expecting humour and puns and satire. What I got insetad was an amazing depiction of culture shock, sixteenth-versus-21st-century morality, and how different basic assumptions can lead to massive miscommunication.

The basic story is that scientists working for a private foundation in the 21st century have created a “Time Tube” – time travel handwaved through the multiverse explanation, and the exact physics are not necessary or mentioned again – leading to various points in history. Usually points without pollution, with genetic diversity among plants and animals, with vast reserves, as yet untapped, of oil and coal. You may be able to see where this is going.

The Sterkarm Handshake deals with one of the projects – The Sixteenth – which leaves the Time Tube in sixteenth century Scottish border lands. They send scouts and liasons through, including one, Andrea Mitchell, who is a historian and expert in the time. She lives with the local clan, the Sterkarms, and has fallen in love with Per, the son of the leader. She is the translator and liason between the 16th and the 21st – but that doesn’t prevent her from completely misunderstanding how the Sterkarms live and how the 21st century company is going to deal with them.

I thought the counterpoints between the ordinary violence of the Sterkarms (completely incomprehensible to those from the 21st century) and the ordinary violence of the 21st century corporation (completely incomprehensible to the Sterkarms) were really well-done. The portrayal of the complete and total misunderstanding, especially on the part of the 21st century people, is also incredibly well realised: the “modern” people just don’t have a clue that, or why, the Sterkarms wouldn’t be totally thrilled about getting all the modern conveniences.

The one thing that seemed to come out of nowhere, and this could be my own reading, as it came right about the point when I’d taken a brief break from the book, was Andrea’s shift from being essentially part of the Sterkarms to what seems like essentially part of the 21st. It seemed very abrupt to me, and I almost got mental whiplash from her justifications for betraying each side. Don’t get me wrong, I identified very strongly with Andrea and thought, overall, that she was very well drawn, but her switch was a little bit too quick and out-of-the-blue for me.

I just looked it up on Wikipedia and found out that there’s a sequel. If I can find it, I wouldn’t mind reading it.

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Storm of Swords: Steel and Snow, by George R.R. Martin

Not a lot for me to say about this book at the moment: I read it on holiday with small children so occasionally had divided attention, but I think I got the main points. Sansa’s married Tyrion – an interesting if unexpectedly natural development – putting paid to all the plans of various other people to help her escape from King’s Landing; Bran’s continuing his escape to the Wall and Jon’s continuing his trek from it (one of the best reader-realisation moments I’ve had so far); and people continually act for immediate good that ultimately leads to tangles in the long-term plans.

It is the first half of a longer book, which does affect some of the pacing, but a second volume included with this one would have been unwieldy in a number of ways, including pages. I am starting to feel like I need a diagram, and a differently structured diagram to the appendix, to keep track of both characters and their schemes. It is becoming more and more difficult to keep track of who’s allied to whom and who wants what from whom and where all the different threads are going.

We don’t have a copy of the second volume yet, but we will do soon….

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Clash of Kings, by George R.R. Martin

So, there are kings. And they clash. Stop now if you don’t want to be spoiled for either this book or Game of Thrones.

Robert is dead. His son Joffrey has been crowned king, but since Joffrey wasn’t actually Robert’s son, Robert’s brothers Renly and Stannis have each declared themselves king. And Robb Stark has proclaimed himself King in the North. And you can’t forget the exiled Targaryens – Daenerys is manuevering herself and her dragons into position. And with all the proclaimed kings fighting in the south, old rebels start to become restless.

There are some new points of view in this book, as the intrigues begin to extend. There’s Theon Greyjoy, who’s finally been released from the Starks (whom he doesn’t trust) and returns to his father (who doesn’t trust him). One of the most entertaining chapters is the chapter where Theon returns home and meets his sister for the first time in ten years.

And then there’s Stannis’s company, told from the point of view of one of his liege men. Stannis is, of course, the rightful king (as much as anyone is), but he’s gone about it almost entirely the wrong way. No one’s going to believe that Stannis is the true king until they know that Joffrey’s not, and Stannis waited far too long to declare himself and the truth. During the prologue, when he was still at Dragonstone, the impression I got from him was that he was waiting for other people to declare him king, because obviously he is since Joffrey’s not Robert’s son. But no one knows that, so how can they declare him king?

And then there’s Stannis’s number one ally: the red priestess. How creepy is she? Plus, there are vague hints that it’s a Christianity based religion: it’s the only monotheistic religion we’ve encountered, for one, and they call their god “Lord of Light”, which is very reminiscent to me of Jesus, light of the world. I don’t know if there are supposed to be parallels: she’s creepy no matter how you look at it.

Catelyn Stark is another interesting character. She’s very much in stasis since Ned’s death: continuing on beause she has to, existing just for her children. Everything she’s doing, she’s doing out of dutiful maternal love, not personal desire. I almost feel like I know her less in this book than I did in Game of Thrones. I think she’s either going to implode or explode before too long – she won’t be able to take the strain of losing all her roles so suddenly. In fact, depending on the outcome of her interview with Jaime Lannister, it might happen sooner than even I expect.

Sansa and Arya are in very different circumstances, but very similar situations. They’ve both been completely overwhelmed and left relatively powerless by the events around them (as, the feminist in me notes, women often are). Sansa stays within the situation and starts to make movements towards either changing it or at least adapting to it (there’s a great scene during the siege of King’s Landing where she temporarily takes control of all the women in the castle, and if she could marshal that power more often, she would be a much more interesting character). Arya, on the other hand, actively works to make her situation one that she has more control over. She fits herself to her circumstances, and then makes her circumstances work for her. She’s more intelligent than Sansa at doing this – but she’s also had more practice. Sansa will get there, I’m sure, but she just doesn’t have the experience of actually using her brain yet.

The other very interesting thing that has developed with Sansa is her relationship with the Hound. Here is this man who apparently hates everyone (with reason), is scarred beyond belief, and lives a life dedicated to violence – and yet he is the only one in Sansa’s current life who treats her with any sort of consideration, understanding, or help. This is Sansa’s main struggle in this book: moving from her idealistic view of Game of Thrones that her prince would rescue her and life would be perfect to accepting that the outer view of people is not always the accurate view of people. She’s still clinging on a bit to her dream of a knight in shining armor, but she is realising more and more – mostly because of the Hound’s attitude and actions toward her – that your rescuer may not come in the storybook guise you expect.

There’s not much for me to say about Jon in this book, at least until the end. His connection with the wolves makes him just as much of a Stark as Ned always claimed him as – I hope that someday he will accept it as his bloodright despite Catelyn’s attitude toward him. The end of Jon’s story in this book opens up all sorts of possibilities for the next few books, too – he’s joined the men in the North, but on orders from his current commander in the Black and in part to save his life and get information that ultimately (we hope) will get back to the Wall. I can’t wait to see what happens there.

Probably the most shocking/intriguing part of this book was Bran and Rickon’s end. First of all, Bran’s connection with the wolves is getting stronger and more deliberate. Second of all, the way that they escaped from Theon at Winterfell was nothing less than genius. I refused to believe that they were dead – although I started to have my doubts when they were describing the two boys’ bodies at Winterfell – but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t breathe an audible sigh of relief when Bran’s point of view came back. And that last chapter is amazing – detailing their plan, catching up with Bran’s development as a wolf-spirit (for lack of a better word), and sending them off in their separate directions to lead into the next book.

Which I’m going to start right about……..now.

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