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Posts from the ‘Books’ Category

Book Review: ‘Ready Player One’ by Ernest Cline [SPOILERS]

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Read this review on Goodreads!

I just finished reading Ready Player One for the third time (first read-through was in 2013) and figured it was about time to review the damn thing. The impending release of the movie adaptation on March 29th is also a good reason to formally extract my thoughts.  I think it says enough that I’ve even read this book so many times, but for this most recent read-through I tried to be more critical of it rather than enjoy it for the crazy, fun ride that it is. I won’t spend too much time explaining what the book is actually about. This review assumes you are at the least familiar with the fact that this is a sci-fi book about virtual reality (VR), the 1980’s, and takes place in the year 2045. There ya go, I summarized it for you.

I’ll start with everything I love about this book. There’s a reason why everyone who reads it suddenly becomes evangelical about it. It’s fast-paced and fun; never a dull moment. It’s also extremely accessible despite being a sci-fi novel strongly based around video games. I got my girlfriend to read it (go me!) and she enjoyed it even though this was the first sci-fi book she’s ever read, and she’s by no means a gamer. The author Ernest Cline takes his time to explain certain gaming terminology such as ‘PvP’ and ‘NPC’, even though this may be obvious to his core audience, which is most likely comprised of casual and hardcore gamers. Still, the time he takes to explain certain geeky concepts does not over-inflate the story in any way. He only explains what is absolutely necessary for the continuation of the plot. I found this annoying at first, but quickly got over it as I progressed through the book, because it was a very minor annoyance when compared to the overall story. Ultimately I think that is what will make the book a classic: the fact that it treads so heavily in esoteric ‘geekdom’ yet remains accessible.

One of the more unique characteristics of this book is that it is based almost entirely on 80’s pop-culture despite taking place in the year 2045. It is basically an encyclopedia of 80’s movies, TV shows, music, and video games. Ernest Cline clearly wants his readers to appreciate many of the works that he must have enjoyed during the 80’s (much like James Halliday’s almanac in the actual story). In that sense, the book feels like a list of suggestions subtly forced upon us, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I will admit that at least half of the references mentioned in this book I had either never heard of or had never watched, read, or listened to. But because they were all so central to this book, I’ve taken the time to explore many of them in my free time. Since reading RPO I have undoubtedly gained a greater appreciation of the 80’s. I was born in the 90’s and missed out on a lot of that stuff. Overall, it’s safe to say that  I attribute much of my newfound appreciation of the 80’s to this book alone. But while this book may introduce readers to many classic works of art, Cline’s fixation on the 80’s is also what I consider one of the negatives to this book. I will explain why later.

Aside from being an encyclopedia of 80’s pop-culture references, RPO is a great work of science fiction that very convincingly imagines a not-so-distant future where VR is advanced and ubiquitous. If nothing else, RPO is a compelling showcase of VR possibilities. Being a future-minded technophile myself, I’ve been well aware of the advent of VR technology and how it could revolutionize gaming and storytelling. What this book showed me however is how VR could possibly revolutionize all sectors of society, not just gaming and movies. This is what mostly excites me about the release of the movie adaptation. If done right, I think it will show people how VR could impact the world outside of video games alone. Widespread adoption of VR will open endless possibilities in terms collaboration and entertainment, and will further enhance communication and connectivity between people all over the planet. It should be remembered however that like with all technology, VR’s detriments are almost equal to its benefits. It will just depend on how it’s used. Humans are flawed and tend to be excessive. The book does explore this duality in detail.

In addition to exploring VR possibilities, the RPO universe features many other interesting and familiar technological ideas that you may have encountered in other sci-fi books. Published in 2011, RPO does not attempt to depict the distant future, so technologies like fully electric cars and even VR itself will not seem too outlandish.

Now I will discuss the downsides of this novel. I had briefly mentioned that Cline’s fixation on the 80’s is also his undoing. RPO is clearly a reflection of Cline’s own obsession with the 80’s, and by writing this book he hopes that the reader also develops this obsession. The character of James Halliday is the vector that Cline uses to carry out this task. The problem is that this gets exhausting for someone like me who just isn’t that into the 80’s. At some point during the book, I yearned to learn anything else about the current trends of the RPO universe other than that of the “gunters” and their fascination with the Easter egg hunt. With all of this awesome VR tech, what were the vast majority of people in the world using it for? The main character Parzival/Wade does mention that James Halliday’s death sparked an immense 80’s revival, but I highly doubt the entire human population picked up on it, much less the entire gaming population. That being said, it really felt like Cline gave it his all in creating a novel that relied heavily on 80’s pop culture. The undoing that I speak of is that I doubt he will ever be able to create any other type of novel again. He may have just revealed himself to be a one-trick pony. The average reviews for his second book Armada back this notion that RPO may remain his greatest work. To be fair though, this was indeed one great piece of work.

The book also had its awkward moments. One such moment for me was the initial chat room session between Parzival and Art3mis. I didn’t think much of it when I first read the book, but by my third read-through I found it to be mostly cringe-worthy filler material. It might’ve been my increase in maturity over the years that caused me to suddenly find Parzival and Art3mis’ love interest distasteful when compared to my thoughts the first time around. What irked me was Parzival’s desperation. For one, I’ve seen enough episodes of MTV’s Catfish to know that desperately pursuing and falling in love with someone you’ve only met online usually doesn’t end well. His persistence was also a bit off-putting, but what really got me was when Art3mis actually caved and became receptive to these creepy advances all within the same chat session. It struck me as unrealistic. Given the reputation creepy men have online I would’ve assumed that Art3mis would show more resistance, and would wait for more definitive proof that Parzival wasn’t really the proverbial 40-year-old man in his mom’s basement. But alas, this is a fictional story, and it miraculously works out in the end. I just couldn’t help but be reminded that Parzival/Wade is a character who is most likely based on Cline’s own personality type, and that writing Art3mis’ responses to Parzival was based on his own fantasies or expectations with this kind of interaction. It is at this point in the story that I began to see Parzival/Wade as the emotionally unintelligent person that he is, and he suddenly seems like such a kid to me throughout the rest of the story.

Not only does Parzival/Wade become less likable, but I begin to wish the story was instead told from Art3mis’ perspective entirely. All things considered, she was actually the smartest of the top gunters. She found most of the keys and gates herself well before anyone else did. The only thing she lacked were certain skills to complete the challenges, but Cline could’ve easily written this in for her character. It would’ve been interesting to see her knowledge-base and how she arrived at certain revelations. She is also a blogger, so that would’ve been a good opportunity for Cline to add some epistolary material that could’ve allowed Art3mis’ character to shine through her writing. Given the unrealistic nature of Art3mis however, it seems that Cline may just lack the ability to write female characters. And that’s okay! I am in no position to claim that someone should create their work a certain way. It is just my opinion that the story would’ve been much better (and socially progressive) if Art3mis was the main protagonist and was more realistic.

There was one last notable flaw in the book that I found to be a little irritating. It may seem nit-picky, but as an African-American myself I found the lack of references to black works to be a bit annoying. For one, there is no mention of any rap/hip-hop works. The 80’s was the dawn of rap/hip-hop, and by the 90’s this movement was fully realized. From this inception also came new art forms like graffiti, DJing, and break dancing. There is no mention of Public Enemy, N.W.A., Run DMC, or even the Beastie Boys! And aside from music I don’t remember any mention of black TV shows or movies. But maybe I was not paying close enough attention and missed the one or two references there may have been. It’s really not that big of a deal, but would’ve been nice. The reveal of Aech as a lesbian African-American was indeed a welcome surprise. I’ll take what I can get.

When all is said and done, RPO actually has very few flaws in the face of its energetic, nostalgic, and forward-thinking plot. It is a classic rags to riches tale that makes me believe anything is possible with the right amount of passion and dedication. The biggest takeaway for me may have been the notion that knowledge is power, even if that knowledge is seemingly useless facts about the things that greatly interest me. RPO is also great for its exploration of VR technology and how it may profoundly impact society. As I write this, VR is just on the verge of widespread adoption. Currently it is relatively crude and is mostly relegated to a small list of video games, TV shows and movies. But to reiterate — if done right, the movie adaptation of RPO may be the final kick that will make people realize the vast potential of VR. Like mentioned before, I think that this book will become a classic a few decades from now and may even make appearances in English literature classes around the world.

 

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Top 5 Favorite Books I Read In 2017

I chose to read 25 books for my Goodreads Reading Challenge of 2017 but ended up reading 36! I’m proud of myself. Pretty sure that is the most I’ve read in a year. I plan on upping my goal to 40 for 2018. Soon I want to be able to read 52 books in a year, which is a book a week. Before creating my 2018 challenge though I want to commemorate my favorite books that I read in 2017.

Friend me on Goodreads and let’s keep up with each other’s reads!

1. ‘Leviathan Wakes’ by James S. A. Corey

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This is the first book in The Expanse sci-fi series. I first caught wind of this series after discovering the TV adaptation which aired initially on the SyFy channel. I loved the first season, and after hearing that it was based on a book series I knew I had to read them. Shortly after finishing the first season I purchased a three-book box set online. At the time of purchasing, 6 books had actually been released, and the 7th book was just released last month. There will be 9 books altogether.

This book takes place a century or two in the future (it’s not officially mentioned what year it takes place in). Much of the solar system has been colonized by humanity, most notably Mars and the asteroid (or dwarf planet) Ceres. The plot centers around Earth, Mars, Ceres, and the rest of the outer colonies as they interact in the same economic and political fashion you’d find on Earth today in real life. Tensions between these various factions are rising, and a small group of asteroid miners find themselves at the center of the greatest war the solar system has ever seen; secrets will be revealed that take everyone by surprise.

What did I like about this book? Well, as the series title suggests, this book is far-reaching and mind-expanding. The delivery of these far-reaching ideas come packaged in extremely vivid writing with substantial — and sometimes lovable — characters, all the while remaining almost disturbingly realistic. The main strengths of this book are the world-building and character development. Since the book takes place in our own solar system, the writing will make you feel as if this is the way things already are in real life. If that is not how you feel after reading this book, then it will most likely make you wish our actual future contained some of the ideas featured in it, which I’m almost positive they will. I highly recommend this book if you are looking for a refreshing sci-fi novel published within this decade. If reading isn’t really your thing, then definitely check out the TV adaptation which is streamable on Netflix. And also, fun fact: the books are actually a collaboration between two writers; one of them having been mentored by George R. R. Martin himself.

2. ‘The Three Body Problem’ by Cixin Liu

Here is another sci-fi book that was just so refreshing to me. The reason it was so refreshing was probably due to the fact that it was originally written in Chinese only to be later translated by the author’s son for a wider release. Chinese history and philosophy are strewn throughout the book, and this is a welcome relief from the characteristically Western novels I’ve read up to this point. If you enjoyed the movie Arrival which is based on a short story written by another Chinese author, then you may very well enjoy The Three Body Problem. This book has the same surreal, enigmatic feel as Arrival that reminds me of thick fog and vast, empty landscapes. It is full of desolation, which I almost found off-putting at first, but the fluidity of the writing kept me engaged. Also, this book references and relies heavily on real science. Any layman science enthusiast will quickly catch on to the concepts frequently discussed, but this book will probably be most appreciated by anyone with a physics degree. The book could very well be considered historical fiction in a few decades, because like I mentioned before, it is also based on Chinese history in the mid-1900’s.

The plot focuses on the past and present lives of a few scientists affected by the Chinese Cultural Revolution. These scientists (as well as a few other characters) are unknowingly involved in a mystery of interstellar proportions, and an ominous video game seems to be at the center of it all. The video game has users attempt to solve the Three-Body Problem, which is an actual scientific conundrum involving the dynamics of massive celestial objects in a trinary gravitational system. The plot may seem slow at first, but the payoff is well worth it! The Three Body Problem is the first in the series called Remembrance of Earth’s Past.

3. ‘Watchmen’ by Alan Moore

“But, but… Watchmen is a graphic novel!” I’ve debated with myself for months whether or not I should include graphic novels in my reading challenge, but after reading Watchmen I finally made my decision. I had seen the movie adaptation when it was first released in 2009, and finally, in 2017, I decided to read the original (at the urging of a friend, no less). This probably isn’t a book you can read in a day like typical comic books. This novel took me just as long as an average book. Why? Because there is depth to it beyond pictures and captions. Each scene is packed full of subject matter that takes longer than a few seconds to digest. The plot is also complex and requires some thought to really connect the dots. There are also intermediary, epistolary sections that explain backstory and help to enhance the realism of the novel.

Having watched the movie multiple times before reading the graphic novel, it was hard for me to put myself in the mindset of someone picking this up for the first time in the 80’s. But every once in awhile I would reflect on what I’m taking in and would think to myself, “wow, this is seriously some next level shit relative to the time it was released.” Even though I pretty much knew the outcome of the story, I was still actively connecting dots, and at the end, I was left with a mixture of existential dread and awe at the plot twist. I even went back and watched the movie a few weeks later. I have to say, the movie did a great job at recreating the graphic novel, but the big changes they made to the plot really made a difference. Overall the graphic novel is more worth the read.

4.  ‘City of Bones’ by Cassandra Clare

I didn’t think I’d like this book. I bought it back when the movie trailer was first released around 2013 and I thought it looked kinda cool. Unfortunately, the movie flopped so the book remained on my shelf. I feared that I had another Twilight Saga on my hands and was almost ashamed to have purchased it. But since I was determined to tackle my reading challenge this year I went ahead opened it up. Naturally, I was pretty critical of it as I coasted through the initial chapters. I chuckled at the characteristically Young Adult elements of the introductory scenes, but the more I read the more I saw the author’s intent. It turns out, this book is filled with awesome lore that draws from ancient mythology, urban legends, and whatever world-building the author tried to create herself. I also found the female protagonist to be somewhat like-minded, both in her interests and her behavior. I didn’t love the character, but I thought we’d be pretty good friends if she were real. The book had plenty of cheesy moments, however. Young Adult books just can’t seem to escape certain tropes. I frequently rolled my eyes at the protagonist’s thoughts towards her love interest, and unfortunately, this book also features the dreaded love triangle (I was however somewhat relieved at how that love triangle played out).

Overall, City of Bones left me with feelings of nostalgia due to its inclusion of mythology and colorful symbolism. I’m excited to read the rest of the series and am disappointed that I don’t already have them on hand.

5. ‘Accelerando’ by Charles Stross

This was actually my second time reading this book, but a second read-through was necessary because this book is admittedly a bit convoluted. Accelerando is yet another sci-fi novel which starts out in the very familiar early-21st century but quickly accelerates into far-future awesomeness (hence the title). Even though I found the book to be very convoluted my first read-through I greatly enjoyed it, mostly because of its techno-optimism and humor. Charles Stross deals with some mind-blowing concepts in this book, sometimes bordering on the absurd and often times seemingly plausible (possibly inevitable). If you are at all interested in the deep future of technology, are entertained by the idea of the technological singularity, and can handle some hard sci-fi then this book is for you.

I won’t explain the plot in this post because I’ve actually written a whole review of this book! You can also read it on Goodreads.

Honorable Mentions: ‘Snow Crash’ by Neal Stephenson; ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ by J. D. Salinger

Book Review: ‘Accelerando’ by Charles Stross

Read this review on Goodreads!

The technological Singularity may never actually happen, but at least it makes for some great sci-fi.

Accelerando is an intelligent, fast-paced look across the event horizon of the deep future. It follows the endeavors and legacy of Manfred Macx as he attempts to jump-start the next Singularity. In the beginning of the book we marvel at the technological wonderland of the near-future; towards the middle we wonder what sort of rabbit hole we’ve stumbled into; towards the end we question whether the post-Singularity future is really all that it’s chalked up to be. But through it all we laugh, we love, and we are filled with existential dread as we wonder if this is really the direction humanity is headed.

This was my second time reading through Accelerando. It was great the first time but I admit much of it went over my head. This book required a second read-through. Charles Stross is extremely detail-oriented and not afraid to spew technical jargon with no explanation. There’s no time for him to explain it. Stross assumes that his audience is acquainted with hard sci-fi and at least knows a little of what the technological Singularity is. This allows him to play with the higher concepts that form the overall plot of the novel. I came into my second read-through equipped with more knowledge acquired over the years, and this allowed me to really appreciate the higher plot with its twists and turns. It also helped that I read another of Charles Stross’ books, The Rapture of the Nerds (co-written with Cory Doctorow), before coming back to this one. I began to realize that Stross’ writing style could be seen as an attempt at further defining a specific genre that I call “Singularitarian literature”. Stross loves instilling his works with Singularity ideas.. Singularitarian literature to me is just another subgenre of cyberpunk and more accurately a subset of post-cyberpunk. Accelerando itself is very self-referential in this respect, with frequent references to cyberpunk culture and the fact that it’s based around the idea of an actual technological singularity — as prophesied by Ray Kurzweil and the likes.

Accelerando is a showcase of awesome tech wrapped in a membrane of exciting buzzwords. Manfred’s goggles in the first part of the book are still my favorite piece of tech presented in this novel. After my first read-through I couldn’t wait until Augmented Reality goggles were actually created so that I could run around the city in an always-connected state, eating up information like a sponge. Lucky for me, it seems this tech is not too far away. And that is the main allure of this novel: most of the tech that Stross describes in this book seem like they are just around the corner in real life. Another of my favorite concepts explored in this book is the idea of sending a crew of uploaded minds into deep space using a vessel the size of a tin can. Seems weird, but it just might be possible when you consider 1) the need for spacefaring vessels to be cost-effective, and 2) the ability for uploaded minds to create virtual spaces within the tiny vessel that to them are life-sized and infinitely accommodating. In fact, this idea has very recently been proposed by none other than Stephen Hawking. It makes me wonder if he read Accelerando, or if this idea has actually been thrown around a lot in the scientific community. In any case, this is all just a taste of what Stross describes to readers in his book. Stross explores everything from mind-melding to wormholes and there is never a dull moment. He very casually strings together jargon and buzzwords in a way that is off-putting at first. After awhile though I saw it as a very deliberate attempt at establishing a writing style for this book. To Stross, this must be the way humans would naturally begin speaking after becoming so familiar with advanced technology and scientific concepts. When the entire population becomes sufficiently scientifically literate, our entire lexicon may change. At the same time there is a bit of humor in this writing style. I always chuckled to myself whenever business/economic terminology was dropped in a casual yet ironically serious manner. You’ll just have to read it to see what I mean.

Like all good literature, Accelerando is full of allegory and classical references. During my second read-through it was easier to pick up on these. Part 2 of Accelerando for example can be almost entirely compared to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. I won’t go into too much detail on this for the sake of minimizing spoilers, but it’s definitely something to look out for if you decide to read this book. Aside from that, Stross uses this book as a philosophical megaphone exploring the implications of a post-Singularity world. You will most likely find every argument for and against the adoption of radical technologies, and you may be surprised to find yourself on the fence with things you thought you were comfortable with.

Despite all its technological splendor, Accelerando has its faults. For one, the book is so fast-paced that it was often hard for me to keep track of the setting. The combination of virtual and ‘meatspace’ worlds is disorienting. It is hard to tell when a character has transitioned from space to space. In addition to that, the attempt at coining new terms and concepts mixed with the use of technical jargon can further confuse things. This book will require a third read-through for me in order to get things fully situated, although I wouldn’t be too bummed to have to read this book again. Furthermore, if you’re looking for a book with deep characters dealing with real personal demons, this is not it. The focus of this book is more so to describe the deep future. Most of the characters are only homunculi acting as a vessel for ideas. Much of the “tragedy” in the story is short-lived and usually comes off as comical, but maybe this was intended. That being said, I am personally an effusive technophile and have no problem foregoing substantial characters for incredible technology and ideas about the deep future. I’m giving Accelerando 4 out of 5 stars because I really liked it despite how convoluted it can get. I will most likely read it again.

Book Review: ‘The Hour I First Believed’ by Wally Lamb

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Disclaimer: This usually isn’t the type of book I find myself reading but my girlfriend and I have two copies of it at home so we decided to read it together. I’m most comfortable reading sci-fi and fantasy which are usually based on some larger idea in a reality very different than ours. I rarely tread into literature that is based solely on the actions of people living in a reality very similar to our own. But as a reader I am actively trying to branch out of my comfort zone. What really drew me to this book was its historical relevance with the use of the Columbine shootings as the main catalyst for the story. I recognized early on however that this book would indeed involve some larger idea woven throughout the book; an idea that is often used in many sci-fi works I’ve consumed throughout my life.

Starting with what I liked about the book: as far as craft goes I was immediately drawn into Wally Lamb’s writing style. Caelum’s narration was extremely fluid and understandable. While I didn’t really like Caelum as a character, I was still more than willing (at first) to explore his thoughts due to the fluidity of Lamb’s writing. And on that same vein, what I respected about Lamb’s writing was his consistency and ability to write extremely convincing characters, settings, and scenarios. A welcome reprieve from Caelum’s thoughts was when Lamb moved onto the epistolary and historical sections of the book. Even these read extremely fluid despite the unfamiliar voices and settings of these sections. I also appreciate how detail-oriented Lamb is. Overall, the mixture of symbols and tragedies that are strewn throughout the book kept me engaged and curious to see where it would all lead.

[Spoilers ahead]

I caught on to the core theme of the book as soon as it presented itself, and this is also the aforementioned idea that I’ve seen used in various works of sci-fi. The idea is chaos theory and it first presents itself in the memorable airplane scene where Caelum is introduced to the eccentric college professor whom he sits next to on the plane. As soon as I finished reading this part I discussed it with my girlfriend who was also very intrigued that this scene was thrown in there. While a very interesting concept, we both concluded that chaos theory was one of those overplayed plot devices similar to time travel. In my opinion, as profound and useful as chaos theory may be in reality, it has become somewhat of a cop-out substitute for an original idea. Again, this is coming from someone who reads tons of sci-fi and is used to big ideas. My girlfriend and I concluded that chaos theory’s debut during the airplane scene would likely be the one and only time it’d be used. Unfortunately, we weren’t terribly surprised to learn that chaos theory is indeed the core theme driving the story.

To be fair, while chaos theory is not an original idea (see: The Butterfly Effect), it did help to keep someone like me engaged in the story. I mostly just wanted to know what the point of it all was. The purpose of the story is not the Columbine shootings, although it did act as a major catalyst driving the chaos theory message. The further I read, the more I was disappointed to learn that Caelum is the purpose of the story. Caelum and his backstory, and how chaos is the ruling factor of his life. This was disappointing to me because I didn’t like Caelum to begin with. I didn’t like any of the characters for that matter. They were all so mundane, and maybe this is why I can’t read books like this. I prefer adventure, and characters that are diverse and dynamic. Caelum was the same dry person through and through, and the biggest adventure he undertook was going back to his hometown and reading letters of the past. The other characters in Caelum’s life were the same way; they all seemed to hate their lives. Janis was the best of them all, mainly because she showed the deepest sense of curiosity about the world and helped to piece together the most interesting aspect of the story.

I will stop there. I don’t want to write any more spoilers and I don’t want to get caught deeper in the chaos theory trap. My reasoning for giving the book three stars was this: it was all so average — the characters, the plot devices, the setting — nothing cried out to me as profound, and not until almost the bitter end do you really discover the point of the story. This book is an endurance run. I can see why some people may like it, but for me personally, it made me really happy to start reading one of my favorite sci-fi books again. And to end on a positive note: what I liked most about the book was the rich detail, the fluid writing, and the little bits of history and symbolism weaved throughout.