Review: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

This book is well written and the story well told, no doubt about it. Too bad, then, that it doesn’t speak to me. I am certain that had I not read stories like Neuromancer and Snow Crash, back in the days, the impact of Ready Player One had been bigger but also I never was much of a gaming nerd. Fact is when my math and physics teacher got tasked with teaching us students to program in Basic, on ABC80 computers – and I admit I don’t remember if that was in 1982 or 83 – I vowed never ever to work with computers. Those stupid text based brainless things that spat Error11’s at me were idiotic. Period. So I’m not entirely in the target range for this tale.

On the other hand this DID change and I reconnected with computers during the late 80’s. Since 1991 they have been my livelihood and at that point I did take to gaming, but only for a few years. I lost interest somewhere at the time Doom turned to Quake. I just don’t have time for such things. Fun, but not fun enough to be prioritised above my family, or to take the place of reading.

Just to say I’m not clueless and that’s why Ready Player One didn’t do it for me ;-)

The tale is told as from the memory of Wade Watts, an orphaned kid growing up in poverty, in a white trash trailer park on steroids. His only escape is the virtual world of OASIS, and he is not alone. Millions of millions of people look at the unreal as their only way out of the misery a collapsed global economy and ecological disaster has left for most of humanity to live in. When the mega-billionaire OASIS founder dies, leaving as his will a riddle and the promise of a quest for his heritage, Wade decides to make a try at it as his off chance to a ride out of misery. The tale is the story of his quest, and as the OASIS founder was obsessed with 80’s culture the quest is a ride through 80’s music, film and gaming.

Definitely recommended to anyone who actually spent time in the pop-stream of the 80’s, not to mention anyone who was obsessively playing computer-based games back then, arcade or not.

For those of us who spent our 80’s time  in other ways – well, it IS a good read. Just not the ultimate nostalgic experience it might be for those who did ride the wave, way back.

Review: Reamde, by Neal Stephenson

Reamde is not an easy book to review. It is a wast brick of over 1000 pages. My copy is, in my eyes, beautifully bound, partially deckle edged, and with the typography made by someone who actually wants to make reading a pleasurable activity. Which means I was biased towards it, favourably, even before I got around to read it.

Geographically the story starts in Iowa, then romps on to Seattle and China, before returning to north America via a side-trips to Taiwan and the Philippines respectively, and the plot-lines are equally disparate, romping, and – not to forget – with a body count on par with that of the goriest action flicks.

I chose the word “romp” because in some ways and despite the terrible things happening to unsuspecting and, to borrow a term from Stephenson himself – mundane, people, it is a book that is a pleasure to read.

The first person we meet is Richard. He is a fiftyish entrepreneur in the gaming business who decides to help his niece Zula, whose expertise is in magma flow modelling, by giving her a job in the company. Soon after her boyfriend Peter becomes entangled with shady people, for the simple reason that he needs money to stay afloat during the recession. Accidentally he transfers a virus to one of the mobsters, the result of which is that all the data the mobsters need to make money gets encrypted and held hostage in the World of Warcraft-like game T’Rain – the game made by Richard’s company. Pointers leads to China so the Russian mobster grabs his in-house Hungarian hacker Csongor, Zula, and her boyfriend and goes to Xiamen, to find the Chinese hacker and take him out. The mobster’s head of security, Sokolov, is secretly worried about the clinical sanity of his boss but doesn’t dare break a contract. And so it starts…

The people we learn to know are only trying to stay alive, to keep a head above the water and to continue to breathe, and by each of these moments they step by step slip so far into the realm of the outright unbelievable believability becomes a moot point – each step was reasonable so the end result must be reasonable too, right?

No. The end result is not reasonable, it is way over the hill. People gets humiliated, people get shot, people dies. The bad guys kills indiscriminately. They also get killed that way, whenever possible, because soon enough it is clear to the reasonable mundane people that it is the only way to stay alive.

A real thriller, in other words, and in the true sense of it. And I loved it. Absolutely loved every bit of it.

And yet I am a wee bit disappointed. Even when smiling a bit over the brief stop-over in the Philippines, a country featuring heavily back in Cryptonomicon, and even as I was worried over the fate of this character or that, I missed the Big Ideas part that often are so central to Stephenson’s books. In this Reamde is more kin to Zodiac or Cobweb (of which Cobweb is the one worth picking up – it dates back to the anthrax fears of the late 90’s) than it is to Anathem.

Anathem, on the other hand, was the ultimate Big Ideas novel, so admittedly it is unfair to compare the two. Because a good romp, a good thriller and some decent well-written suspense, can be a fantastic experience too. And that Reamde is.

Definitely recommended.

Review: Halting State, by Charles Stross

Whether you read Halting State as a hightech bagatelle or a nightmare near-future scenario this is a gripping and well-paced read, granted you can get around the gaming lingo and the acronyms showered over you at a steady rate of (at least) one per page.

We follow the proceedings from three different but inevitably interlaced points of view. Each of which gets it’s own self told 2nd person voice. This works very well, or so I think – it makes for a tone simultaneously detached AND personally involved, balancing between the idea driven plot and believable characters. Even if I think you have to know a lot of gamers and software developers to realise just HOW believable they are… ;-)

The core of the plot is a crime committed in game-space, and it seems mind-boggling at first but that’s BEFORE it turns from escapist gaming and into a action-packed spy thriller. It all wraps up nicely in the end, though.

As I’m not very familiar with the spy thriller trope and genre I’m not the right person to identify all the nods Stross makes in that direction, but if they are as many as those towards the gaming community they are aplenty, with the book almost verging on being a homage rather than a plain story about a cybercrime breaking the borders to the realm of flesh and blood – meatspace. As it is it’s enjoyable however you read or view it. Provided you can make peace with the acronyms, of course :D

So. What about this near future, where the borders between meatspace and cyberspace gets all fuzzy? I’d say we’re already there, in some respects. Most of the tech in the book (the one big exception being the quantum computer, as usual) is more or less viable as of today – those glasses/specs might have been pure science fiction back in the mid-90’s when I first encountered them in Gibson’s Virtual Light but today but today it’s more a matter of a route not (yet) taken. Just as an example. But when I say we’re almost there I’m not thinking tech but societies.

Today when I returned from vacation most of my colleagues already knew from Facebook what I had done, just like I knew what they had been up to. I, and a lot of others, socialise with people I know but never have met face to face. And more people than you might think are into on-line games like WoW – it’s not just kids and teenagers. Shops selling records made it from vinyl to CD, but now? The bells do toll… Lots of people are chugging out their amplifiers, players and discs; music is now a purely digital commodity, courtesy of Spotify and their ilk, and music is consumed as pure files – books are on their way there too. The shift has not been made yet, but it’s imminent – physical objects are, with the exception of furniture, food and clothes, a thing of the past – we are committing our memories to a world of ones and zeros.

Which of course makes me think of the Forgetting, as of Century Rain, by Alastair Reynolds – all the files got wiped or scrambled, and where then are our history?

Ah, good books DO make you think!