Pulps and Piano (2015Jul27)


Monday, July 27, 2015                                             9:29 PM

After my exciting trip to play a fancy concert grand at WestConn, I’ve had some more-intimate experiences with the freshly-tuned piano in my living room, which I’d like to share with you here:

[The following two book reviews were posted to Amazon on July 27th, 2015]:

Book Review: “Armada” by Ernest Cline

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I’ve just finished reading “Armada” by Ernest Cline. There’s a new-ish school of fiction that suits science-fiction specifically, which I think of as the jump-the-shark approach. Scalzi’s “Redshirts” is a good example—the premise is based on the old insider-joke about Star Trek (the original TV series): the away-team member who wears a red shirt is the character that will be sacrificed to add suspense to the episode. In the Scalzi book, the hero finds himself thrust into what he considered a fictional setting—eventually discovering that his fate is being controlled by some outside ‘programming director’ who has misunderstood the exact role that Star Trek plays in our entertainment, and in our reality.

The hilarious “Galaxy Quest” (1999), again, posits a Star-Trek-like classic TV series which an alien race have mistaken for historical non-fiction and subsequently built themselves a real starship, complete with transporter and a parroting computer-voice. They come to Earth to ask the aging star of the series to be a real captain on their starship—mayhem and comedy ensues. It’s great fun—I’m a fan of jump-the-shark, when it is done with wit and competence.

Ernest Cline’s “Armada” takes a page from “The Last Starfighter” (1984) in which an ordinary teenager obsessively plays a video game that simulates space battle, only to discover that the machine is a testing device to locate talented recruits for real ‘starfighters’ struggling to defend the galaxy from evil. But Cline goes beyond jump-the-shark to ‘multiply-referential jump-the-shark’, including a backstory that involves most sci-fi movies and video games of the past forty years being both training devices for potential warriors and orientation for the whole planet’s population—preparing them to find out that much of popular science-fiction is, in fact, non-fiction.

In doing this, Cline gives the reader a survey of popular science fiction and gaming culture from the premiere of the first Star Wars through to the near-future setting of the story. He pre-empts criticism of recycled plot-lines by cataloging the many ways in which his character’s story reflects the plot premises of the many films, games and stories from which he borrows.

Such ingenuousness gives the story great humor and zip—the protagonist’s interior monologue is not unlike our own interior critique of the story we’re reading. And in the age of remakes, one can hardly criticize Cline for re-doing the concept of Last Starfighter—that movie is thirty years old, familiar only to old farts like myself—and the pixel-screened arcade game of that old classic is as a stone spear-head in comparison to today’s MMO-game-players and the globally interactive worlds they now inhabit.

My disappointment stems from my inability to become absorbed in the story. While much ingenuity is displayed in the references to pop culture and other attempts to add a sense of realism to a highly coincidence-crammed story, the story itself never lingers long enough to give any one scene or character as much depth as is needed to balance out the fantastical aspects of the book. Worse, not a single turn of plot manages to rise above the cliché. While I hesitate to spoil the story, I can assure you that you will not be surprised. Amused, perhaps, but hardly surprised—or engaged.

This style of storytelling comes close to reproducing the suspense and excitement of an action movie—and as with action movies, death can be a stumbling block. Deaths, whether of individuals or of whole populations, are seen through the lens of ‘the mission’, rather than engaged with as dramatic events, as in a ‘chick flick’—and such insularity against this most deeply human aspect of any story has caused many an action thriller to fall flat. The audience is unable to ‘will its suspension of disbelief’ in the face of too much superficiality.

Conversely, young readers and sci-fi newcomers will no doubt find this a much fresher experience than I did—over the decades I’ve become a really tough audience. When the cultural references become central to the story, there is an unavoidable difference in the reaction of older readers, like me, who may find it all too familiar, and younger readers who experience a sort of ‘revelation’ from the massive download of new ideas and connections. Forty years of sci-fi cultural remixing may blow the minds of today’s teens, but it’s just old, familiar memories to someone with gray hair.

Cline’s previous novel, “Ready Player One”, was likewise criticized for a lack of dimension in a NY Times book review, while USA Today wrote, “[it] undoubtedly qualifies Cline as the hottest geek on the planet right now”. So there you have it—“Armada” is another Cline book that may act as a dividing line between we sci-fi ‘grandpa’s and the younger audience coming on. I still give it five stars, just because it is head and shoulders above a lot of what’s out there.

Book Review: “Idempotency” by Joshua Wright

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“Idempotency” takes a difficult computer term as its title because the ‘tech’ in this techno-thriller is an imagined method for allowing a person’s mind to be led through a simulation of an alternate life and to return from the virtual experience without losing one’s sense of their original self. It is a concept almost as thorny as the actual definition of the word.

Fortunately, the plot manages to simplify all of that into a cyberpunk-like tale of suspense, cyber-hacking, secrecy, and madness. There is still some imbalance, as in the fact that the supposed protagonist turns out to be more of a victim, while several other extraneous characters fight over his fate. There is also a great deal of vagueness as to who’s hacking who—or who’s spoofing who. The near-future society-building is sprawling but diffuse—dystopian vistas are suggested but never fully drawn, leaving the background of events somewhat muddied.

I found the writing slightly opaque—but I can’t honestly say whether that is a failing of the author’s or my own. Sometimes, stuff just goes over my head. In my experience, science fiction writers and readers have to find their intellectual level—and there are some writers who are simply beyond my ken. Then again, I found the ‘villain’, an unstable, bitter fundamentalist, to be almost over-the-top simplistic—and unbearably grating—insanity-level religious extremism makes me crazy in real life, so much so that I find it hard to take even in a fictional character.

There’s originality here, though not a lot of it. Bottom line—I finished the book. These days, that’s a winner, just for that—but it didn’t inspire me to sing its praises. Still, the young Mr. Wright is just getting started—I look forward to his next effort.

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