Voxing about Vox

You may not remember this, but 2016 was kind of a wild time. The US election in November, which was expected to be a mere formality before the inauguration of the first female president, instead saw the nomination go to a former reality TV show host who had been repeatedly caught bragging about committing sexual assault. The juxtaposition of these events led to what political scientists refer to as a Big Mood.

Two years later, enough time has passed for the arrival of post-Trump literature, and the first one I laid my hands on was Christina Dalcher’s Vox, a much-ballyhooed bestseller described somewhat confusingly on a front cover endorsement as a “re-imagining of the Handmaid’s Tale”, implying some sort of direct connection between the two works (there isn’t one).

In case my use of the word “ballyhooed” didn’t give it away, I did not like it very much.

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All About Ready Player One

A few days ago, a trailer and poster for Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Ernest Cline's Ready Player One came out, and everyone had a hearty chuckle at the protagonist's bizarrely elongated leg. But it also served as a launching-off point for a discussion on how bad the book is, with choice excerpts flying thick and fast across twitter.

This is kind of a strange situation, because when Ready Player One came out back in 2011 it was an instant hit among the online geek crowd, seemingly universally beloved. For years afterwards, it felt as though most people who read the book, liked it; even my own negative review was more muted than outright hostile. Then Ernest Cline released a follow-up that was pretty much universally panned, even by people who loved his first outing, and opinion on Ready Player One soured via that strange phenomenon of internet collective opinion-making that also turned The Phantom Menace from the most exciting movie in the world to the worst (and which now, oddly, seems to be in the middle of exonerating it again).

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that the twitter hive-mind is wrong on this one. I dipped back into Ready Player One and yes, it's bad. It's bad in all the ways I remember it being bad when I first read it, and it's also bad in ways that I somehow missed the first time around. Here, in bulleted list form, are the salient points you need to know so you don't have to bother reading the thing for yourself (spoilers, obviously):

  1. Ready Player One takes place in the year 2044, but its teenage protagonists are all obsessed with pop culture from the 80s. Not only are they completely uninterested in whatever entertainment and commercial art is coming out in their own time (to the point where it seems as if there is none), it begins to feel as though all movies, games and music made after the mid-90s were somehow erased from history, barring a handful of exceptions like The Matrix. 
  2. The book exists more or less entirely to deliver 80s references, which it does in the same manner as those pop-culture mash up t-shirts that have Deadpool cosplaying as Darth Vader or whatever. This is best demonstrated by the scene where the protagonist arrives at a virtual party in a flying DeLorean that has the Ghostbusters logo on the doors and also the KITT AI from Knight Rider (yes, of course he also has a lightsaber). The entire book is like this; it's not so much a celebration of old school geek culture as it is a regurgitation, the author constantly tapping the reader on the shoulder and asking "Hey, you know what this thing is, right? Right? You get the reference, right?"
  3. All of the main characters are very clearly expressing Ernest Cline's own opinions, regardless of how little sense that makes. At one point, the main character laments that cereal manufacturers don't put toys in cereal boxes anymore, even though he has never personally experienced this and only knows about it from watching 80s cereal commercials--which is a thing that he does, for some reason.
  4. There are two Japanese characters in the book. This sit in the traditional seiza position and talk about honour and their ancestors all the time. At first I thought they were meant to be roleplaying--they're as obsessed with old samurai movies as the American characters are with Ghostbusters and Star Wars--but they keep doing this even when they show up in the real world.
  5. The book is extremely blatant wish-fulfillment. The main character goes on a quest to inherit the fortune of a vaguely Steve Jobs-esque tech mogul, which his trove of 80s knowledge (of course) allows him to do better than any of the millions of people competing with him for the prize. He shows up the rich corporate snobs trying to get the money ahead of the plucky nerds, gets a hot girlfriend, and becomes a multi-millionaire at the end of the book. Nothing ever seriously goes wrong for him. He spends a portion of the middle of the story struggling with depression and gains a large amount of weight, but manages to overcome both issues easily through the application of technology. At one point he sells himself into indentured servitude in order to access the evil corporate villain's headquarters; this plan goes off without a hitch, and presents absolutely zero tension at any point.
  6. At one point, the main character discovers that his virtual best pal--who presented in cyberspace as a fit, white, straight dude--is actually an overweight black lesbian. As far as I can tell, this occurs solely to highlight what a totally woke and open-minded guy the protagonist is. Their relationship continues on with zero problems or conflict, and they have no trouble relating to each other in real life as well as they did online (after this twist, this character's role in the plot severely diminishes, which makes me suspect they were written into the book solely for this purpose).
  7. At the end of the book, the characters all decide to leave the virtual world behind and embrace reality. This makes no sense. The near-future America they live in is a poverty-wracked hellhole, teetering on the brink of ecological collapse and ruled by all-powerful corporations. Cyberspace is the only way most people can get an education, socialize safely, express themselves or experience what it's like to live in a world that isn't a dystopian nightmare. There is zero actual reason for them to declare that actually it's bad and the real world is good, except that Ernest Cline thought these kinds of stories had to end with moral lessons about how the real world is superior to the digital one.
  8. Actually wait, there is a reason for them to do that: they're now rich beyond their wildest dreams, so they can just buy their way past all the bad stuff that they were using cyberspace to escape from. This is not acknowledged at any point.

All that said, I will give the book credit for one thing: it has the characters become rich (even before winning the grand prize) and famous due to their exploits online and starting streaming web-channels that are watched by millions, which given that the book came out in 2011 is a pretty good prediction of the phenomeon of Twitch and Youtube celebrities (PewDiePie only hit a million subscribers in 2012, so Cline was pretty ahead of the curve with this).

 

What I've been reading lately

I didn't read as many books over the last few months as I wanted to, but the ones I did read had maximum impact.

 

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Darkmouth - Shane Hegarty

There seems to be a rash of prominent middle grade books by Irish authors recently, and Darkmouth is one of the more notable. It presents a fun universe and a protagonist you want to root for right off the bat, although it perhaps expects you to keep rooting for him a bit too long--I found Finn's constant treadmill of failure kind of repetitive after a while.

 

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The Sympathizer -  Viet Thanh Nguyen

One of those rare literary novels with an ambitiously expansive scope--the kind that some critics might be tempted to describe as being about, like, humanity, man--that comes close to justifying the praise. Come for the writing, stay for the deliciously acerbic critique of American culture.

And he has another book out next year!

The official Ronan Wills Did Not Finish Pile for October 2017

I start a lot of books. I don't always finish them. Sometimes this is the book's fault, sometimes it's not (this is particularly true lately, as medical issues sometimes render me unable to read even if I want to). Here are the ones I didn't finish lately.

Alias Grace by Margeret Atwood

I got halfway through this, and then a certain other book we'll discuss below came along and demanded my attention. I definitely mean to go back to it.

A Place Called Perfect by Helena Duggan

I feel bad about this one, because it's another prominent middle grade debut by an Irish author, and I feel like I need to represent the home team. The premise was interesting, but the story was just a bit too meandering in the early going. I might give it another shot.

SPQR by Mary Beard

At the end of August, I was suddenly taken by a desire to read some Roman history, and this is the Roman history book nearly everyone recommends. Unfortunately, a rogue migraine swarm stopped me in my tracks a third of the way in.

In Progress: La Belle Sauvage by Phillip Pullman

I rushed out and got this as soon as the positive reviews hit, being something of a fan of the earlier His Dark Materials books. So far, it's not impressing me all that much, mainly due to flat characters and a story that takes its sweet time cohering into anything solid. From what I've read, the second half is distinctly more His Dark Materials-ey, so we'll see.

On my to-read list

Here's what I want to tackle next, on no particular timeline:

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

The Girl Who Drank The Moon by Kelly Barnhill

Winterglass by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell

 

 

 

Books I Read In July

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness - Arundhati Roy

A third of a great novel. I was head over heels for this at the start, but it begins to feel like several stories chopped up and sandwiched together, complete with wildly varying tones and writing styles.

Roy's writing is still powerful and eloquent, but the plot doesn't hold together.

 

The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead

Magical-realist history as polemic. I don't need to tell you how timely the story is, but you should know that it's both devastating and captivating. The kind of book where you can't stop turning the pages, even if part of you doesn't want to find out what happens next.

 

The Essex Serpent - Sarah Perry

Light, bright historical fiction in the mode of Jane Austen (with a possibly-imaginary river serpent). It's cosy and entertaining and the writing is lovely, but you'll see most of the story beats coming a mile off.

 

 

 

The Holocaust - Laurence Rees

Rees delivers both an informative oversight and a compelling new investigation of the Holocaust. This book should be your go-to if you want answers to questions about how and why it happened, and the nature of the Nazi leadership's involvement. 

Includes bonus unsettling parallels to current political discourse.