Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

Read: February 26, 2017

A young Russian dreams of flight, but everything crashes and burns in the familiar Soviet style.

This novel has a lot going for it. I enjoyed the absurdist imagery of the criticism – the sham within a sham that so perfectly captures Soviet Russia. A few of these images (such as the one in which Kissinger kills the bear) are haunting, and will probably stay with me.

Overall, though, I can’t say that I enjoyed the book much. I’m not sure if I’ve just been tired lately and haven’t had the concentration to read it properly, or if the translation fell short, or if the writing itself is flawed… or maybe it’s a combination of all three. But I found the narrative to be a bit disjointed. Sometimes things would be happening and it would take me a while to figure out what and why.

I also never connected with the main character. Despite the fact that we’re in his head, his voice just isn’t that strong. We’re told the story of his life, but with a remove that prevents the emotional weight from really making itself felt. Even when his mind circles around particular images, and I could sense the significance (the little trapped pilot, the bear), I never knew why these images were significant to Omon. From my bird’s eye perspective, I know that the trapped pilot is foreshadowing, and I know that the bear represents the common people in the USSR, but Omon doesn’t seem to draw these conclusions. So why does he keep the pilot? Why does he think of the bear? It’s that lack of distinction between what the reader knows and what the character knows that made it difficult to connect with Omon’s humanity.

It’s a fine book, an interesting read, another example of absurdist social commentary. The “sham within a sham” aspect was particularly biting. But, overall, this one just didn’t do it for me.

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Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

Read: 12 February, 2017

There’s a man no one remembers, a young woman who holds a piece of paper that she can’t put down, a boy whose absent father suddenly reappears and reappears and reappears… It’s really just your average Night Vale day.

I’ve somehow managed to have never listened to the podcast. I know, I know, I’m just not really a podcast sorta person right now. But many of my friends listen to Night Vale and post quotes and tweets and such, and I’ve always found them the perfect combination of funny, insightful, and weird.

So when I found a Welcome to Night Vale audiobook at my local library, I figured I’d give it a shot – helpfully in a more familiar format.

And I really enjoyed it! Night Vale does a fantastic job of ‘hyper-reality’. Details of the story are absurd, but they’re also true, they are subjective impressions rendered literal. The character of Josh is the perfect example of this: a teenage boy, his body assumes a different shape every day – some days he has skin, some days he has a carapace – but no matter what form he takes, his mother always knows him.

I loved how inclusive and refreshing the book is, too. Josh has a crush on a girl and he has a crush on a boy, the only explicit couple in the book are gay men, and the plot revolves around an absent father who is a perfectly nice guy but just not a good father. The central relationship that emerges from the plot is a friendship between two women. It’s just wonderful.

I see quite a few negative (and negative-ish) reviews complaining about how the narrator’s voice carries over into a print, and I can see that. The narrator’s intonations and pauses added a great deal to the story. And that’s not particularly surprising – these characters were made for a podcast format.

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Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening by Marjorie M. Liu (illustrated by Sana Takeda)

Read: 27 December, 2016

The summary describes the setting as “an alternate matriarchal 1900’s Asia.” Which… is better than any description I could come up with. Very little gets explained in this first volume.

Which is my main issue. While it could be argued that the storytelling dives right in without wasting a bunch of time on exposition, this left me with very little to latch on to. Things happened, characters acted, but I was just left feeling somewhat confused. I didn’t quite know what to make of them or what I was supposed to be feeling. I don’t need an infodump, but a little more context would have been nice. By the time I finally started feeling like I had a grasp on the world, the volume was over.

A lot of that is, I’m sure, in the nature of the serial storytelling common with comics. This is where I like graphic novels so much more – the story I pick up is complete, it has its arc, I don’t have to keep going through issues on blind faith that I will, at some point, figure out what the heck is going on.

But this is genre convention, so I supposed it isn’t really fair to judge Monstress for adhering to it. People who are more comfortable with serial comics will be fine, whereas people coming from a prose background, like myself, will likely struggle. Be warned.

The plot itself didn’t have much room to develop in such a short volume. It’s a fairly standard “ancient ones vs humans and oh yes the in between people”, with the twist that people can absorb an element from the ancient ones (and their mixed offspring) to gain power. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before.

The matriarchy angle is interesting. There’s a particular joy to reading a comic where nearly all the characters are female, except for a handful of background characters who have very little dialogue. After so much media being the opposite, it was refreshing.

But it felt like it just wasn’t going quite far enough. It’s a matriarchy, but soldiers wear armour that accentuates their sexy at the expense of protection (boob armour! boob armour everywhere!). And while there are a few larger bodies, they are in the background. All the central adult characters are super models. It would have been nice to have a little more variety.

That said, the main character is an amputee, and that is just wonderful to see.

Where the series really sells itself is in the artwork. It’s sort of art nouveau inspired, and it is so gorgeous. Every single panel is rich with detail. From what I can judge of the first volume, it’s the artwork where this series is distinguishing itself. It’s the artwork that’s going to make people giving volume 2 a chance.

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I Was The Cat by Paul Tobin (illustrated by Benjamin Dewey)

Read: 15 October, 2016

I picked this up off the library shelf because I had some time to spare and it was a graphic novel (and therefore a fast read), and it had cats. SOLD!

Unfortunately, it left a lot to be desired. The story is about a blogger named Allison Breaking (so named so that she could pun her name – if it even counts as a pun – by calling her website ‘Breaking News’, uuuuugh), who is hired by a wealthy and mysterious person named Burma to ghostwrite his memoirs.Except that her new employer turns out to be a cat! Dun dun DUUUUN!

There are mostly two stories being told. In the first, we have Burma’s story of his previous lives. In the second, we have the present day story of Allison coming to terms with meeting a talking cat, and her discovery of his current plot for world domination.

First, the positives: The artwork is very good. It isn’t particularly stylized, but it’s solid and clear. I also enjoyed all the little easter eggs hidden throughout the images, like the Pulp Fiction assassins, or the random Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The problem is that the narrative felt very disjointed. The conceit of the nine lives could have been interesting, but ended up just being Burma listing off famous people he’s met. It doesn’t make much sense, either, except in a ‘how history tends to get taught in primary school’ sort of way. There’s no reason for Burma’s first life to be in ancient Egypt, but then not again until the Elizabethan era. After that, as we get into history that the readership knows more about, his lives seem to come fairly regularly. Why the gap, except to make some joke about the ancient Egyptians worshipping cats?

The world domination plot was rather disappointing, largely because it wasn’t adequately set up. The insider trying to warn off Allison doesn’t seem to care much whether she’s warned or not, and doesn’t really seem to be trying to accomplish anything in particular by revealing the plot to her in any case. And once he does manage to warn her, what does he say? He tells her not to worry about it. So that was plot time well spent…

And that really sums up the whole book for me: There are lots of ideas, mostly a mish-mash of pop culture references, all thrown in together, but none of them serve of purpose or lead to anything.

And did Burma’s evil plan remind anyone of the Leviathan plot from Supernatural?

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Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin

Read: 20 August, 2016

Sometime in the future, women are once again refused legal adulthood, are functionally the property of men, and are denied explicit participation in their society. In this environment, beliefs about women’s supposed low intelligence provides the perfect cover for a quiet revolution.

At this moment, I am sitting at my desk, poised to write my review, with two full pages of notes before me (double-sided). I know my reviews are always a little scattered, but this book really has me going, and I just don’t know how I could possibly impose even the slightest pretence of order onto my thoughts. So, consider this a warning – this review will be both long and meandering.

My first impression of the novel is that the writing style reminded me a bit of Isaac Asimov, in that the characters take a backseat to the story. Nazareth, the woman who has the greatest claim to being the main character, is discussed in the first chapter, seen in the second, and then disappears until chapter nine, 80 pages later.

Yet, at the same time, I found that most of the named characters have a very strong presence, making them memorable and feel like they occupy much more narrative time than they actually do. Any time the story was with Michaela, I really felt like I was reading about Michaela, not about Plot Device #35.

Even in groups, I found the characters to be very well fleshed out. Groups hate each other believably, and there’s a lot of dark humour as the narrator switches sides. In every case, Elgin shows us that there’s a kernel of truth to the stereotypes groups have of each other, but also a lot of projection.

The book is unquestionably stemming from some-wave feminism, but I’m somewhat saddened by many of the reviews I’m seeing. In particular, I keep seeing the claim that this book is “man-hating,” or that all the female characters are good while all the male characters are bad. These same complaints are brought up, and I can only conclude that these reviewers aren’t engaging with the plot, and are burdened with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. It’s a fairly well-studied phenomenon that, as women approach equatable talking time, they are perceived to be dominating the conversation. I think a similar dynamic is in evidence here – when a story centres on women’s experiences, it is perceived as being at the expense of men’s experiences.

In this case, it’s far from true. Nazareth is, perhaps, the only innocent. She is abused, she is isolated, she is oppressed, and she perseveres with an almost saintly serenity. But Michaela, far from being a “goodie,” is in fact a terrible person beaten down by her guilt who seeks redemption in the end by using her sins to serve the purposes of her fellow-women. That’s a complex character, one who is unquestionably bad, yet who also perhaps has a shot to redeem herself a little (only a little, though, because she is never allowed to join the group of women she kills to protect). Beyond Michaela, we have Aquina, who is consistently shown to be rash and overzealous and whose actions hurt and essentially kill other women. Even the other women of the Barren House behave abominably toward Nazareth – believing it to be out of necessity, sure, but they still make the conscious choice not to provide comfort to a young girl who desperately needs it.

As for all the men being bad characters, that’s equally absurd. Where I imagine these reviewers are tripping up is that the “good” men (like Showard, who hates killing babies in the names of economics/science, and who consistently expresses his moral objections) are just as much a product of their environment as the women. They may feel that their society is wrong, but they can’t put that feeling into words and, even if they could, they lack the drive to do so because they, too, benefit from the very structures of oppression that discomfit them. Just as was the case through the very long period of European history where women were – as in the book – not considered legal adults and forbidden from direct economic participation. These good men may treat their own wives well, they may encourage their daughters, they may make half-hearted arguments to other men, but they so rarely press any further. If accurately portraying a very real social arrangement, one that was the standard in the western world for centuries, is “reverse sexism,” we have problems.

We have problems because what we are seeing is men so coddled by literature, so accustomed to being presented with Gary Stu characters who transcend their cultures to be perfectly enlightened in the most unchallenging ways, that they can’t handle an accurate portrayal of socialisation and internalised power structures.

Given how little of the social aspects of the novel are without historical precedent, it really does seem disingenuous to demand that we spend our precious narrative real estate on unrealistic men who magically shed their culture’s mores to go around saving the women from sexism. I can only conclude that, for some readers, anything that isn’t specifically about men must be against men. Because the best way to prove that Aaron Adiness is an ugly caricature is to pantomime him in GoodReads reviews.

Before I leave the subject of sexism, I was wowed by Elgin’s depiction of emotional labour. It’s a concept that I’ve only recently started to encounter, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it highlighted (and certainly not to this extent!) in fiction. The idea is that there’s this To Do list of chores that women are expected to do, and expected to do quietly so as never to attract notice to the doing of it, in order to regulate the emotions and egos of men. We first see this with Michaela, who is prized for the way she listens quietly to her husband as he talks through his problems – essentially acting as his sounding board / therapist. Again and again, Michaela’s ability to make men feel like they are heard when they have problems is remarked upon, and yet never is there any sense that she may also need to feel heard. There’s no sense of reciprocity, no awareness that her gift is anything but men’s due. (SPOILERS: In the climax of the book, women stop performing this emotional labour. They will sit still while men talk because they are compelled to do so, but they stop listening. Only in its absence is emotional labour finally noticed, by which time it’s too late. Suddenly, men are left with the choice of either simply going unfulfilled, or of learning how to perform emotional labour for each other, with reciprocity.)

I have a few complaints about the book, of course. One is the use of “perceive this.” According to one of the characters, phrases like ‘see here’ are “biased manner(s) of expression” (p.13). The idea being, of course, that these dynastic linguists opt for more precise turns of phrase. Except that, on the whole, they don’t seem to. Sure, they will frequently say “perceive this,” but they seem to just use it in place of the old timey phrase “now see here” – rather than specifically when they want someone to actually perceive something. Other than that, the linguists’ speech is indistinguishable from the non-linguists’ speech, using plenty of colloquialisms and other “loose” language. Because of this, it made the phrase “perceive this” feel very gimmicky, used just to remind the reader that it exists. I found it either very annoying or absolutely hilarious, depending on whether Elgin intended it as an in-group / out-group affiliation identifier.

There are essentially two plots in the novel. In the first, we see the women of linguist families developing their own special ‘women’s language’ (called Laadan). The other plot is the government quest to bypass the linguists by developing the technology to communicate with non-humanoid aliens. They only really intersect once (through Michaela’s subplot), though there are some character cross-overs. Both plots are compelling, but they just don’t mesh well. Ultimately, the Government Work plotline feels like filler to beef out the page count.

The plots also relied on certain assumptions that I didn’t feel were properly communicated. For example, if the point is to end the government’s dependency on the linguist families, then why focus exclusively on communication with non-humanoid aliens? They know how the linguists do what they do, so why not simply raise their own crop of linguists, who can speak with the humanoid aliens, and start with that? One of the linguists hints at one point that they plan a union strike if the government were to ever do such a thing, but it seems that the government could easily build up a fairly large army of translators in secret and then unleash them all at once. Sure, they’d lose some coverage, but wouldn’t it be worthwhile if it meant no longer being dependent on the linguists?

Much is made in the story of “interfacing,” though it isn’t really explained until about halfway through. Basically, the idea is that a human baby is placed in close proximity to an alien for several hours a day, until it absorb’s the alien’s language as its own native tongue (“roll credits”). But until that point, I was under the impression that it was something far more tech-y, like a laser brain imprinting or something. Because interfacing, as it actually stands, doesn’t make sense. In the book, interfacing with a non-humanoid alien causes a baby to turn itself inside-out – the explanation is that human brains aren’t equipped to perceive the world in a non-humanoid way, causing the human body exposed to non-humanoid worldviews to explode.

Well, I gotta tell you, I have a cat that my son has been in very close quarters with since he came home from the hospital, and he has yet to explode. In my experience, it’s absolutely true that humans have these experiential walls beyond which they cannot peak. But when babies (or young children, or adults) hit these walls, they merely ignore whatever is beyond them. They filter it out. A baby trapped in a glass box with a non-humanoid alien wouldn’t explode, it would simply be developmentally delayed from the lack of human interaction.

I never understood why the women’s language, Laadan, was taken so seriously by the men, how it was supposed to “change reality.” I understand that they have words to express a more nuanced emotional landscape, sure, but why would the men ever find that threatening? They didn’t take Langlish seriously, so why would they take Laadan seriously – even if it’s a better constructed language? I understand the exploration of the theory that language helps to shape culture, but the whole point of the sexism in the novel is that the men just don’t take the women seriously – so why would they take a women’s culture any more seriously they did the Encoding Project? How does Elgin account for the long history of other women’s languages/scripts, such as Nüshu? Worse, when a character voices my questions, the only explanation offered is: “Never mind why, Michaela. It’s complicated. It’s way beyond you” (p.281). I would have enjoyed the ending more if the men just continued in their assumption that women’s personal lives were below notice, while the women developed a hidden-in-plain-sight culture of their own. It seems like that would have been more plausible, and more interesting.

My last complaint is with the preface, which really bothered me. It establishes the novel to follow as fiction within its own fictional universe, and what the H-E-Double Hockey Sticks was the point of that? All it did was collapse the novel’s meaning, because we know that any impact that the plot might have within its world is a fiction within a fiction. It’s not even meaningful within the realm of suspension of disbelief. And it’s wholly unnecessary. The novel would have been much stronger as a first level fiction, without the silly framing device – particularly as it raised so many unnecessary questions. Did Laadan exist in the real fictional universe? Did the women ever achieve the things they achieve in the end, or was that only in the novel’s fiction? Why even raise the spectre of such questions?

I’m complaining a lot, as usual, but I did love this novel. It had strong characters, a very interesting perspective, a really cool take on the science fiction genre (linguistics!), and it was so so funny, too. It was a very black humour, certainly, but it was wonderful. I found the novel to be very cynical, but also very incisive and perceptive. And while I certainly disagreed with Elgin on a number of points, it was so refreshing just to see her perspective. I’ve just read so many unabashedly misogynistic science fiction and fantasy novels that it was a breath of fresh air to read something that just turned around and confronted those ideas head on.

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Wool by Hugh Howey

Read: 18 April, 2016

Wool has been on my radar for a little while – at least since Hank Green mentioned it in one of his Stanley Parable videos. Every so often, I’d go to the book store with a little spending money and check a few sections for it (is it fiction? is it science fiction? is it… fantasy? mystery?) and always left with something else instead.

After at least a year of this, I finally looked it up. Apparently, Wool isn’t sold in stores. You have to buy it online. Well, that’s nice, I got it from the library.

A lot of the buzz surrounding the book is that its world is immersive (as Justin Cronin’s blurb on the front cover has it: “You will live in this world”). And that’s certainly been my impression. The location does feel very tangible, even if there were a few fuzzy areas. Namely, that each level seemed to be very single purpose, but surely that must mean that some levels are much smaller than others. Would a nursery floor (what the maternity wards seem to be called – the practice of segregated nurseries seems very odd and out-dated) be as large as the farming floor? Are there apartments beyond the nursery? Do people trying to get home after a shift have to walk through the nursery in order to reach their homes?

But the fact that I spent so much time trying to envision the silo and how it’s supposed to work isn’t really a strike against the book. It means that the silo felt real enough for something fuzzy to stand out.

There were a few weak moments in the book. One was with the characterization of Jules – I found it difficult to really grasp her. When she’s first introduced, she’s completely uninterested in the outside. She can’t be bothered with it, she can’t understand the obsession with seeing the screens or cleaning the sensors. She’s happy in Mechanical, and she urges other characters to focus on the silo, not on the outside. But then, soon after she takes over as the POV character, we find out that she used to pour over children’s picture books and dream of the outside. Right from childhood, she is described as having been a dreamer for the broader world. This is a detail that doesn’t come up again. It is merely brought up, out of the blue and contrary to the character we’ve been getting to know up until that point, and then dropped.

This grasp of characters may be a bigger problem. I noticed it with other POV characters, like Jahns and Holsten. They seem distinct when we first meet them through the eyes of a different character, but once they slide into the control chair, they all start to seem very much alike. Jahns becomes very much like Holsten, and Jules becomes very much like them both. By the end, where the narrative bounces back and forth between two primary POV characters, they are largely indistinguishable in voice.

I also found that the narrative loses a lot of focus near the middle. There are a few chapters there (I noted this observation on p.282 in my copy) where the writing quality drops very suddenly. Throughout that portion, characters seem to be acting based on authorial need (like when Jules doesn’t wonder how the plants could be growing in pitch dark – since the author knows that the silo does in fact still have power), rather than their own drives.

But these are relatively minor gripes. The world is compelling, and the mystery carries the story quite well until the characters grew on me. There were times when I found myself reading almost breathlessly, desperate to see how the characters get out of the latest jam. Setting up a few POV character deaths early on, combined with some flash forward trickery, raised the stakes. I couldn’t trust that the main characters would survive, and had evidence to believe that they wouldn’t. It made reaching the end quite thrilling.

Where the book suffered, it seems to have been a victim of its publishing history. The serial aspect of it, combined with the lack of an editor, would explain the variations in quality and occasional lack of consistency. But I am, of course, being nit-picky, as usual.

Having now read the book, I’m not sure whether I will be ordering it or not. It was an enjoyable read, but I don’t know if it was an enduring read – something I’ll want to come back to again and again in future, something I’ll want to lend out for others to share. That’s the trouble with novels that rely too strongly on a “mystery box” – once the answer is known, there needs to be something else for readers to come back to. I think that Wool comes close, and does try to have some profundities about human nature and such, but the ideas were too shallow, too overshadowed by the mystery to stand on their own.

On the name: Like others, I puzzled over the name. It’s strange, and there’s no wool in the book (as far as I can tell). There is, however, the expression “pull the wool over their eyes,” which is the central theme of the book.

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Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Read: 17 July, 2015

Sixteen years after Leviticus Blue undermined the city’s banks with his Russian-commissioned Boneshaker machine, Seattle is a very different place. The boring caused a gas to be released from deep underground, corroding whatever it touched and raising the dead as “rotters.” A wall has been built around the city to keep the gas in, but it’s only a matter of time before it comes spilling out.

In the meantime, Blue’s son, Zeke, ventures under the wall, into the Blight, hoping to find the truth about his father. After an earthquake traps him inside the city, his mother comes in the hopes of rescuing him.

With airships, fantastical machinery, and zombies, it’s hard to see where Boneshaker could go wrong. Unfortunately, there were a few key issues that prevented me from really liking the book. The first was the over use of coincidence. I can ignore it if it’s used only very occasionally, or if it gets the ball rolling, and it works in a series like The Wheel of Time where it’s explained by the world-building (in that case, it’s the pattern weaving itself toward certain outcomes). But in Boneshaker, major aspects of the plot were directed by coincidence – an earthquake that blocks an exit just when a character goes through a tunnel, an airship crashing into a tower just when a character happens to be inside it, another airship that just happens to be repaired and ready to take off when the characters need to escape, etc. Far too much of the plot relied on these big coincidences, and it stretched my ability to suspend disbelief.

Overall, it gave the impression that Priest was writing on the fly, coming up with the plot as she went. Sadly, I found the characters suffered from the same problem; I found them very underdeveloped. They are always reacting, getting thrown about the city by circumstances as though they’ve paid for the tour. I was often confused by a decision, which seemed out of what I’d been able to construct of their character, until I realized that it was necessary to get them to the location of the next adventure, or to show us a new area of the city. (SPOILERS: Even the ending, when Briar and Zeke appear to decide to stay in the city where they’ve been miserable and have spent the last few days in a constant state of almost dying, seemed the author’s romanticised vision of the setting rather than anything the characters themselves would have chosen.)

Many of the side characters seemed interesting at first, until they stuck around long enough for me to realize that Priest had chosen one interesting image for them, and that was it. They had cool armour, or an interesting look, or an implied backstory, but no depth. In fact, the only character that seemed to have any real personality was the setting. Which leads me to the book’s real strength: Seattle.

There were some anachronisms, but the alternate history provided some cover there. I still always enjoy it when books have a sense of place, and the landmark details certainly did that. Priest also clearly put a good deal of thought into how the city might look in the Blight. The ambiance, with the need to wear gas masks and the moaning of the rotters, was fairly well done, and Priest certainly did a reasonably good job of building tension, except that I just didn’t care what happened to any of the characters. As long as I could tour the setting along with someone, I found that I really didn’t care much if it was Briar/Zeke, or if they were switched out midstream for some other “guide.”

The mechanics of writing were mostly solid, but there were some very odd word choices that threw me. One that stood out in particular was the use of the word “for” instead of something more conventional, like “because.” It’s oddly archaic, and stands out from the text around it. I noticed the same thing in Huntress, and it bugged me there, too.

My final gripe is about the ending. The plot structure is what could be described as an “onion” plot, in which the real goal is the discovery of a piece of information – in this case, what happened with the Boneshaker machine. The question is raised at the very beginning, with a reporter approaching Briar for information, and it is finally answered at the very end. Unfortunately, the answer that had all the characters guessing, and at least one character risking his life and the lives of others to uncover, was almost immediately obvious. I read the whole book knowing the ending’s big reveal, and my disappointment was dampened only by the fact that Priest seemed to care as little about it as I did. Sadly, it came with a missed opportunity, as I think that much more could have been made of the connection between Angeline’s daughter and Briar, if only the characters had had a little more depth to them.

I found this to be a fun fluff book, and the setting is certainly interesting enough to make it worth reading. It could have been a lot better, though, and it’s a shame that the characters and plot weren’t able to better complement the location.

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Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Read: 15 May, 2015

When the inventor of a revolutionary virtual universe (OASIS) dies, he wills his vast fortune and control over the OASIS to the first person who can find the ultimate easter egg.

The novel is an unabashed ’80s field trip, or “nostalgia-porn” as some reviewers are putting it. If people who were kids/teenagers in the ’80s generally thought something was cool, it’s likely mentioned somewhere in this book (plus a few nerdgasms from later decades). Want to see an X-wing fighting a Firefly? Done. Want to see if a Leopardon could beat a Mechagodzilla? Covered.

Of course, the book was written by the fantasies of a nerdy white boy, which is a shame. There was/is so much more to nerd culture that that demographic seems to have completely missed (and, being the group with the most media attention, they’ve managed to really control the narrative of nerd-dom as being a thing that belonged entirely to white boys in the pure Golden Days, which others are only now trying to infiltrate). Surely, despite the image of nerds manufactured by media like Revenge of the Nerds, Cline could have imaged a distant future where even women would have a place. Instead, the default characters are all white men.

Aside from the default, there’s a Love Interest, two Samurai-obsessed Japanese boys (no surprise there), and three background mother-figures who are dead by the end of the third act (so the MC can have a little angst). It rather struck a nerve since, as a geek girl, the only role my friends could slot me into was the Love Interest. This meant that I had to be perfect – I had to be beautiful, I had to be funny, I had to be completely knowledgeable about every single little piece of trivia, and I had to do it all in a way that never made me “intimidating”. You know, all the things Art3mis is in Ready Player One. Of course, this was impossible. And every time I failed to live up to the Love Interest ideal, my right to membership in the clique was questioned. I couldn’t be a friend, so if I couldn’t be the perfect Love Interest, what was I even doing there? It was exhausting having to put in so much work just so that I could play some games and feel like I belonged for a little while.

(SPOILERS: Yes, I know about Aech. I’m not really counting her/him, though, since the reveal happens right at the end, and it felt like he/she was just a “have POC/Woman in book” achievement for the author. Because Aech is a white male through the entire book save for one small part – after which she/he returns to being a white male – I count the character as such.)

So, fine, that was kind of the reality for the ’80s and ’90s. The geeky girls had to fit that mould, or they had to learn to work their hobbies into their “totally normal, totally not a geek” social circles (which many did, as I discovered far too late for my child-self’s peace of mind). So I can buy the idea that a white guy who grew up in the ’80s just wouldn’t have noticed all the nerdy POCs and women around him if they weren’t love interests, but this novel is set decades into the future. Why is this still the case? Particularly when women and POC gamers are becoming so much more visible now? It’s frustrating.

The off-hand transphobia was rather jarring as well. When Wade is talking to Art3mis about her meatspace identity, he mentions something about hoping she’s really a woman. Then clarifies that he means “a human female who has never had a sex-change operation.” I mean, just, why?

There’s more, of course. It’s the Revenge of the Nerds demographic, where stalking a woman gets her to fall in love with you, where the Love Interest has to be perfect in every way except at the one skill – playing video games – that the protagonist most closely identifies with (lest she be intimidating, of course!), or that the Love Interest must be gorgeous but very insecure about her appearance (but don’t worry, she’s still gorgeous!! That’s extremely important and must be dwelled upon!!).

It’s frustrating, because I really enjoyed the book. I loved the nostalgia (that was my childhood, too), I loved the set up of meeting someone in cyber-space and not being quite sure how to take it offline (my spouse and I met online – in fact, our most recent Date Night was spent playing Ironclad Tactics), and I loved the sheer “IDGAF ’cause this is just cool” playfulness. But at every turn, I felt like I was being written out of my own childhood, and it’s just rather depressing.

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Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Read: 5 December, 2014

Hiro Protagonist (no, really) delivers pizzas for the Mafia, and must never, ever be late. On a night where absolutely everything seems to be going wrong, it looks very much like the pizza will be late, until he’s saved by fifteen year old Kourier, Y.T. Thus begins a partnership that sees the rise, and fall, of a linguistic virus/religion transmitted to hackers through the Metaverse.

Snow Crash is a dog pile of interesting ideas. Reading, it felt like something new was being thrown at me every couple pages. While that certainly made for an interesting read that I suspect I will still be thinking about for a long time, it also means that there wasn’t much room for character depth – or even for me to grow to care for the characters. Sure, Hiro and Y.T. are cool, but they never got to feel like people.

The sheer amount of content and detail also means lengthy info-dumps, like the multiple chapters of Hiro sitting in his Metaverse office talking to the Librarian. The Librarian is explaining the whole backstory for the plot while Hiro occasionally interjects with a question or comment, and this goes on and on and on. The ideas were interesting, but I couldn’t help but think that there absolutely must have been a better way to deliver them.

I think that the pacing and style of the book would have worked much better as a movie, but then all those info-dumps would have needed cutting.

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Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, edited by John Joseph Adams

Read: 21 October, 2014

The End of the Whole Mess by Stephen King

Howard Fornoy sets out to tell the story of what happened to the world – and the Messiah – in the little time he has left. I’ve only read a few of King’s works, but his voice is unmissable in this story. He sets it up early, complaining that the story deserves “thousands of pages,” but will get only a handful. As a result, much of the story is only hinted at. It was interesting and tantalizing, but I don’t think that it would have held my attention for much longer. I’m sure he would have done something interesting with more pages, but I quite appreciated that so much was left for me to fill in for myself.

Salvage by Orson Scott Card

Following a rumour of gold in the old Mormon temple, Deaver ropes his friends into helping him explore the flooded ruins. I have rather serious reservations about Card as a person, and was pretty wary of story of his putting Mormonism so front and centre. Despite this, I found it a pleasant read, and surprisingly non-preachy. Sure, Deaver is exposed to a lesson in respecting the beliefs of others (whether he learns it or not is another matter), but it worked, and it could easily have been the written from the perspective of any other faith system.

The People of Sand and Slag by Paolo Bacigalupi

A somewhat surreal story in which humanity has been so changed by technology that they’re no longer recognizably people any more. The world is a much changed place, inhospitable to life, yet humanity has survived by changing itself. I found the story a little difficult to get into, perhaps because the people were so alien in many ways that it took me a while to figure out what was going on. Once I did, however, I really appreciated the snapshot of possible future humanity, and what it says about us.

Bread and Bombs by M. Rickert

An interesting little piece about some of the less savoury tactics used in war, and the guilt/fear reactions to refugees. It was a little more abstract than most of the other stories, and perhaps harder to see its place in the anthology, but it was well written and interesting.

How We Got In Town and Out Again by Jonathan Lethem

Two young people join a virtual reality stamina competition – the goal, as I gathered it, was to be the last person “standing.” For some reason, in this future world, it’s more entertaining for spectators to watch other people play games than to play games themselves. This seems rather odd, and especially fanciful when the author’s biography reads that this story is part of a larger series “railing against virtual reality technologies.” The characterization of the main character was quite interesting, and fairly complex for a short story, but it didn’t carry the story. Perhaps being a gamer coloured my reading, but the premise just seemed to absurd for me to take the story seriously.

Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels by George R. R. Martin

A familiar enough story where off-world humans return to a destroyed earth to find a very different sort of human – in this case a subterranean one. Martin’s writing style gives this overdone plot a bit of new life, though the end twist should surprise no one familiar with his work. The story was entertaining, even if it wasn’t particularly thought-provoking.

Waiting for the Zephyr by Tobias S. Buckell

Mara waits for a land-ship to take her away from an abusive home life. The story was sad, but ended on a (not uncomplicated) note of hope. I felt like there was so much more to tell, though, and it was frustrating to have the story end just as it should have begun. This felt like a kernel, perhaps an experimental hashing out of ideas meant to be used in earnest later on.

Never Despair by Jack McDevit

Chaka searches through the ruins of earth for an explanation of what was. Like Waiting for the Zephyr, the story felt like a brainstorm for a bigger piece, but, also like Zephyr, the ideas it presents carry it. It was significantly less polished than Buckell’s piece, though, as there were many questions that begged answers – how is the holograph (?) still running? Why doesn’t Chaka mine it for information when information is what she’s after?

When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth by Cory Doctorow

Personally, I found this to be one of the most entertaining works in the anthology. Felix maintains the internet in Toronto, and it’s a late night emergency that saves him from dying along with his wife, child, and the rest of the city when the apocalypse hits. It’s a terribly sad story as Felix roots around for ways to process the loss of his family, set against the backdrop of a bunch of techies trying to decide if the apocalypse is a time for hope or for despair. On a more personal note, I particularly enjoyed the characterization of Felix, the way he processes the changing situation. Being something of an “android” myself, and having most of my social circle comprised of Aspie STEM people, it was a joy to see such familiar thought patterns in a fictional character.

The Last of the O-Forms by James Van Pelt

A somewhat interesting “behind the scenes at the travelling zoo” story with an entertaining (and appropriate) twist ending. While not spectacular, the story was a solid inclusion.

Still Life with Apocalypse by Richard Kadrey

I’ve mentioned that a few of these stories felt more like brainstorming notes than fully fleshed out stories, and it doesn’t get more true than for this one. Still Life isn’t even a story so much as a collection of thoughts about the apocalypse strung together without narrative coherence or internal logic. There’s an image of a horse being dragged out of a pit, a brief history of the main character’s post-apocalyptic career, and a description of his living situation. That’s it. At least at barely two pages, it didn’t take up too much of my time.

Artie’s Angels by Catherine Wells

In this story, Arthurian legend is tied into a post-apocalyptic scene. The main character, Faye, is finally admitted to what appears to be a city in a biosphere, sheltered from the radiation of the world outside. There, she meets Artie, a charismatic boy who forms a sort of courier service bicycle cult around a moral code. I thought the story itself was interesting, and weaving it together with the story of King Arthur made it even more so. Even better, there was a commentary there on the role of stories in the creation of social movements that really made this story stand out.

Judgement Passed by Jerry Oltion

Astronauts return to earth to find it empty, completely empty of people, after Christ’s return. Having been left behind, the astronauts must figure out what to do in a post-Judgement Day world, all without Nicolas Cage to guide them.The story was interesting, though the repetition of the word “agnostic” got a little grating (not to mention that the characters never define the term and don’t use it in a sense I’m familiar with).

Mute by Gene Wolfe

Jill and Jimmy are on a bus that takes them home, but no one is there for them when they arrive. This story threw me off a bit because of its inclusion in this collection. I kept expecting to understand what the apocalypse was and trying to beat off the rather obvious hints that the children are dead and in the afterlife (I mean, come on, they try to leave the house only go pass through the gate and end up back on the inside – if that’s not “endless fog,” I don’t know my horror tropes!). I enjoyed the story – it had a lovely creepy tone – but I’m not sure why it was included in this anthology, except perhaps because of its “empty world” aspect. But I did find that my expectations of what the story was going to be about lessened my enjoyment of what it actually was.

Inertia by Nancy Kress

A disfiguring plague leads to modern leper colonies – largely abandoned and forced into self-sufficiency. But one doctor believes that the disease may have another symptom, a beneficial one. I really enjoyed this story about minds and how our behaviour can be shaped by factors like disease. The cutesy twist gave me a chuckle.

And the Deep Blue Sea by Elizabeth Bear

A courier must travel through a wasteland to deliver her package. On the way, she meets Nick at a crossroads. The post-apocalyptic setting seemed rather tangential to what was really a story about dealing with the devil and redemption. The story didn’t wow me, but it was decent filler.

Speech Sounds by Octavia E. Butler

A disease that induces stroke-like symptoms has overrun the world, leaving many “impaired.” Rye can still speak, but she’s lost the ability to read and write. And when jealousy over lost abilities leads people to kill, she cannot even speak for fear of her life. I found this to be an interesting story about the importance of communication, the choice many people make not to communicate even when they can, and the need for human contact.

Killers by Carol Emshwiller

A community of women has survived the war that ended civilization alone, their men all gone to fight. Some men return, but they are different, savage. Then, one night, one man comes home. Killers is a short, brutal story with a rather bludegeony political message. Though it was interesting and the ending certainly fit, I felt that the twist came too fast, as though the author had gotten bored and just wanted to finish it already.

Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus by Near Barrett, Jr.

This story didn’t wow me. I felt like a bunch of concepts were being thrown at me (androids! virtual sex! insurance sales! animal hybrids! tacos!), but the short story format didn’t allow any of it to go anywhere. It all just happened and then it was over and I never felt like I had been made to care about any of it. Perhaps because the characters were so neglected in the effort to pack the setting.

The End of the World as We Know It by Dale Bailey

An interesting piece about the powerlessness of losing a loved one. This was a different approach to the other stories in the collection, and a little more meta. It also worked well as an allegory for loss in a general sense.

A Song Before Sunset by David Grigg

A musician just wants to play the piano. This was an interesting piece, though perhaps not particularly memorable. I think the author was trying to tackle the civilization/culture relationship, and the ending fit well into that discussion. It was certainly solid filler material, just not one of the stories that will stay with me in the long term.

Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers by John Langan

Jackie is eight months pregnant and running for her life with Wayne, a comic book enthusiast who seems almost to revel in the apocalypse. There was a lot going on here that was never explained – where did the flowers come from? What is Wayne’s shadow? But it was an extremely compelling story. I was on the edge of my seat, and I found Jackie’s internal struggle very interesting. The only flaw with the story was the awkward format – particularly the use of mega, multi-page paragraphs that made reading extremely difficult (especially with a child, where I’m frequently being interrupted – finding my place again in a wall of text is an exercise in futility). The weird use of bolded lines and dashes took a while to get used to, but I found that they worked well with the pace of the writing.

Overall, I found this to be a very solid anthology. There were stories that I slogged through, and there were some that were clearly filler material (though at least solid filler), and plenty of gems. I had to keep stopping as I read because I was inspired to write another short story of my own, or I needed to stop and mull over a theme.

I’m not a terribly huge fan of the short story form, mostly because it takes me some time to ease into a world. As a result, reading short stories often feels like I’m just forced to go through that awkward, confused, unpleasant stage over and over again and, as soon as I’m comfortably settled in and ready to enjoy the ride, it ends. Despite this, I really enjoyed this anthology, and I think the selections were well chosen.

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