crap i have read recently #5

asteroidsSome early spring book reading…

[SOME SPOILERS]

Ready Player One (Ernest Cline):  In 2044 the world has pretty much gone to shit.  The economy has tanked, resources are in short supply, scary giant corporations have police and prison power, and the poor live in towers made of stacked RVs.  Most people in this world spend as much time as possible in the OASIS, a massively multiplayer online game/world simulation where you can be just about anything you want to be.  When game creater Anorak dies and leaves the OASIS and his entire fortune to whoever can find the easter egg hidden somewhere in the virtual world, the game, as they say, is on.  Five years later the first key is found, the score board changes, and we meet young Parzival, a teenager living in one of those RV stacks, attending virtual high school, cadging free power for his OASIS rig, and bleeding obscure late 20th century trivia.  Anorak was a total 1980s nerd and the clues to the puzzle are based on that era’s pop culture and the story revolves around Parzival and his friends’ search for the three keys that will open the gates to the egg.   Well, that is what it seems to be about.  What it really is about is how awesome the 80s were.  All the games, the movies, the computer stuff, the jobs you held because they paid the rent and left you enough time to game, the clannishness of the arcade tribes, the pockets full of quarters, the music, the imported Japanese TV shows (Supaidaman!), anything from that era that can be crammed into the book is crammed into the book and it mostly works.

There are some shortcomings.  Ernest Cline is primarily a screenwriter and professional culture geek and this is his first novel.  There is nothing particularly challenging about the plot.  The good guys and bad guys are obvious and so is the outcome.  Most of the characters are one-dimensional and the “unexpected” twists are conventional (a friend who isn’t what he appears to be, the mystery of Anorak’s past).  The book reads like a screenplay (it has indeed been optioned) and Cline explains things way too much.  It is rare that he discusses a game or film without giving us a bit of exposition on its place in the zeitgeist.  (Although Cline never once tells us who Bryce Lynch is and, well, I love him for that.)  The book is focused on a narrow demographic and I’m really not sure if people who were either too old or too young for this version of the 1980s will get anything out of it.  Pop culture seems to stop about 2005; there are offhand references to Everquest  and WoW but nothing about stuff we wouldn’t know about because it hasn’t been invented yet.  The OASIS is a bit too utopian to be believable but it is hard to find much fault with a world that contains entire planets based on Star Wars and Blade Runner, where avatars wage epic battles between Ultraman and Mechagodzilla, and where kids who won’t be born for another 15 years know all the words to Monty Python and the Holy Grail by heart.

For me, Ready Player One was one massive mashup of some of the best years of my life:  Star Wars, War Games, Oingo Boingo, Monty Python, Tempest, Zork, Max Headroom, Commodore 64s and Ataris, giant robots, all that stuff, and I found it absolutely charming.  Those of us who spend a lot of time in virtual worlds will recognize the OASIS as the place we want to be.  This slight book is a quick, fun read but there is some depth to it.  It is set in a future that could easily be just around the corner from now, one where no one has enough to eat and credit card debt leads to indentured servitude.  There is some sadness and poignancy to it, some characters die, and none of them can escape hard reality.  But essentially this is a book where the losers win, where small and unimportant people surviving on the fringes of society strap on their avatars and kick the living shit out of those that would happily enslave them.  They save worlds both real and virtual.  And they do it with a combination of coconuts, 8 bit animation, giant mecha, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the works of John Hughes.

“Do you want to play a game?”

Score:  Meh.

Occultation (Laird Barron): Horror is not a genre in which I dabble much.  In former times I occasionally dipped into Stephen King (he got silly), Peter Straub (repetitive), Poe (oppressively depressing), and Lovecraft (WTH is a gambrel roof?) but it never really took hold of my interest.  Eventually I stopped reading horror entirely so I surprised even myself when I decided to take advantage of a recent B&N Free Friday and download this book.   This is Barron’s second collection of short stories; he has also recently published a novel. I’m pleased to say it is not wasting space in my Nook account, not by a long shot.

Barron does write well.  Like Ridley Scott, he treats atmosphere like a character.  It is just as much an actor in the tales as the human protagonists.  This tends to mask the silliness in a couple of the stories.  It also makes some of the more mundane ones feel more unusual than they are.  This is completely good; none of the stories in this book are bad and some of them are exceptional.   Barron writes horror like Lovecraft wrote horror.   As with Lovecraft many of the stories end with some sort of nameless, unexplained Thing that’s come from somewhere else.  People are taken, possessed, turned.  Everything is dark and drenched with panic and dread.  The stars are feral and things live in the walls.   People stumble through lives like bad dreams and wake into a worse reality.  Ancient things hunger for our meat and bones and stalk us behind the faces of our friends.  The forest cannot be trusted.  Stuff like that, you know what I mean.

Since I don’t read horror I can’t really determine if you, the avid horror fiction fan, will love this book.  However, I can tell you that some of these stories are really, really creepy.  The ones that work the best are the ones that could be occult or could just be people going off their psychological rails.   In “The Lagerstätte” a woman who lost her husband and son in a plane accident is going spectacularly mad.  She believes she may have summoned ghosts and that they may be trying to drag her to join them in death but her psychiatrist is confident they can handle it with therapy.  In “–30–” a couple that used to be lovers but are now something less than friends are assigned to a remote field station in the American Southwest to study the unusual phenomena that have occurred there for decades.  In this one too madness is palpable:  A murderous Manson-like Family once had a commune on the land, animals behave oddly and are inexplicably aggressive, there is a mass grave not far from the research site.  Our two researchers succumb quickly to paranoia and by the end, well…let’s just say it gets pretty nasty.  “Strappado” is hands down the best story in the book and it is the least occult.  Two guys, on and off again lovers, decide to attend a rare, invitation-only happening conducted by a definitely outside-the-establishment performance art group.  What happens to them requires no Something Out There, no ancient evil lurking just outside the periphery of our vision; it is just about humans without the normal social boundaries.  The last paragraph of the story is like being slammed in the chest.

So, all in all a pretty good read.  I recommend it.  I also recommend it because the author looks like a pirate.  Huge props!

Score:  Meh.

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~ by gun street girl on June 8, 2012.

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