Book vs Book: Ready Player One and A Hundred Thousand Worlds

In 2012 I wrote what would become my most popular book review on Goodreads: a skewering of Ernest Cline’s (somehow) beloved heap of geek porn, Ready Player One. Despite a six-year cool down period, it remains the most disappointing reading experience of my life. I still hate it with every fiber of my being, and I’ve yet to understand how someone can pay for this book, read all 370+ pages, and then feel anything but embarrassed and sad.

If the point is to re-enact sections of D&D modules and 80s cult classics, then your readers are just getting third-hand retreads of things that aren’t even important to begin with. It’s sort of like when your socially-awkward friend resolutely recounts a super-sweet TV show for you, word for word, and all you can do is just sit there and wait until he’s finished. Pay $20 for that experience and you get Ready Player One.

And what’s worst—no, I haven’t even gotten to the worst part yet—is how the entire thing reeks of elitism. Yes, you read that correctly. This is a book about an overweight, unattractive, lazy, delusional, uber-geek elitist, who believes—truly believes—that his knowledge of 80s trivia makes him superior. And Cline basically affirms this! Some guys buy cars, others put socks down their pants, Cline writes 80s trivia novels.

– from my Goodreads review of Ready Player One

That review is probably the most tactless piece of writing I’ve ever produced. It was pure, unadulterated venom. It felt like Cline had injected me with a poison, and the only way to save myself was to regurgitate it back onto the page. It became something of a passion project for me, saving others from similar afflictions.

But at the same time I was conflicted: was there any virtue in a purely negative review?

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Every Blade of Grass by Thomas Wharton

everybladeA couple of years ago I took Aaron Sorkin’s online masterclass on screenwriting. I’m not a screenwriter, I’m just a huge fan of his and a firm believer that, by and large, writing is writing, regardless of the medium. The course mostly focused on things like storytelling, dialogue, and character development, but the most impactful lesson, for me, was about how to approach story structure.

Sorkin asks his students to visualize their story as a clothesline. At either end of that clothesline is an intention and an obstacle.

For any story to work, there needs to be a character that wants something (the intention) and there has to be something that gets in the way (the obstacle). If both of these are interesting enough, then the clothesline is pulled taut. At this point, the writer can hang as many things from it as they want: conversations, side stories, plot twists, intellectual tangents, you name it. But if the intention and the obstacle aren’t interesting enough, if they don’t keep the viewer  wanting more, then the clothesline has too much slack, and those aforementioned things–conversations, side stories, what have you–start to weigh the clothesline (i.e. the story) down.

In other words, if the driving action of a story is compelling, the writer is freed up to add in as many colorful touches as he or she wants without losing the viewer’s interest. That’s when you have them.

“I worship at the altar of intention and obstacle,” Sorkin says.

If Every Blade of Grass is any indication, so does Thomas Wharton.

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A to Z: What I Read in 2017

30896668A is for ALEX + ADA. Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn’s near-future sci-fi drama about a man who falls in love with an android might seem like well-trodden, eye-roll inducing territory, but it’s a genuinely interesting exploration of what love could mean in the 21st century. A spiritual companion to Spike Jonze’s HerAlex + Ada can challenge you if you want it to. Vaughn’s art is simple, yet beautiful. This book was an absolute pleasure. Although, off the top of my head, I’m not sure it passes the Bechdel Test (however, every page of this book is about relationships so I think it can be forgiven).

B is for BLEAKER HOUSENell Stevens’ memoir about attempting to write her first novel on one of the most secluded places on Earth–half way around the world, to boot–is, surprisingly, a page-turner. It was so good that Pan Macmillan is publishing her next book, about Elizabeth Gaskell, in June 2018.

C is for CONVERSATIONS WITH KAFKAGustav Janouch’s memoir about his quasi-apprenticeship with Fraz Kafka was interesting, even though I’ve never read anything from Kafka. Don’t ask about what prompted me to read this because I don’t remember. I’m glad I did, though. I earmarked so many pages (don’t judge me) it was ridiculous. This is a quote fan’s wet dream.

D is for DAVE EGGERS. The Circle was, easily, the worst book I read this year. Eggers feels at least a generation too old to be writing about a cutting edge social media company. This was startlingly free of insight, unintentionally comical, and inhabited by one of the most vapid protagonists you’ll even find in Mae Holland. Avoid at all costs.

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Firefly Meets Pirates of the Caribbean

In The Hobbit, Tolkien’s observes that tales of inspiration are “soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling.” The same rings true for book reviews, I fear.

If a book is truly great, how does one give a recommendation equal to it? On the other hand, everyone loves a good tear down. Here’s your social proof: I have garnered a few dozens likes (combined) for the 49 five-star reviews I’ve left on Goodreads; meanwhile, my scathing review of Ready Player One has (of this writing) 140 likes and is the 20th-most-liked review among the 56,000 reviews of that book.

Such is my dilemma as I sit down to write my review for Retribution Falls, without doubt one of the most entertaining, rip-roaring reading experiences I’ve ever had. If you’re in the mood for a tear down, go elsewhere. I’m about to spend the next three minutes verbally felating Chris Wooding’s steampunk masterpiece.

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The Day Mike Brown Murdered Your Childhood

The smut rag that is Mike Brown’s How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming has been inducing existential crises the world over for more than a decade.

In it, Brown makes two things abundantly clear: Pluto is not a planet, and he thinks your childhood was a complete sham. He seems blithely unaware of the role Pluto played in our collective, cherubic upbringings, and staunchly unwavering in the face of protests. Like Santa, Saturday morning cartoons, and the blinding tang of Colt 45, Pluto is the stuff of childhoods gone right. How dare he, then, be arrogant enough to “scientifically prove” that Pluto is not a planet?

With the malice of a hedonistic devil worshiper, Brown blatantly disregarded our emotional investment in a nine-planet solar system in 2005, when he declared that Pluto was simply a giant hunk of ice, a “dwarf-planet,” one of the largest jewels in the crown that is the Kuiper Belt (a ring of small interplanetary bodies that’s 200 times the size of the asteroid belt).

The scientific community was rocked in the wake of Brown’s sacrilege, from his fellow astronomers right down to your grade school educators (who were proven to be nothing more than charlatans).

Twelve years after Brown’s “discovery,” the public has yet to forgive him.

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