Read this book: Ready Player One

How do you write a book about a dense subculture and make it accessible to a wider audience. I don’t know that trick, but Ernest Cline, the writer of the book Ready Player
Ready PLayer OneOne
does. Somehow he managed to take the incredibly detailed world of video games and obscure Japanese anime, and make novices like myself care.

Ready Player One is best described as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets Tron. The story takes place in 2044 in a world that’s suffering from a significant depression. While the people’s real world is dystopic to the max, they have an out — OASIS. Created by James Halliday, OASIS is virtual reality perfected. As such, most people in the miserable real word spend all their time and money in OASIS. Halliday dies, and his virtual perfection is threatened by the evil conglomerate IOI, which wants to corporatize OASIS.

But Halliday left a plan in place. He established a hunt — Easter eggs hidden throughout his vast virtual universe. Whoever finds these Easter eggs will inherit Ready 2OASIS. Here comes our hero, teenager Wade Watts (who also narrates the story). A video game fanatic, Wade, who goes by the name Parzival in OASIS, is among the scores determined to find these Easter eggs. Halliday, it turns out, was a fanatic of all things from the 1980s — music, movies, TV shows both foreign and domestic. Wade spends years geeking out and studying this era, as well as mastering the video games of that time.

Ready Player One centers around Wade’s exploits as he solves Halliday’s riddles. But he’s not the only one. Questing alongside him are his vfriend Aech (pronounced H), famous blogger Art3mis, who he has a crush on, and a pair of Japanese dudes — and all of these people he’s only met in OASIS, never in the real world. As this rag-tag group progresses, they must also battle the genuinely evil conglomerate IOI, which uses all its resources to win control of Halliday’s empire.

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So now the breakdown:

The good…

–Wade/Parzival is an engaging narrator. Cline writes Wade with an assured and consistent voice. Wade is one of my favorite types of hero: the ordinary guy who rises to extraordinary circumstances. Keep your crusading CIA/FBI/forensic detectives. Give me more Wades.

Ready 3–This book is a page turner. I am a slow reader. I read this 300 page book in a week. That is light speed for me. There were times when I did not want to put my Kindle down and get off the train. That good.

–I’m pretty agnostic when it comes to video games. I enjoy playing them, but I’ve never been a fanatic. If there’s one around, I’ll play, as long as it’s not too complicated. Ready Player One reads like it was written by someone who lives and breathes video games. Normally I wouldn’t be interested. Why would I care on that deep level? But by using an engaging narrator and a high-stakes plot, Cline makes the world of gaming accessible…and interesting.

–By peppering Ready Player One with a range of cultural references and tasks, Cline keeps the story interesting. For instance, one task involves Wade/Parzival having to play the Matthew Broderick role in a virtual reenactment of the movie War Games. Pretty damn inventive.

Ready Player One ends. There is no cliffhanger forcing me to wait, or pony up to read. Cline leaves ample room for a sequel if desired, but he doesn’t pull a literary bait and switch, where the end isn’t really the end. Save the sequels for book two, not book one.

And the not so good…

ReadyPlayerOne RD 1 finals 2–Cline spends a lot of time in the beginning building his world. The first fifty pages are exposition heavy and not as interesting as the rest of the book.

–The romantic subplot between Art3mis and Parzival was a little clunky. Parzival was a little too lovestruck, and Art3mis’s aloofness got annoying sometimes.

–With all the careful world building, I had a hard time blindly accepting that these people could spend hours and hours in their virtual reality gear (no food or drink, no bathroom breaks, no sleep).

But these are minor points. Ready Player One isn’t a book I would normally pick up, and I’m glad I did. I’m not the only fan — none other than the 1980s icon of film making Steven Spielberg plans to direct the movie version. I can’t wait to see how that turns out.

Meet the newest weird creatures

Thanks to the good people at Scientific American, one of my favorite news sources (as well as the oldest continuously operating magazine in the US), we’ve got some more strange Earth-based life forms to marvel over.

Last month, Scientific American released a slide show featuring ten newly-discovered creatures. These range from a frog that keeps its eggs inside the body instead of dropping them into a mucky pond, to a tiny jellyfish-like sea creature off the Australian coast that resembles a see-through mushroom. But these three oddballs below are my favorites of the bunch.

Anzu Wylei, aka the Chicken from Hell

chicken from hell

Unfortunately this one is NOT a living creature, but a newly discovered fossil. It took me a while to get past this disappointment, but I’m good now. Anyway, Anzu is a feathery birdlike dinosaur that roamed North America 66 million years ago. Why is it called the Chicken from Hell? Not for the obvious reasons — its fangs and claws and general viciousness. Nope. It’s because it was found near the Hell Creek fossil site in South Dakota. That part is a letdown. But on the brighter side, Anzu is derived from the name of a feathered demon in Babylonian mythology, so there’s a glimmer of dark hope for this crazy looking beast.

Phyganistria tamdaoensis, aka the Walking Stick

walking stick

I hate bugs. Even ladybugs — I pretend to like them but that’s a lie. Bugs are ugly and evil. Luckily they’re all really small. Or so I thought. Now comes the Walking Stick. As the image shows, this bug is as big as a human forearm. Can you imagine a dozen or so coming after you? I can. So how was this big-ass bug never discovered? Turns out it’s a master of disguise. Thank God this tree branch creature lives in Vietnam, and not in New Jersey.

Phyllodesmium acanthorhinum, aka the Photogenic Sea Slug

sea slug

I like this freaky looking thing for two reasons. 1) it lives in the ocean, and I love the ocean. 2) it looks cool. (Call me shallow, that’s okay.) Anyway, this pretty little gastropod sports brilliant shades of red, blue and gold. But it isn’t just a pretty face. This Photogenic Sea Slug gets along well with its neighbors. Algae that lives in its stomach helps it with photosynthesis, and in turn the slug cleans debris from nearby coral and feeds them to the algae. Win-win.

Doctor Who and plot regrets

Writing is hard. You have to not only come up with compelling, believable characters, you also have to create dramatic tension. You have to give the character a reason to do what he does — motivation. And that’s not always easy. Especially when you’re rebooting a beloved, decades-old sci-fi franchise like Doctor Who.

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But that’s exactly what head writer Russell T. Davies did when he brought Doctor Who back to the BBC in 2005. He created a dark version of the Doctor, one who ended the war between his home planet Gallifrey and their mortal enemies the Daleks by sacrificing his home world to rid the universe of the Daleks forever. What Davies gave us in this new Doctor, played brilliantly by Christopher Eccleston, was a withdrawn, shell-shocked hero burdened by guilt. Sure, Eccleston’s Doctor showed flashes of that childlike wackiness that is the hallmark of the Doctor across incarnations, but the guilt was a strong undercurrent.

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This theme — the burden of guilt and the loneliness of being the last of your kind — carried through to the new incarnations of the Doctor as played by David Tennant and Matt Smith. Doctor Who became a balancing act between darkness and frenetic energy.

But then the new head writer Steven Moffat changed it all. In Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary episode, not only did we see the Doctor who ended the time wars, we also had a shift. Gallifrey was NOT destroyed. The Doctor was not guilty of genocide, however well intentioned. The Doctor was given a new purpose — rescue his home world from the static universe they were trapped in.

Now Moffat believes he may have cheated, in a way. In a recent interview, he stated that he, like the Doctor, is haunted by guilt:

“I know some of you, including friends of mine, were upset that we reversed the outcome of the Time War. My defence, however feeble, is that given the chance, the Doctor would do exactly that. And it was his birthday, how could I deny him that chance? What could define him more? This man who always finds another way? And there he is, at every moment of his life, proving to himself – literally – that there is always a better path.”

I say Moffat should get over his guilt. Why? The morose Doctor had run his course. After several years, we understood that the Doctor was tortured. What more could we get from this particular plot point? Why not switch things up? In the world of sci-fi and fantasy, writers have a broad canvas to paint on. Why not take advantage of every square inch?

Now Doctor Who has a chance to be reborn. Now we can witness a Doctor who has a genuine shot at redemption, one who is hopeful and can save his home world. Just imagine the new stories that can come from that.

Movies They Need to Stop Making Sequels To

Kevin Singer:

It’s not like there aren’t enough original ideas out there. How many amazing books are sitting there just waiting to be made into brilliant movies? Unfortunately, though, sequels make money. And unless they’re a part of a pre-planned series, rarely do they live up to the brilliance of the originals. Sure there are exceptions, but these outliers (Terminator 2, for instance) are not the rule. This blog post from the good folks at House of Geekery lays out some of the movies that need to just give it a rest.

Originally posted on Funk's House of Geekery:

Why does Hollywood keep making sequels? Because we keep going to see them. The audience requires less convincing to see it, the development time is less…all in all they’re a better investment. Studios do know that there’s a rule of diminishing returns, especially if they take a long time to come out, so they tend to be rushed and have less creative thought put into this.

Here’s ten movies that have already had a couple of sequels, potentially have more in the works (or actually does have one or more in the works), and really need to cut that shit out. We’ve excluded some films for being more reboot than sequel happy (such as Spider-Man), franchises that have already wrapped up (Saw) and ones where the terrible sequels have all but sunk the series already (Paranormal Activity).

Iron Man

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There isn’t a fourth Iron Man 

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Will we ever colonize distant worlds?

On first glance, that question seems absurd. Humans are an adventurous species, so the thinking is of course we’ll spread out among the stars, especially as word comes of more and more planets that may be close to Earth-like.

Revelation_Space_cover_(Amazon)But Alaistair Reynolds, sci-fi author of great books such as Revelation Space, throws a little cold water on that idea in a new essay.

Reynolds is a strong proponent of space exploration. But he brings up a couple of interesting problems.

First, there’s the issue of time.TV shows such as Star Trek and Star Wars utilize faster-than-light technologies to travel among the stars. These technologies, however have yet to be created. Not only that, not one experiment has uncovered anything that can travel faster than light in nature. As Einstein theorized, it just may not be possible.

ftl

That would leave us with daunting travel times just to reach the nearest stars. We’re talking at least decades for a one-way trip. How would that work, logistically? How could we assemble a flight crew willing for a life-long mission? Would this mission be simply exploration, since there may be no guarantee that there would be habitable worlds at their destination?

spaceship

Then there’s the issue of a target. As out science is refined, would we be blessed with an abundance of potential worlds to visit? How would we pick just one? It sounds like a silly question, but for such a massive undertaking, we might need to collectively focus on a single goal. That may not be an easy task. Look at our exploration of our own puny solar system. we have no lunar base. We have no Mars base. And the plans for manned exploration of the Red Planet are always being pushed back another decade.

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As Reynolds explains, the study of space may be the answer to the Fermi Paradox, which states that if there is intelligent life, how come we haven’t run into it? Reynolds speculates that maybe as other intelligent alien species surveyed the universe, they became less awed by creation, and more content with their own little corner. They’ve stayed silent and hidden to us.

I hope this last bit won’t be true of humans. Knowing our history, I doubt it. Maybe the answer is that humans are indeed unique in their hunger for more, always more.

In Praise of the Original ‘Mad Max,’ a Unique Masterpiece of Low-Budget Filmmaking

Kevin Singer:

mad max

With Max Max: Fury Road coming out this weekend, I’ve been thinking about the original Mad Max movies. I was young enough when The Road Warrior came out (the first one I saw) that it left a huge impression on me. I was maybe 12 or so when I saw it and it was raw and rough and unlike anything I’d seen. This blog post revisits the very first Mad Max, with an impossibly young Mel Gibson. It’s a great take on the novelty that was Mad Max. Give it a read.

Originally posted on Flavorwire:

The good-cop-gone-bad trope is such an overused one by now that it’s rare to see a film in which such a transformation is in any way shocking or emotionally involving. With the new Mad Max: Fury Road hitting cinemas this week, though, it’s a good time to revisit one film in which the portrayal of a man’s descent from well-meaning lawman to vigilante remains genuinely powerful: the original Mad Max.

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In praise of Neil Gamian

If you haven’t read any works by fantasy writer Neil Gamian, you should. The British-born writer is best known for works such as the comic series The Sandman and books including American Gods. I’ve reviewed American Gods and for anyone into fantasy or mythology, American Gods is a must read. It is sprawling and thrilling, and I can proudly say it has influenced my writing.

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Aside from novels and comics, he’s also had a long friendship with Tori Amos, popping up as a character of sorts in several of her songs. He’s written a glorious Doctor Who episode titled “The Doctor’s Wife,” and he also gave one of the best commencement speeches you’ll ever hear.

Now Neil Gaiman is taking on another role, one that would seem obvious for a writer: free speech supporter. PEN America, an organization of writers dedicated to supporting freedom of expression, is slated to give an award to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which lost several members following a terrorist attack. Some PEN members pulled out of the awards gala citing concerns that the magazine was racist. And now, several writers, including Gaiman, Alison Bechdel and Art Spiegelman, have stepped in.

In an interview with Salon, Gaiman was blunt in his reasons for joining: “…for f**k’s sake, they drew somebody, and they [al-Qaida] shot them, and you don’t get to do that.”

Freedom of expression is a bedrock principle of mine. I know what it’s like to be afraid to speak your mind, to express yourself, for fear of backlash in ways small and large. I know what it’s like to feel intimidated. I know what it’s like to feel that I have no voice. Writing has helped me find that voice. It’s given me the freedom to speak my mind and reveal who I am. And I am thankful that when it comes to my fiction, the only barriers in place are the ones that I choose to erect.

I understand the controversy surrounding Charlie Hebdo. But my support of the right to free expression is nearly absolute. And there’s no way I could NOT stand up against violence or government coercion against freedom of speech.

I’m heartened that Gaiman is claiming a spot at the PEN America awards gala. And I can’t wait for his next Doctor Who episode.

Tracking the zombie outbreak

Who doesn’t love a good zombie story? I know, not everyone does but I like to pretend they do. From George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead to the AMC channel’s The Walking Dead, zombies have been a staple of the horror genre for half a century, with no sign of them being killed off anytime soon.

zombies

But who knew that zombies could be a topic worthy of honest-to-goodness scientific inquiry? I sure didn’t. I was wrong.

A team of researchers from Cornell University used a combination of US Census data and statistical probabilities regarding disease outbreaks, coupled that with some zombie lore, and created an interactive map that allows you and me to watch our own little zombie outbreak as it filters across the US.

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The map, which you can find here, lets us control a few of the parameters to make it interesting:

–how easy or hard it is to kill zombies

–how fast the zombies move

–where the outbreak originates

I tried a couple of simulations, and watched as a chilling red crept across the map. for both simulations, I had the outbreak start in Miami, because all the weird stuff happens in Florida.

In simulation 1, I had slow-moving zombies that were relatively easy to kill. While the zombies zipped up the east coast of Florida, it took them a full 16 days to conquer Florida, and after a month, they were still bogged down in the deep south. The zombies2takeaway? Under these conditions humans would have a good chance of surviving — the threat could conceivably be contained.

Then I tried a quicker, nastier simulation, with faster zombies that were harder to kill. Again, I started in Miami. And the results were scarier, at least for those of us on the East Coast. By the second day Florida was completely overrun. After 4 days the south was gone. On day 5, zombies were attacking New Orleans and the Midwest. Day 6: Washington DC, Baltimore were decimated, followed quickly by Philadelphia, and as the day ended, New York City fell victim, with Chicago, Houston and Detroit next to fall.

The good news? The outbreak had a hard time spreading through the rural areas of the Western United States. So if you want to survive the zombie apocalypse, go west.