Ready, Player Two? Ernest Cline’s Armada and how it measures up

Armada - Ernest ClineErnest Cline’s hit 2011 debut Ready Player One was the pure, unfettered brainscream of a child of the 80s,” as American writer and Juno chief executive Charles Ardai memorably put it.

 

For the uninitiated (where have you BEEN?) the novel wove a veritable treasure trove of 80s movie, gamer and pop-cultural references into an engaging post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel relying heavily on these references for its plot development – a novel at once more exciting, more significant in style and more original in conception than the description I just gave could possibly convey.

In short, it created waves of excitement in every 80s-raised-or-remembering person, one of whom I am proud to be (I was born the same year as The Goonies, yo). It excited the rest of the world too, enough for Steven Spielberg lay claim to directing the movie version, now due in 2017.

So obviously, no pressure on that second novel to succeed, Cline.

Enter Zack Lightman, an 18-year-old gamer who lives with his mom in Oregon. His father died in an explosion at 19, when Zack was just a baby, and the young doppelganger lives in a virtual shrine to the memory of his dad, who bequeathed his obsession with (yes…) 80s movies and games to his son by way of a collection of possessions in the attic of the home Zack and his mother now share with just the ageing beagle, Muffitt.

Zack, a dreamer already dealing with some anger issues and worried about his own grip on reality after spending too much time living in the world of his father’s games, notes and conspiracy theory-filled journals, thinks he must finally have lost the plot when one day he sees a ship from global hit game Armada circling the skies outside his classroom window.

But it soon becomes clear that these is a lot more at stake here than one teenager’s sanity, and this is maybe the first time in history that being a really, really good gamer can be called a life skill – a skill crucial to the future of the human race.

Despite my clearly being a member of the target audience, my kinship with the subject matter here ends abruptly at the word ‘gaming’. Thankfully, my long association with nerds has given me the vocabulary to cope, and even if you don’t care about the 80s or gaming, if you have any interest in the nature of modern sci-fi writing, I’d encourage you to give this a try.

Like its predecessor Ready Player One, Armada features the same endearingly enthusiastic tone, like your best friend chewing your ear off about their latest obsession. A nerd’s wet dream, it’s sharp and humorous, giving the reader an almost immodestly fun ride. It really sounds as though Cline had a ball writing this, particularly some of the wise-cracking dialogue, and that kind of enjoyment is contagious.

The writing is not amazing or life-changing. It’s not full of stirring descriptions or memorable quotes. Several times I am jarred slightly by a choice of adjective or simile. But it doesn’t need to be poetry. The language is entirely functional and the sheer momentum of this story needs no help. The pictures Cline paints are clear as daylight and lent soul by the central theme of Zack’s utter devotion to the idea of his father.

Funnily enough, I remember thinking as I read this that it read a bit like the novelisation of a movie, or indeed the script for one. Cline’s books are both very cinematic stuff, so it surprises me not one whit that Spielberg is all over this.

The author has written a confident and worthy successor to Ready Player One and confirmed his place as a truly original and exciting new voice in sci-fi.

They’ll both undoubtedly make kickarse movies, so keep your ear to the ground (or your eyes on the skies).

Want more sci-fi book reviews? 

Ursula le Guin, The Dispossessed
William Kotzwinkle, The Amphora Project
M. John Harrison, Light
John Wyndham, The Outward Urge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

image

I immediately latched on to watching this when the Ministry gave it to me as one of several options to watch on the weekend with a quiet bottle of wine on the couch.

It’s an adaptation of game show host Chuck Barris’ cult memoir claiming he was also a CIA assassin.

I was taken with the cast list – Drew Barrymore, Sam Rockwell, George Clooney, Julia Roberts – and the premise. I mean what the? Who’s Chuck Barris? Why’s he famous? What’s the Dating Game? Is it like the dating show in Mallrats? (Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Generation Y.)

Most importantly, is it true?

I’m always so fascinated by “based on true” stories, especially those that leave you unsure of to what extent you should believe them, and to what extent you should never mind the bollocks.

Most people, it seems, think Barris just cooked up a pile of bollocks, but they differ on why, and he provides no help on either issue by saying he won’t confirm or deny a thing. The CIA, by all accounts, maintains it’s ridiculous.

The Straight Dope’s Cecil Adams, self-confessed smartest human in the world, says Barris made a living by being outrageous and the story proves only that he never lost his touch (http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2437/was-chuck-barris-a-hit-man-for-the-cia)

Time Magazine’s Joel Stein neatly explains that the lie is the only truthful way Barris could find to express the moral confusion he found in being attacked for doing harmless but peurile work, even as others were getting medals for killing other people (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,404266,00.html#ixzz2LzjmnHdM)

For my part, I was left with an agony of tantalised indecision: it was such a wacky tale, but I was so taken in by it.

Its sense of darkness, hurt and conflict was communicated with stylish cinematography and a convincing performance from Sam Rockwell as Barris, complete with dreamlike end sequence reminiscent of Requiem for a Dream’s film adaptation (2000).

Who knows whether Barris’ book, as opposed to Charlie Kaufman’s script, would have had the same effect on me. It must have been convincing enough to capture others’ imagination too… or was it? Original readers must surely have had more knowledge of the Barris phenomenon, which was perhaps big enough to turn such a book into a cult sensation whether it was a crap read or not.

George Clooney, who directed the movie, supposedly had this to say, according to quotes on About.com and elsewhere:

“I wanted to be able to say I think it’s a really fascinating story – if it’s not true – that someone as successful as Chuck Barris felt the need to write that story.”

(http://movies.about.com/library/weekly/aaconfessionsinta.htm)

That’s what gets me, too. What moves someone to write such a thing? It’s a lot of effort to go to, when you’re already cashed up and famous. Humans are complex creatures and like I said, I love these mysterious stories.

They make me think and that’s why I’ve talked more about that, rather than what it looked like (though it looked great and visuals can convey just as much meaning when done well).

That’s why I downed a bottle of rosê without really intending to then spent the next half hour bugging the Ministry about WHAT IT MEANS AND I WANT TO KNOW WHAT IT MEANS.

I like Stein’s explanation about it being a truthful way to express moral confusion: this seems to me a simple way to describe complicated  things.

More people should watch this movie and give me their opinions. Rosê optional.

The War of the Worlds (2005)

This poster says it all, really, but I’ll elaborate.

My reviews so far have been pretty positive, as I don’t usually consume media I won’t like. But I regretfully admit that I have made the odd mistake, so it’s time to remove the gloves and sharpen my claws on H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, as butchered (sorry, retold in contemporary fashion) by Steven Spielberg. Aliens land. Aliens destroy, conquer and are then themselves destroyed by a twist of fate.

This is surely a story hard to ruin, especially with modern technical movie wizardry. Yet the movie has been shorn of its context. The British Empire at the time of writing (the late 1800s) was entirely different to modern-day America. The idea of the British Empire itself being colonised and its indigenous life all-but-obliterated by mighty invaders was deliciously ironic, but Spielberg’s version happily disregards this subtext in its relentless quest for Tom-Cruise-ification.

To  those who think I’m a hopeless purist and that Spielberg could add value to and even strengthen the story with a modern context, I say all right. For argument’s sake, ditch the historical setting. But my teeth aren’t all the way in yet, so bear with me.

Wells’ unnamed protagonist had no daughter as Tom Cruise does in the film. He was a scientific journalist separated from his wife. This separation provided its own narrative drive; his observations were sharpened by a sense of isolation. By ditching this dynamic and making him a father, Spielberg lost an opportunity to comment on isolation, and the gathering and processing of information in contemporary life. He relied on the much more predictable effect of the Independence Day-type format – imminent destruction of the main (usually male) character’s wife, kid, dog and so forth – to provide emotional texture.

As I’ve shown in a previous post, I’m the last person to cast aspersions on the lovably simple Independence Day. It’s just that I have this nagging feeling H. G. Wells never intended to be lovably simple. His understated, journalistic style was what made The War of the Worlds terrify audiences in Orson Welles’ radio-play version. People thought it was real. This sense of reality, his British restraint, if you like, was what made Wells famous.

Usually I love Spielberg for his action, family values, cute kids and alternately weepy and triumphant scores. But in this case he should have shown some Wellsian restraint. Arguably, a lot of viewers were going to be H. G. Wells fans and he owed that demographic as much as any other. If he was going to use the words “H. G. Wells” and “legacy” in the opening credits at all, he should have at least attempted to give that legacy what it deserves.

Gone was the chilling portrait of society’s typical hubris, its slowness to recognise the seriousness of the threat in time to save itself. Unused was the potential for electrifying cinematic use of the Red Weed. As a plot and visual device, the alien takeover of gardens, earth, buildings familiar to us all by an unknown red plant could have been both menacing and beautiful – uncanny, as Freud would have said. Instead it is used in a token, decidedly unspectacular way. Underdeveloped were the complex theories about the aliens, their landing methods, capabilities and the structure and function of their Heat Ray. Subtlety and detail was replaced by corpses floating down a river.

Normally I like corpses, but these were beside the point. In fact, the part where a few corpses might have been well-placed is cut. The road scene early on in the novel in which a mass exodus of panicked people trample each other in the effort to get out of town, showed the human race as a frightening and dangerous force in itself. It was poignant and scary, and not using it wasted another opportunity to nuance the story.

Little time seems to elapse in this movie, particularly before and after the violent bits, when the narrator is observing the cylinder and later hiding out in the abandoned house watching the aliens and going a bit mad. The novel used this sense of passing time to built tension and show how the aftermath to disaster is even worse than the high-octane horror in a way, because it lacks the hope of adrenaline.

Instead you are rushed through a simplistic, atmosphere-free tale in which everything’s fine, then f*cked, then finished… and I am monumentally disappointed.