Ready Player One or The 80’s Were Amazing and I am Old

I know I am a little late to the party, but I just finished the book and I wanted to give The Doom Retrospective a tiny break. It’s been a long time since I’ve done a book review and I think Ready Player One is a worthy work to break my critic’s drought.

Published in 2011 by Ernest Cline, the book has developed into sort of a geek cult sensation. Honestly, as a huge nerd that grew up in the 80’s, I felt this book was written specifically for me. It’s not hard to understand that feeling when you consider that Mr. Cline is only five years older than me. It was also his first novel, which he published at the age of 39. The bastard. My window to match his feat is rapidly closing.

021915_ReadyPlayerOne_Cover

Climbing up towers of double-wides would make me avoid reality as well.

As you can probably guess, I really enjoyed this book. It is set in a not-too-far off dystopian future (2044), where global warming, wars, an energy crisis, and a stumbling economy have contributed to a world that is hardly habitable. Our main character, Wade Watts, lives in a mega trailer park and spends all his time in the OASIS, a virtual reality video game that is so revolutionary that it has supplanted the real world. People shop there, fall in love there, get married there, and even go to school there. It’s creator, James Halliday, is Willy Wonka, holding a contest inside the OASIS to determine his successor after his death.

The book really strikes the proper chord of nostalgia and forward thinking. Wade is obsessed with technology and the past. Throughout the book, he goes to great lengths to avoid the real world and the present time. As the book progresses, however, he starts to realize that the outside world still does hold some value (friends! love interest!). There is a political agenda here too, aside from the aforementioned worldly ills, race and sexual orientation are mentioned in the book, but they seem sort of just tacked one, like Cline wanted to call attention without really exploring the issues. Did I mention that a completely amoral corporation is the villain? Or other hunters of the prize team up to take down said evil corporation? All the boxes are checked here.

As for the writing, most of the time I didn’t notice it, which is a pretty high compliment. For a novel that is steeped in fanboyish obsession, the story could have been laughable, but Cline’s prose gets out of the damn way and lets the story flow. It’s not Steinbeck, but the book is well written.

The real draw of the book is just how much fun Cline obviously had writing it. Any major cultural touchstone from the 70’s and 80’s is fair game. Movies, comics, Dungeons and Dragons, music, and video games. It’s all in here. And they aren’t just mentioned. There is a page of nothing but Monty Python and the Holy Grail dialogue. There are pages describing games like Zork, Black Dragon, and Tempest in detail. I owned Zork and I loved that game. So bonus points there.

Overall, nothing in Ready Player One is revolutionary. Willy Wonka. Evil corporations. Virtual reality vs. the real world. Contemporary ills that lead to dystopian future when ignored. Nerdy loner growing as a person. Every bit of this book is recognizably drawn from somewhere else, and can even be a bit tropey and clichéd, but the prose is steady and Cline’s enthusiasm jumps off the page. I don’t feel changed by the book, but I still loved it.

8/10 1UPs!

As usual, feel free to leave your thoughts and comments below. You can also send your comments to thenonicheblog@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter at John_S20. If you like what you read, subscribe!

The Doom Retrospective, Part 4

Last time, on the Doom Retrospective, in his most brilliant plan to date, Doom switched bodies with Reed Richards in an attempt to destroy the Fantastic Four! Then unfortunate things happened that will not be discussed and Doom was shrunk down into nothingness. Let’s update the scorecard.

Record vs Fantastic Four: 0-3 (Soon, Richards. Soon.)

Times Avoided Capture: 3 (YES!)

Times Screaming about Richards!: Surprisingly, 0

Treacherous Underlings foolishly turning on Doom: 1 (Fuck you, Namor.)

Times Left Adrift in Space/Shrunk into Nothingness: 2

By this point, Lee and Kirby knew they had struck gold with Doctor Doom and were having him show up every six months or so. They were riding the gravy train for all it was worth. So, to the surprise of nobody, after being shrunk out of existence, Doom returns a mere six months later in Fantastic Four #16 (July 1963).

The cover states that the issue will guest star Ant-Man and that we will all be visiting the Micro-world of Doctor Doom. So everyone who has been jonesing for a Mini-Doom fix, this is the issue for you.

Our issue opens with the Human Torch blazing across the sky.

Torch

In the space of three panels, he ruins an astonomer’s career, assists obviously quack doctors, who continued to operate in the dark!, to finish butchering their patient, and negligently flies by an armed burglary, only to be bailed out by the fortuitous arrival of New York’s finest. Why is he in a hurry and causing more mayhem than usual? Because nobody is picking up the headset at FF HQ! They must all be dead.

When Johnny arrives, he finds the team shrunk to the size of toys and being sucked into the most aggressive air vent I have ever seen.

vent

I mean, Jesus. Who mounts a high powered vacuum cleaner on the wall? It must have been deemed a necessity when Reed realized there needed to be a quick way to vent Thing’s wretched stench out of the building. Torch melts the air vent instead of, you know, turning it off, and the team is randomly restored to their proper size.

Of course, Reed, super-genius, has no idea how this happened. And then everyone admits it’s happened before, and they thought it was too nutty to talk about. So, wait. By this point in their careers, the team has fought Mole Man, fucking aliens (the Skrull), fought the king of Atlantis (Namor), been launched into space, visited Planet X, and watched Doom get shrunk to nothingness. But shrinking out of nowhere, nah, that’s too fucking crazy. The four then tell the tale of how they were shrunk, inconceivable as it might be. Starting with Johnny.

flaming

Poor, poor, Johnny. He’s wrestling with issues more fundamental than he realizes. It gets better, Johnny. Maybe not for you, because you are really dumb, but for others. Thing then tells his story and nobody cares. Sue then tells her story.

storypose

That is quite the storytelling pose, Sue. Let me just pull up this divan and lounge on it while I tell you about it. What a fox, though. Forget Namor, Sue. Maybe Doom will have you. I need to remember this for my evening fan fiction sessions.

After Reed finishes his story, he has an actual competent thought and suggests they talk to Hank Pym, the Astonishing Ant-Man, since he shrinks all the time! We then cut to Ant-Man who found out about the FF’s need for help through a daisy chain of talking ants (don’t ask).

grasshopper

Could you be any more expository, Hank? Christ. I’m going to open the door and walk out of here Jan and then casually stroll home to make dinner. And if he is human sized now, what the fuck is that giant grasshopper doing in the background? Do you just have giant insects in your house? I would not be shocked to find out later that Hank has some sort of personality disorder.

So Ant-Man rides his ants over and the Fantastic Four are shocked to see him. They didn’t even call him! So how does Reed treat his guest?

jar

Honestly, I laughed when I saw this panel. Reed is treating Ant-Man like he is legit this disgusting pest in his home.

Reed (trying not to look revolted): We can’t hear you, Ant-Man. Uh, let me put this “Magnifying Amplifier” over you so we can hear you.

Hank: Magnifying Amplifier? I’m a scientist too, Reed, and I know those words mean the same thing. Is that even a machine? You know what, forget it, I can just return to normal human size so we can talk.

Reed: Oh, it’s no bother. Really.

Hank: It will only take a second.

Reed (failing to hide his revulsion): Please, just get in the jar.

So Ant-Man is put inside the “Magnifying Amplifier” and gives Reed a sample of his Pym Particles so that they can return to normal size at any time if it happens again. Ok. Then he flies off.

flyoff

Reed wonders if that disgusting vermin man could be responsible for their shrinking fits. Sue fantasizes about making love to a man that can literally use his whole body to fill her up, bringing her to levels of ecstasy heretofore undreamt of. You know what, let’s move on.

The next day, Reed tells Thing that he is working on a cure for his condition. He force feeds Ben the formula, and…

cured

Oh, Thing. It’s supposed to feel like you drank poison. That means it’s working. Yes, drink it up. Oh, and don’t get crushed by that piano you were holding. That would be…unfortunate. Fuck you, Reed. You probably could have easily put chocolate in it. Dick. Alicia shows that she has issues far beyond what I had suspected as she admits to being sexually attracted to a walking pile of hardened cow patties. It’s what you deserve, Thing.

So with Thing cured (nobody cares), though still hideous, we see Johnny burning things for the amusement of teenagers and Sue playing with perfume and frolicking with puppies. I wish I had made that up. Their days are interrupted by a disembodied voice stating “Flee for your life! Beware of Doctor Doom!” Also, Thing is back to being a grotesque monstrosity again. Nice cure, Reed. You can’t even poison him right.

Reed surmises that somehow, someway, Doom must still be alive. Genius at work. So Reed gives out the Pym Particles and they shrink to go looking for Doctor Doom. Makes sense. So they shrink and shrink and shrink. And land right smack in the middle of Doctor Doom’s throne room. What are the chances? 100%, you fools. Do not question the machinations of Doom!

minithrone

Doom lives large even in the micro-world, no pun intended. He’s lounging on his throne, confident as always. Even when you try to kill him, it’s just another opportunity to show how badass he is. Thing, unthinking pile of bricks, leaps at Doom, who pushes a button on his throne that shrinks the FF even further. Now they are mini even to mini-Doom. Genius! Victor then decides to tell the story of how he came to rule.

grinch

Doom channels his inner Grinch. Peace? Harmony? Screw all of you. Not on my watch! I love you, Doctor Doom. Doom basically invents gadgets and insults his way to the throne. He recreates his shrinking ray, shrinks down the king and princess and takes over. Then he builds a device that allows his to project his voice and his ray to the larger world to manipulate the Fantastic Four. Who is the real genius here, Reed? You can’t even poison your friends right!

Doom then sets his guards on the team, and shockingly, these nameless mooks get worked by the mini-Fantastic Four. This is the first time we see a tried and true Doom trope.

doom

Even though that is not taken from this comic, it sums up Doom’s problems perfectly. You’ll be seeing that scan again, I promise. So Doom has to take matters into his own hands, putting Invisible Girl in a jar, how do you like that fucking turnaround, Reed? And then gasses the others.

gas

Doom getting real up in here. You’re inferior, Reed. Dumbass. Hail Doom! I’m getting that sweet tingling feeling of imminent Doom victory. Once the team is subdued, one of Doom’s underlings, surely not Doom himself, makes the questionable decision of throwing the team into the same dungeon that holds the deposed king and princess. That tingly feeling is rapidly subsiding, damnit.

Their cell is submerged in a sea of acid. Surely escape is impossible. Even the oversight of putting your enemies in the same room together cannot save you. Johnny, still wrestling with his internal urges, awkwardly hits on the princess, who really wants none of it. The princess tells the team about his plans. He doesn’t want to kill the Fantastic Four, he wants to sell them into slavery on an alien world. No humiliation is too great for Richards and his band of miscreants.

slaves

Oh, how delicious. Such humiliation. They will even be forced to wear their costumes. And look at Sue, all wet and submissive for her lizard overlords. Desperate. Willing to do whatever it takes to ameliorate her pitiful condition. What would you do for better treatment, Sue? Let’s move on.

That meddling Ant-man pieces together that the four must have shrunk and so he follows. Luckily, Doom’s lackeys subdue him. Whew. Meanwhile in the cell, Sue(!) gives the team an idea about escaping. Reed must have soiled his pants at a woman having ideas. The escape plan is actually not bad for a 1960’s comic. Ugh. I see where this is going.

escape

So the four are loose. Doom doesn’t know. They find Doom’s ray and enlarge themselves and the deposed monarch back into regular mini-sizes. Thing uses a tower as a bat and hits the incoming alien slave trading ship like a baseball, sending it back from whence it came.

bat

Eat a dick, Thing. It’s all unraveling. As usual. God damn it. Doom sees that the jig is up and bolts for it, enlarging himself back into the real world. HAHA! Another escape. Screw you, Reed. The issue ends with Thing swearing to get Doom. The team says good-bye to the mini-world and enlarges back to the real world.

BOO. Another escape at least. And I am sure Doom will give them a righteous thrashing next issue.

As usual, feel free to leave your thoughts and comments below. You can also send your comments to thenonicheblog@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter at John_S20. If you really want to stalk me, you can find me posting fairly regularly at Herochat.com, known for its mature and frank discussions about comicbooks.

Creating a Fictional Religion

Religion is one of the most interesting and controversial topics of conversation, especially in this day and age. Religion has always played a large role in fiction and lately I have been tinkering with a religion of my own creation for a story which I have begun to write. It is frustrating but the questions explored as a writer make it one of those subjects in which I find myself engrossed. I have looked around for advice and have found that this subject has been covered in other places, but I wanted to give thoughts on my own experience. Some of what I say here may seem like common sense, obvious, or something you have heard before, but I think this post in toto can be instructive, especially for me as I organize my thoughts on my own writing.

The problem that comes with writing religion is readers are going to bring their own views and upbringing to the table. Naturally, they are going to see familiar ideas and political statements in the choices you make formulating the rules of your religion, the way it affects society, and the way characters can abuse it to their own advantage. To me, writing a religion requires two components: a theological component and a literary component.

The Theological

Religion provides answers. The most important questions answered by religion seem to be:

–          Where do we come from?

–          Where did the world come from?

–          What happens after we die?

–          How should I live to secure the best case scenario after death?

–          What happens to me if I do not live according to the religion’s teachings?

These questions should be tackled after you create your world. I say this because I think that if you create your world before you create your religion, you end up with a more realistic, relatable, and textured belief system. I originally tried to create an interesting religion first and then build a world around it. The temptation is to take an intriguing philosophical question or dilemma and run with it. While this works in theory, it does not have the organic quality of religion. If you start with the world, you can think about how it affects the lives and perceptions of the beings that inhabit it.

For instance, inhabitants of a world filled with dangerous creatures would probably have a very different view of a creative force than inhabitants of a lush peaceful world. It’s hard to imagine that these groups would agree that walking teeth-infested deathtraps come from the same source as infinite sunny days and green grass.

The theological questions you answer with your religion and the form your deities, forces or lack thereof take is going to ring familiar with all of your readers. You need to keep this in mind whenever a character makes a decision with the religion in mind or God forbid an organized church gets involved in the plot.

If the God you create ends up looking like this, you're not doing it right.

If the God you create ends up looking like this, you’re probably not doing it right.

The Literary

Religion, like anything else, can also be a tool for plot advancement, reinforcement of themes and symbolism, or conflict. This is fine as long as you realize putting religion center stage is going to alienate some readers. If you want to use religion in this way, there are certain questions that I would ask myself:

–          Does this religion have any motifs or symbols that I want the reader to notice?

–          What kind of role does it play in characters’ lives?

–          What are the conflicts that arise when the idealism of the religion meets the reality of your world?

–          How could your religion be abused and used to justify bad acts?

Writing characters that use religion to justify their bad behavior is going to anger some readers. If you paint the religion as idealistic to the point of being quaint and outdated, that is also going to draw criticism. Conversely, if you try to idealize religion and show a group of devout believers overcoming all odds because of their faith, you will still draw criticism. I have not had the privilege of being lambasted by critics and the media for my depiction of religion (here’s to hoping), but I think the subject brings so much to the writing table that it is worth exploring in depth and taking the subsequent criticism.

The last thing I will add is that a fictional religion needs to be unique. If your religion ends up looking a lot like Christianity, why not just use Christianity? If you mean to criticize a religion and do so by setting up an obvious stand-in to knock down, you are not only failing to exercise your creative muscles but you are also showing a certain lack of conviction. I think it is perfectly acceptable to borrow from established belief systems, but I would always use the real thing over an imperfect clone. If you are convinced you want to try your hand at cutting a new religion from whole cloth, I would suggest that you add plenty of your own ideas or borrow from a wide range of sources. This will ensure that your religion is as distinctive as you are.