Sunday, December 30, 2018

Putting the Hype to the Test: Ready Player One, David Weber, and Jim Butcher

Geekdom is awash in hype.  But how much of geek/nerd culture lives up to the hype?

Several months ago I decided I should try to read some really popular stuff in the SF/F world to see what the hype is about.  Many years ago this is how I discovered Harry Potter, which shows that sometimes books really do live up to the hype.  Once in awhile the results are just terrible.  My experience of Ready Player One comes to mind (more on the book and the movie below).  Other times stuff is not for me, but I can see why other people like it.  This was the result when I read David Weber's first Honor Harrington book a few months ago (see my review below).  And occasionally something isn't my favorite, but it's hard to deny it's a lot of fun, as with Jim Butcher's famed Dresden Files (more below).

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

As a member of the nerd/geek community and lover of 80's pop culture, people have been telling me about Ready Player One for the last few years.  I'm not a big fan of cyberpunk and I've never been hugely into video games (I blame my terrible hand-eye coordination), so it never really sounded exactly like my thing.

Still, I read Ready Player One to see what the hype is about in preparation for the movie.  I'm a nerd old enough to remember the 80's, so I seem to be the target demographic ... but I just don't find the book that interesting and some of it's not that good.  Sure, some of it's fun in a fluffy, fast food sort of way, but you'd have to squint pretty hard to find any actual ideas in this book ... I'm tempted to say I don't understand the hype, but it makes sense if you consider the following list of annoying things about the present that are exacerbated in the future of Ready Player One: income inequality, bizarre fixation on dystopia, unwarranted hero-worship of tech billionaires, mindless rose-tinted nostalgia, etc.

The main character, Wade, is the type of insufferable, know-it-all, pretentious geek that makes science fiction/fantasy/gamer fandom obnoxious sometimes.  Granted, this book came out in 2011, a bit before the fiascos of Gamergate and the Sad/Rabid Puppies, but Wade seems like the kind of guy who would've sympathized with them.  Wade's fixation on minutia seems charming at first, but it wears thin: for example, he can't say the title of a movie without telling us the studio and year of release.  I don't think he's supposed to be on the autism spectrum or anything, which would make him sympathetic; rather, he apparently just wants us all to know how smart he is and that he's watched more 80's movies and played more Atari games than us. I wanted to tell him to chill out and actually enjoy some of this stuff rather than using trivia as a display of nerdy dominance.

Again, I do think most of the novel was fun, although it dragged in the middle.  About the time I started losing interest, I realized I still had 180 pages left.  But I finished it, mostly just to get ready for the movie, to be honest.

The intended philosophical lesson (if I can be permitted to speak of such a thing in this book) is that we should value reality more than virtual life.  Of course, this big lesson is delivered in one or two lines toward the end.  It's hard to see how the rest of the novel doesn't completely obscure this point, especially seeing as how much the reality of 2045 really, really sucks.  I mean, they have debtors' prisons and indentured servitude, soulless corporations rule with impunity ...  (okay, I guess maybe this dystopia isn't so far from our reality).  It makes sense that everyone spends time in the OASIS and worships its creator, so the "deep lesson" seems pretty shallow, almost like an afterthought Cline put in there to make people think the book had some deeper message all along.  But, to engage in some nostalgia myself, this would be like Arnold Schwarzenegger coming on screen at the end of Conan or Total Recall to tell us that violence is actually bad.  Sure, it's a good lesson, but it would be a bit out of place coming from Arnie given everything that came before.

If I can be permitted a philosophy digression, it would be like reading 500 pages of Vasubandhu and Berkeley on the inaccessibility or inconceivability of the external world followed by one page on Nozick's experience machine thought experiment.

My other major critique has to do with the abuse of nostalgia.  I appreciate nostalgia.  I was a kid in the 80's.  I love that stuff (although I don't have the obsessive memory of the Wades of the world).  If you stripped away the nostalgia factor, there wouldn't be anything left of Ready Player One: the nostalgia is doing all the heavy lifting for what is, in effect, a rip off of 80's cyberpunk and Willie Wonka - it's nostalgia all the way down.  I've written before about the dangers of nostalgia with regard to Stranger Things (although I think Stranger Things is a more benign use of nostalgia).

Another problem with nostalgia is that it always distorts.  The past is never quite as fun or as good as we remember it being.  Growing up in the 80's was a lot of fun looking back on it now, but it was also on the whole a more racist, misogynist, homophobic time with all the devastating social and economic effects of the Thatcher/Reagan era and the Cold War, not to mention all that hair spray.  The danger is that wanting to go back to a past that never really was leads to either apathy or toxicity: we get caught up in a blissful ignorance and turning away from the present or, even worse, it becomes toxic - we might, say, want to make America great again while forgetting to ask, "For whom?"

I'm all for the thoughtful, responsible use of nostalgia, but I'm not sure that Ready Player One strikes that balance or says much of anything new at all.  But I suppose the inability to say anything new is merely another side effect of the abuse of nostalgia.

For more about the book and my thoughts on the movie (which I liked more than the book), see my earlier review.

On Basilisk Station by David Weber

David Weber's military science fiction juggernaut, the Honor Harrington series, certainly fits the bill of having a lot of hype to live up to: Weber's books fill up a shelf or two at the library and bookstore these days and have a cult following that includes organizations of people dressing up in space navy uniforms from the books, which is pretty impressive for a series that has never been turned into film or TV!

So how'd it fare?  I totally see why people get into these books (I've been told that they get better, too).  It's not quite my thing (most military SF isn't, for reasons I'll get to in a bit).  But if you have an appetite for straightforward military SF, this is going to hit the spot.

The stuff I liked: Honor Harrington herself is an interesting character.  She seems a bit bland at first, but gets more interesting later.  Also, she's a complete badass.  And, especially for a male author writing military stuff in the 90's, Weber handles his women characters well for the most part and the society in the novel seems to be egalitarian.  A lot of the rest of the characters were honestly interchangeable for me (sorry, Mr. Weber, saying their rank over and over doesn't help).

But the real star of the show is Nimitz, Honor's telepathic space cat.  No, really.  He's awesome.  If the rest of the books have a lot more Nimitz, I might actually read some of them.  I'd read a whole novel of Nimitz's adventures around the ship.

As for the plot, it takes awhile to get going, but it's interesting enough: lots of intrigue and mystery surrounding a strategically important space colony with restless natives.  Some of the battles are exciting, especially the last big space battle (which reminded me of the more exciting space battles in Star Trek, only more detailed and realistic).

For what it is, this is a pretty good novel.  Most of my criticisms are just that straightforward military SF is not really my thing.  I call this sort of thing "straightforward" military SF to distinguish it from more probing, emotionally complex military SF.  I think of it as a sub-genre for people who like Star Trek, but think it spends way too little time on military minutia, acronym-spouting space marines, and lengthy descriptions of hardware and far too much time on fluffy things like moral complexity and Roddenberry's rosy socialist vision.

It's not the I dislike all military SF.  I tend to like less straightforward military SF that challenges the militarism of the genre and packs more of an emotional punch (think of John Scalzi's Old Man's War or Joe Haldeman's The Forever War).  Or there's Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga, which has some great characters, less military-speak, and some occasional philosophical moments.

But in Weber's novel there's never really any questioning of say, whether it's worth thousands of lives to keep the space colony under the control of one space monarchy rather than another.  Some of the characters mourn their deceased colleagues, but that's about as emotional as anyone gets.  Maybe the later books get more interesting on this front?

There are really interesting aliens on the planet, but we don't learn much about them and we never see anything from their perspective.  They're basically blank slates or chess pieces for the agents of the human space monarchies to do with as they please.  The aliens suffer a lot at the hands of Haven agents, but nobody seems terribly concerned about them.

There's a bit of a libertarian strand underneath it all (space capitalism, distrust of politicians, etc.), but it's paired with military (basically socialist in organization) and monarchy (authoritarian).  This seems to me like an odd combination, but then, it was there in Heinlein's Starship Troopers, the founding text of the sub-genre, so maybe it makes sense to military SF fans.

So I guess most of my criticisms of the novel have to do with the kind of thing it is.  If you like straightforward military SF, you'll probably like this novel.  But if you like a little more philosophical or emotional depth in your military SF, you'll have to shut down some of your "well, what about...?" response to enjoy this one.

See also my Goodreads review.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Where does, Storm Front, the first of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, fit on my scale between the over-hyped (Ready Player One) and the hype-fulfilling (Harry Potter)?   I'd put it somewhere between Honor Harrington and Harry Potter.  Urban fantasy isn't really my thing, but this book, despite its casual sexism, noir clichés, and over-written physical descriptions, is honestly a lot of fun.  I even liked most of the jokes.  And I love Dresden's cat, Mister.  (Someone should write fan fiction where Dresden's Mister meets Harrington's Nimitz.  Probably someone already has.)

Harry Dresden is the only wizard in the Chicago phonebook.  He's also a hard boiled private eye with a sense of humor.  He ends up investigating some murders, discovering that there are deeper magical threats behind it all, all with a client who wants Dresden to investigate her husband's mysterious activities, some interactions with the mob, working with the police (including his friend Murphy, a police detective), and interactions with the wider wizarding world.  These are all ingredients for a fun reading experience.  I groaned a few times, for instance, at the lengthy, pointless descriptions of everyone's physical characteristics, but for the most part I enjoyed Storm Front as fluffy popcorn entertainment.

I suppose there are some philosophical depths if you scratch beneath the surface.  Can you fight evil while remaining good?  When do you have to break the rules to do the right thing?  How do you know when you're using power responsibly?

Of course, nobody reads Butcher for the philosophy.  It's just fun stuff.  While urban fantasy has never been my favorite, I really enjoyed reading this, especially while taking a few days off over the holidays.  I totally get why these books are so popular.  Even a curmudgeon like me can appreciate them.  Maybe I'll pick up another Dresden book at the beach next summer.

See also my Goodreads review.

ONE MORE THING:  This humble blog was chosen as #54 out of 100 for the Top 100 Fiction Blogs & Websites for Fiction Book Readers & Authors in 2019 on the Feedspot website.  It looks like I'm in pretty good company over there, so check it out!


  1. The Honor Harrington novels definitely do get better, because the political intrigue gets more intense as the series goes on. I daresay the central character actually gets less interesting however, as she turns into a Mary Sue, becoming an Admiral in two space navies, we learns she's a "dead shot" who can kill anyone with a single pull of a trigger, and on and on.

    But the political wrangling is genuinely interesting. In fact it's the highlight of the books, in my opinion. It's very well laid out, and really adds to the tension.

    I wouldn't call the Manticorian society egalitarian so much as meritocratic. We see an interesting fusion of aristocracy with meritocracy. If there's an egalitarian society, it's the Havenites, who are the bad guys (and who get progressively more socialistic and Stalinistic as the books go on).

    It's definitely a series that rewards a loyal reading, because it does pay off very satisfactorily, as long as you can get past the "Honor Harrington is the best person in the galaxy" stuff.

    1. Thanks! That's good to hear. is it possible to skip ahead a few books and still follow the basic narrative?

      Also, thanks for the comment on the meritocracy in the Manicorean Navy. I take it being a true meritocracy is another thing people like about these books. When I said it was "socialist" I meant more that everyone is taken care of in terms of employment and basic necessities (which is true in most military organizations).

    2. It's easier to skip ahead in the earlier books than it is once they get going. The early ones are somewhat more episodic, but once they get going they're really serialistic. But they're also shorter earlier on, so it's not so much of a burden to read the whole thing.

      It's interesting you mention basic necessities being taken care of in the military. I would argue that's not very socialistic, because it's simply compensation in return for performing a job. On the other hand, the Havenites (the socialistic bad guys) have a whole segment of society called the Dolists (those who are on the dole), who are getting larger and larger, and their ever-increasing power and drain on the economy (both due to their numbers) is what forces Haven to attack other worlds in order to get access to their resources, which would be used to keep the dolists at bay. That's really spelled out in "A Short, Victorious War", and indeed that's the impetus for the titular war.