Review: Ready Player One

loderunner

When I was a kid, back in the 1980s, one of my favorite computer games was Lode Runner, an action-puzzle game in which the player traversed a maze of brick platforms, ladders, and monkey bars rounding up gold bars while avoiding the evil minions of the “Bungeling Empire.” The best part of the game was that it included a level editor so the user could create their own mazes, save them, and play through them. I probably spent as much time creating new puzzles as I did playing the game. Games that include this feature can be a doorway into game design, but even as a kid it was enjoyable to create a setting from a godlike perspective and then play through it, seeing it in action from the player’s perspective. Although I would have killed for a Super Mario Bros. level editor back then, I actually haven’t gotten around to trying Nintendo’s Mario Maker, mostly because I’m afraid if I started using it I wouldn’t be able to stop.

As a child of the ’80s and longtime consumer of pop culture, I’m sure I was predisposed to like Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One. The futuristic setting is the best of times and the worst of times: post-Peak Oil, the world is a mess, with economically-depressed mobs placated by logging onto the OASIS, a comprehensive virtual-reality environment containing whole worlds to visit, socialize, and game in. And because the late designer of the OASIS, James Halliday, (like me, and like Cline) grew up himself in the ’80s, the entire online environment is saturated with references to Dungeons & Dragons, Back to the Future, MTV, Atari, and numerous other icons of 1980s nerd culture. Halliday’s posthumous announcement that he had hidden an “Easter egg” behind a series of puzzles in the OASIS, and that whoever solved them would get control of the entire thing, had set off a hunt for those clues and, by extension, a mania for all things ’80s, with “gunters” (egg hunters) devoting themselves to the lore of that magical decade in hopes of cracking Halliday’s code.

It is, in short, a nerd fantasy–now everyone will like the stuff I like–and it is clear that while the book’s protagonist is Wade Watts, a nobody living in the piled-up slums of Columbus, Ohio, Cline really identifies with Halliday, the gamemaker and magic man whose obsessions end up consuming everyone else. It’s Halliday’s world, and Wade Watts just lives in it, or rather gets to play through the maze that Halliday created. Cline’s book has received its share of criticism for various reasons (not least of all its choice of overwhelmingly white and male cultural touchstones), but the biggest tell that this is nerd escapism is that no one in the OASIS appears to resent having to learn about Atari’s unfinished Swordquest series or memorize the lyrics to songs that played on cable more than fifty years earlier. They love it as much as Halliday did, and never seem to view it as homework or history. Cline seems incapable of believing that anyone wouldn’t be jazzed by all this stuff. It’s either endearing or infuriating, depending on your point of view. If you already felt alienated from 1980s nostalgia or don’t fit Cline’s particular demographic, I can imagine it would be repellant indeed, and Cline isn’t the writer to get under the surface of the material and turn skeptics into believers.

RPOCover

When I read Ready Player One, I felt that it would either be made into a very good or very terrible film: it appears to be written with an eye on adaptation into a screenplay (Cline was previously best-known for his screenplay to Fanboys, a love letter to Star Wars and George Lucas), with minimal style and a straight-ahead plot, with few “literary” flourishes. The reams of description of mashed-up costumes, vehicles, and settings (Wade, as Parzival, his online avatar, drives a DeLorean with the Ghostbusters logo on the side and an onboard computer like KITT from Knight Rider, etc.), in particular, would go down much more smoothly in a visual medium like film or comics, where they could be taken in at a glance, or as background clues, rather than having to be spelled out.

And I will confess that as much as I feel criticism of the book is justified, it occupied a disproportionately large part of my imagination after I read it, just thinking about how its sample-driven, narrowly specific amalgamation of all things ’80s would look onscreen; how deep and multilayered its references could be; what songs would accompany scenes; how a filmmaker might play with the pixilated, airbrushed, and screen-printed visuals of the era and translate them into cinema; and so forth. When I learned that Steven Spielberg was set to direct the inevitable film adaptation, I was a little concerned: I was sure that Cline would be thrilled to have one of the giants of ’80s genre film adapt his work, but the strain of the story that caught my imagination was one of cultural inheritance and transformation, and to me it made more sense to have someone who grew up with Spielberg’s work and could filter it through their own sensibility make this film.

To give an idea of what I had in mind, imagine Ready Player One made by Edgar Wright (whose Scott Pilgrim vs. the World already does something like this, full of video-game and music video references) or Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who in The Lego Movie created a tapestry of references but were also able to call into question the premises of their own fantasy). As one of the fathers of modern blockbuster filmmaking and the creator of numerous iconic movies of the ’80s and beyond, Spielberg is an obvious choice; but it is notable that his style is to breathe a life of realism and naturalism into fantastical ideas. My imagined Ready Player One was one of screens and surfaces–this is how I remember the 1980s–in which the artifice was brought to the foreground.

When reviewing a film, it is of course unfair to criticize it for being what it is not, and in any case the existence of a realized film doesn’t prevent me from imagining my own version. But part of reviewing is being honest about one’s reaction, and it would only tell half of the story if I didn’t mention my reservations.

Obviously, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, which opened this past weekend, is different from the movie I imagined, but I ended up enjoying it quite a bit. As expected, it makes many changes from the book’s plot, mostly for the better. With a screenplay by Cline with Zak Penn, much of the action is streamlined, some characters strengthened and given more to do, and the actual challenges Wade and his friends overcome are thoroughly revamped (I don’t think anyone actually wanted to see Wade reenact WarGames line-by-line, as happens in the book) and turned into satisfying cinematic set-pieces.

In fact, my favorite parts of the movie were those that were changed so much from the book that I couldn’t possibly have predicted them or had a preconception of what they should look like. There is still a sizeable infodump at the beginning, delivered by Wade (Tye Sheridan) through voice-over, but the viewer’s introduction to the OASIS at least shows why it would be popular. There’s a lot of emphasis on how you can be whatever you want to be online (a notion that becomes relevant later), but it also makes the games look like they might actually be fun to play (a hurdle not every filmmaker can overcome when it comes to creating fictional games onscreen). Spielberg is reportedly an avid gamer in real life, and his experience and affection for the medium shows in these sequences.

In its depiction of the real world outside the OASIS, Ready Player One could almost be a sequel to Spielberg’s Minority Report: its extremes of wealth and poverty, omnipresent advertising, and debt slavery form a similar background, and it is clear that the ultimate power in this near future is corporate. As in the book, the bad guys, IOI, are both a stand-in for whichever megacorporation–Microsoft, Google, Amazon, etc.–is most worrisome at the moment, as well as the “evil empire” of so many genre films. IOI’s CEO, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), is a soulless money man (you can tell because he only pretends to like stuff from the ’80s when he’s trying to win over Parzival), in charge of an army of gamers trying to find the Easter egg first (and a department of genuinely enthusiastic pop culture nerds, the “mission control” types) so that IOI can monetize the OASIS, dividing users’ experiences by price tiers and filling their VR viewers with pop-up ads (Boo! Hiss!). (I got a good laugh at Sorrento’s gigantic overcompensating gamer chair, although I think I was the only one in the theater.)

It’s easy to accuse Spielberg of swimming in the shallow water with this material: it’s a break from his more serious recent films and a return to his youthful blockbuster roots, in more ways than one. A sequence recreating a classic horror movie, in particular, is the kind of fun-scary thrill ride we haven’t seen from Spielberg since maybe Jurassic Park and The Lost World (War of the Worlds and parts of A.I. were scary but not fun; Tintin was fun but not scary). Although he shies away from recreating his earlier triumphs, the Indiana Jones movies he made with his fellow “movie brat” George Lucas are just as much a mosaic of ideas from an earlier generation of pop culture as Ready Player One–if you thought I’d come all this way without at least mentioning serials, the joke’s on you–the crucial difference being that Indiana Jones and Star Wars rebranded those ideas, fusing them into new mythologies; Ready Player One is concerned with that process of repackaging in an environment in which nothing ever really goes away.

There’s also no question that Spielberg is calling into question the utility of all this spectacle: like Cline’s book, Ready Player One indulges the fetish for nostalgia and escapism while ultimately concluding that it’s important to go outside once in a while, too. There’s a similar contradiction in its celebration of fan culture and open borders between intellectual properties while mostly including characters owned by producing partner Warner Bros. and a few recognizable Japanese icons (so no Marvel, Star Wars, or anything else owned by Disney, as far as I can tell). For all its flaws, Cline’s book felt like a genuinely personal project, full of weird deep cuts (I for one had never heard of the Japanese Spider-Man TV show in which the web-slinger has a giant robot!) and a citizen of the internet’s embrace of Fair Use to justify borrowing just about anything at all, rolled together into one giant ball, Katamari Damacy-style (see, I can do it too!).

katamari

A battle between the Iron Giant and Mechagodzilla sums up the dumb appeal of this premise, and if you’re not on board for that there’s probably not much I can say to change your mind. On the other hand, in a world in which Facebook memes may have been used to turn the tide of our last election and nations and ideologies contend with one another in virtual spaces to win hearts and minds, the final battle for control of the OASIS, the ultimate mash-up that brings those metal titans together, doesn’t strike me as entirely frivolous. Ready Player One never uses the phrase “Net Neutrality,” but it’s at the heart of Cline’s belief that online connectivity can bring people together just as easily as it separates them, and that it is up to us to choose. (And if that sounds impossibly high-minded, a guy also gets killed by a Madball, and it’s hilarious.)

Mark Rylance as James Halliday (shown in retrospective video and as his online avatar, the wizard Anorak) is the film’s real emotional center, and Ready Player One also touches on the deep sadness at the root of Halliday’s creation, a world in which he could be in control as a substitute for the unpredictability, messiness, and possibility of being hurt in the real. As Wade and his online companions Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and Aech (Lena Waithe) discover, Halliday’s own aborted attempts to connect with other people turn out to be the key to unlocking his puzzles, and Wade’s arc (drawn more clearly here than in the book) is one of getting his head out of the game and connecting to the world around him.

Screenshot_20180330-162010.jpg

In conclusion, Ready Player One is funny, exciting, sometimes scary, and mostly satisfying in the same way it’s satisfying to see those stuck-up kids from the ritzy camp on the other side of the lake get beaten by the rag-tag misfits in every slobs vs. snobs comedy that came out in the 1980s. If it’s ultimately a little shallow and we’re never in doubt that the good guys will win this one, well, that’s part of the package. Will today’s kids be as inspired by this film as Cline and I were by Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark? Despite tips of the hat to post-’80s properties like Minecraft and HALO, if the audience I saw this with is any indication (mostly middle-aged white guys like me), I doubt it. It will likely be an amusing blip in Steven Spielberg’s late career. But for myself, I’ll continue to imagine what could have been, proving that books are the real portals to the imagination. (You might think that I am above deploying such a cliché, but seeing as I have just written over two thousand words about Ready Player One, clearly I am not.)

Advertisements

My 2017 in Books

This year my reading fell into three broad categories: novels and short fiction, mostly in a popular vein; non-fiction; and graphic novels or collections of comics. As usual, this list doesn’t include single issues of comics, magazines, or other non-book reading (although I did read “Cat Person” like everyone else online; it was fine, but woefully short on lycanthropes). I didn’t read much in the way of new books, except for the books on Tupperware and the history of chicken as a dietary staple, both of which I borrowed from the library.

Austen

The best fiction I read this year was Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen has been a blind spot for me for a long time, although I felt as though I knew her work by its film adaptations and by the impact her arch, slyly satiric tone has had in popular culture. The experience of reading her lived up to my expectations and confirmed a tendency to take a similar tack I have noticed in my own writing (not that I am executing anywhere near Austen’s level). I have more to read from her, but two novels in one month seemed like plenty.

Moondust

The best non-fiction I read this year was Moondust, an intriguing book by Andrew Smith detailing his attempts to track down and interview all of the remaining lunar astronauts. The questions these men had to ask themselves–“What do you do after you’ve walked on the moon?”–and the varied answers they came up with (including religion, art, teaching, business, and professional futurism) are vivid portraits of mid-life crisis and (for some of them) reinvention. Further, Smith’s quest has a personal dimension as he weaves his own memories of a space age childhood into his narration, essentially asking the same question for himself and America at large: what now? The notion that the moon race was (at least partly) a work of political theater, a brief flurry of activity that had few lasting effects (satellites and computers aside, there are no lunar colonies, no manned missions to Mars, etc.), is now commonplace, but as someone who grew up in the (relatively conservative) Space Shuttle era, it is still bracing to read these accounts of intense national purpose and the incredible drive it took to accomplish the moon launches. What sticks with me after this book, though, are the personalities (quite varied, even within the hyper-specific psychological and career profiling NASA used to choose its crews), the questions they asked themselves in the wake of their momentous voyages, and the different answers they came up with for themselves.

DCBombshells

In comics, Bombshells was a pleasant discovery: writer Marguerite Bennett and artist Marguerite Sauvage create a compelling alternate World War II, one in which the female heroes and villains of DC Comics (Wonder Woman, Batwoman, Harley Quinn, et al) are the only superhumans (so no Superman, Batman, etc.–male characters like Steve Trevor are involved, but as supporting cast). Visually drawing on pinup art, propaganda posters, and commercial art of the 1940s, Bombshells presents a colorful, almost-familiar world while getting to the essence of these characters and remixing DC lore in inventive ways. It also taps into a spirit of optimism and compassion that suits the characters and the setting. The fact that the series was created as a spinoff from a popular series of pinup-style statues of DC characters isn’t surprising–that’s the biz–but the fact that it is so well executed, as if it had been conceived as a story all along, is. (I’ve only read the first two trade collections; I decided to wait for the whole series to be collected so I can read it in one go, so no spoilers please!)

Here’s the complete list, with some additional commentary:

January
The Dark Half, Stephen King
Tekkon Kinkreet: Black & White All in One, Taiyo Matsumoto
Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History, Glen Berger (“Before something can be brilliant, it first has to be competent.”)

February
Roadshow!: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s, Matthew Kennedy (This book led me to watch Star!, the biopic in which Julie Andrews played music hall performer Gertrude Lawrence, when it aired on TCM. Star! was one of the worst movies I watched this year.)
The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures, Dave Stevens
Mind MGMT Volume One: The Manager, Matt Kindt
Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 1, Jiro Kuwata
The Rocketeer: Hollywood Horror, Roger Langridge and J Bone

March
Bombshells Volume 1: Enlisted, Marguerite Bennett and Marguerite Sauvage et al
Bombshells Volume 2: Allies, Marguerite Bennett and Marguerite Sauvage et al
Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 2, Jiro Kuwata
The Complete Golden Age Airboy & Valkyrie, Fred Kida et al
Gotham City Sirens, Book One, Paul Dini, Guillem March et al
Hit or Myth, Robert Asprin

April
Gotham City Sirens, Book Two, Tony Bedard, Peter Calloway et al
Myth-ing Persons, Robert Asprin
Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records, Amanda Petrusich
Rejected: Tales of the Failed, Dumped, and Canceled, ed. Jon Friedman

May
Nemo Trilogy (Heart of Ice, The Roses of Berlin, River of Ghosts), Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill et al
Wylder’s Hand, J. Sheridan LeFanu
My Life as an Explorer, Sven Anders Hedin

June
Radio Free Albemuth, Philip K. Dick
Murder in Mesopotamia, Agatha Christie
Atomic Bomb Cinema, Jerome F. Shapiro
The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy 1931-1951, Chester Gould

Maybury.cover

July
The Brides of Bellenmore, Anne Maybury
Falcon’s Shadow, Anne Maybury
Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, Glen Weldon
Life of the Party: The Remarkable Story of How Brownie Wise Built, and Lost, a Tupperware Party Empire, Bob Kealing
Tastes Like Chicken: A History of America’s Favorite Bird, Emelyn Rude

August
Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, Craig Nelson
Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth, Andrew Smith

Vault

In September I didn’t read any complete books at all, but as I mentioned then, I read some Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules cover to cover (more thoroughly than I read all but a few even when I was actively playing the game, I must confess). After a lucky find at my local comic store, I had a complete copy of one of the most famous series of published modules, the “GDQ” series (so called because it links three adventures against Giants, against the “dark elf” Drow, and against Lolth, the “Queen of the Demon-Web Pits”); I had wanted to read through these to see how well they really flowed as a single epic campaign, but I had forgotten just how much work the Dungeon Master had to do to flesh out these printed modules in order for them to work as adventures. Like most old-school modules, the bulk of the text simply describes the characters and items found in various rooms; it’s up to the Dungeon Master and players to provide the narrative sweep. Furthermore, the motivations of many characters are either only hinted at or are contingent upon the players’ actions. As I once read, an adventure (whether published or written by the DM for his own game) is not a story, but the promise of a story: only when it is inhabited by players and their characters is it brought to life. Reading the GDQ series was an interesting exercise, and it brought back memories of playing some of these adventures as a kid, but it wasn’t quite what I remembered. (These and other classic adventure modules inspired novelizations, as I found, but I haven’t read them; maybe I will some day.)

October
Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Drabble

November
The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws, Margaret Drabble (Like Moondust, this was another book combining historical research with memoir; Drabble’s meditations on the appeal of the mosaic, on the reuniting of fragmented pieces, of the creation of images within images, are relevant to my own writing and composition, and I was astonished to recognize myself in some passages. The book was not exactly a dynamo of forward momentum, however, and like the act of assembling a puzzle itself, reading this book was a ruminative exercise, replete with long pauses for reassessment of the larger whole.)
Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars 1, Jessica Abel

Pulps.Goodstone

December
The Pulps, ed. Tony Goodstone (a collection of reprints from the Golden Age, the “real stuff”)
Chilling Tales of Horror: Dark Graphic Short Stories, Pedro Rodríguez
Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism and All That Jazz, Kevin Jackson

In 2008 I read Brian Eno’s A Year with Swollen Appendices, a sort of diary of the year 1995, on a day-by-day basis: since A Year starts with Eno’s decision to start a diary on January 1, I began reading it at the beginning of the year and read each entry on the corresponding date, over the course of that year. Eno didn’t write an entry for every single day, but it was close enough, and with the various appendices I had something to read from him almost every day: the book became a constant companion, almost a devotional, and absorbing it slowly, over the course of that year, made more of an impression than reading it quickly might have done (and frankly even the most interesting diaries are frequently mundane and repetitive enough that I wouldn’t read them straight through anyway).

Constellation.1922

After keeping an eye out for a similar book that covered a single year in the same way, I came across Constellation of Genius, a day-by-day record of events in 1922 (ranging from the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land to the opening of King Tut’s tomb and the founding of the Irish Free State) and saw an opportunity to read it in the same way. So that has been an ongoing project over the past year. During that year, I’ve been looking at the cover and seeing the blurb “Brilliantly erudite and very funny” attributed to reviewer Robert Macfarlane, and I confess myself mystified. The first part I cannot deny: author Kevin Jackson has brought together a wealth of material from diverse sources, and is an excellent guide in unfamiliar territory, briefly explaining what has been forgotten or needs to be translated, choosing illustrative anecdotes to stand in for the whole and providing multiple entryways for further exploration of his subjects. But “very funny”? Jackson is a dry wit, and many of the stories he shares are humorous, but I can’t recall busting a gut while reading this; perhaps it is the haunting similarity of the political perils he describes–acts of terrorism and war, the rise of fascism and Stalinism–to those of the present. The foreboding of the interwar period tends to overshadow the lives of the artists and writers, making their heroic feats seem small in the scale of the world’s events. On the other hand, the diary format shows how life goes on, and how the larger patterns of history are frequently invisible until viewed in the hindsight of years. There are about fifty pages of “aftermath” following the December 31 entry, describing the later lives and fates of the book’s major players; if I don’t get it finished tomorrow, I expect to soon enough, and it seemed silly not to include this in my 2017 reading on a technicality.

My 2016 in Books

20160903_160515.jpg

No, I haven’t read all the books in this pile; that’s my haul from one of several library sales I hit this year (I have read a couple of these, so far, though). I really can’t help it: this year I continued to collect books at a rate faster than I could read them (a common problem, I’m afraid), but I did make an effort to read books that were already on my shelf. Other books I got from the library when I could, including most of the graphic novels listed below. (I debated whether to include trade paperback collections of monthly comics, but in the case of Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, I decided what the heck: they’re some of the books I’ve enjoyed most in the last couple of months, and for the record The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe! is a graphic novel in the traditional, standalone sense.)

squirrelgirl

In addition to filling some gaps in my comics reading, I followed through on my promise from last year to read more of the pulp and genre novels that have been crowding my shelves for years. Most are quick reads, and some of them tied into other projects I was involved in. Reading Armageddon 2419 A.D. was part of my preparation to watch the Buck Rogers serial for a feature in The Solute last spring; novels by William MacLeod Raine and Zane Grey (my first Grey!) continued my exploration of the traditional Western.

buckrogers1

And what about those covers! I love the lush cover paintings Ballantine commissioned for its “Adult Fantasy” line back in the late ’60s, and Ron Walotsky’s cover for Fletcher Pratt’s The Blue Star in particular is a great example, intensely colorful and reminiscent of Weird Tales great Hannes Bok and Dungeons & Dragons icon Erol Otus. (The book itself was less psychedelic than the art might suggest, an early example of “parallel world” fantasy whose only speculative element was the presence of psychic witches. The Blue Star was originally published in 1952, early enough that Pratt included a prologue setting up the events of the novel as a dream, unable as he was to assume that contemporary audiences would automatically understand the concept of a secondary world.)

bluestar

Then there’s this one, an ironic bit of spy-fi, found in a used bookstore. I only recently found out that The Bamboo Saucer was made into a movie, but I haven’t seen it. The book was okay. (High Road to China, an aviation adventure set in the interwar years, is another one that was made into a movie; the copy I read is even a tie-in edition with a photo insert of star Tom Selleck, but I have absolutely no memory of the film.)

bamboo1

Other Highlights:

It was a good year for non-fiction for me, and the books on Gary Gygax, Nancy Drew, and Amazing Stories editor Ray Palmer were especially fascinating looks into the publishing industry and the creative process. (The Man From Mars also confirmed that the scientist alter ego of superhero The Atom was named after the Ray Palmer, something I had wondered about.) Another fascinating read was A Kim Jong-Il Production, about the kidnapping of South Korean director Shin Sang-Ok and his wife, actress Choi Eun-hee, who were pressed into service making movies for the North Korean dictator, a noted film buff.

I also read quite a few (mostly short) novels, including books by Jack Vance, the last book of Lemony Snicket’s All the Wrong Questions (a series I enjoyed very much), and a pair of contemporary (ca. 1970) gothic romances by Susan Howatch (another library sale find: how could I resist a cover like this?).

howatch

Aside from The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, comics and graphic novels that I found rewarding were Planetary (I had read the first few issues several years ago, but the Omnibus edition from the library caught me up on the entire series), All-Star Superman (as good as everyone says), and V for Vendetta (unfortunately timely).

Here’s the complete list:

January
Armageddon 2419 A.D., Philip Francis Nowlan
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman
All the Wrong Questions: “Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights?”, Lemony Snicket
A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power, Paul Fischer
League of Somebodies, Samuel Sattin

February
Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media, ed. David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu
Bulldog Drummond, Sapper
Halting State, Charles Stross

March
Mission to the Head-Hunters, Frank and Marie Drown
All-Star Superman, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
The Fighting Tenderfoot, William MacLeod Raine
Cowboys & Aliens, Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley, et al
Al Williamson Adventures, Al Williamson et al
The Planetary Omnibus, Warren Ellis and John Cassaday

April
Heroes of Bear Creek, Robert E. Howard
Big Planet, Jack Vance
The Blue World, Jack Vance

May
The Dragon Masters & Other Stories, Jack Vance
The 6 Voyages of Lone Sloane, Philippe Druillet
Forust: A Tale of Magic Gone Wrong, Adam and Dustin Koski
Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons, Michael Witwer

June
The Blue Star, Fletcher Pratt
Lone Sloane: Delirius, Jacques Lob and Philippe Druillet
Camelot 3000, Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland
The Flight of the Bamboo Saucer, Fritz Gordon
Tales of the Enchanted Islands of the Atlantic, Thomas Wentworth Higginson

July
High Road to China, Jon Cleary
Three Weeks, Elinor Glyn
Last of the Duanes, Zane Grey
Marvelman Classic Vol. 2, Mick Anglo et al

August
Cowgirls: Women of the American West, Teresa Jordan
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne

September
Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, Melanie Rehak
This Business of Bomfog, Madelaine Duke
Critical Mass, Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
The Man From Mars: Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey, Fred Nadis
A Field Guide to Kentucky Kaiju, Justin Stewart, Tressina Bowling and Shawn Pryor
The Man Called Brown Condor: The Forgotten History of an African American Fighter Pilot, Thomas E. Simmons

October
Monster, 1959, David Maine
Best “Thinking Machine” Detective Stories, Jacques Futrelle, ed. E. F. Bleiler
The Waiting Sands, Susan Howatch

November
The Devil on Lammas Night, Susan Howatch
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. One: Squirrel Power, Ryan North and Erica Henderson
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe!, North and Henderson
The Fine Art of Literary Mayhem (2nd ed.), Myrick Land
Howard the Duck Vol. 0: What the Duck, Chip Zdarsky, Joe Quinones et al
The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High, Roseanne Cheng
V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd

December
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. Two: Squirrel, You Know It’s True, North and Henderson
Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, Tony Cliff
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. Three: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now, North and Henderson

Review: Monster, 1959

cover illustration by Owen Richardson

cover illustration by Owen Richardson

K. leaps into existence amid them all, shark-eyed, snake-tongued reality: misery given form, solid and undeniable and taller than Hell itself. Feathers like a bloodsmear across his thorax, claws lashing furrows in the ground. Gangs of teeth glaring at the crowd over his lipless slash. Everybody screams.

It sounds like science fiction, and in strict terms, it is. The plot is the most familiar element of David Maine’s 2008 novel Monster, 1959–explorers discover an extraordinary monster on a remote Pacific island, and after restraining the beast they transport it to America to put it on display, after which eventually everything goes to Hell–but the novelty of the story isn’t really Maine’s concern. Monster, 1959 is the kind of novel that applies probing psychological realism to genre material, finding unexpected complexity beneath the surface of broadly-sketched stock types. What Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love did for Freaks and its body-horror descendants, Monster, 1959 does for King Kong and the monster movies of the 1950s.

If so many of the alien-invasion and monster-rampage stories of the Cold War were metaphors for political anxieties, postwar social displacement, and the catch-all term “future shock,” Maine is concerned with re-literalizing those metaphors, making sure that his fanciful monster mash takes place in a world that includes not only Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the bomb tests on Bikini Atoll, but also the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the eviction of Palestinians from newly-formed Israel. Maine’s omniscient shifts in focus from close-ups on the main characters to the wide shots of world events is reminiscent of the intriguing book Welcome to Mars by Ken Hollings and Erik Davis, which also shares Monster, 1959‘s year-by-year structure in making connections between seemingly disparate strands of history and popular culture.

In Monster, 1959, the main characters are the giant chimerical monster K., for “Kama ka,” the name given to him by the islanders who worship him as a god (but perhaps also standing for Kong, or kaiju, or in reference to the monogrammatic protagonist of Franz Kafka’s The Trial); Betty, the white woman whom K. first abducts and then finds himself strangely bonded to; and Johnny, the square-jawed man of action and Betty’s husband/rescuer. In retelling this age-old but highly specific beauty-and-the-beast tale, the members of the central triangle (and numerous characters who enter their orbit) are given shading and moral ambiguity, and of course relevance beyond the single story.

The novel’s most winning creation is K. himself, and Maine effortlessly relates events from K.’s perspective: animalistic, responsive to direct stimuli, and without much imagination or sense of the past or future. Despite the limitations inherent in writing from this point of view, Maine sketches a believable (and believably mysterious) persona. It’s common for audiences to partially identify with King Kong or Godzilla, but Maine is interested in what it would really feel like to be such a creature. While there is a fair amount of action in the story (“some sci-fi monster violence,” as the MPAA would have it), for all his size and power, K. is not the bloodthirsty predator one might expect; in fact, he’s a vegetarian. K.’s reactions to the humans invading his domain, the strange effect that Betty and her singing have on him, and his confusion at the series of entrapments and enclosures that he endures convey both how alien K.’s mentality is, and how alienating the modern world is when seen anew. Like the greatest movie monsters, K. is fearsome but ultimately sympathetic.

K., chained and transported in a custom box car, drugged and put on display in one roadshow after another, isn’t the only character who is trapped. There’s Doug, the seven-foot-two circus performer whose freakish height has come to be just as much a prison, and to whom the duty of administering K.’s sedatives has devolved. “It would be falsely melodramatic to say,” Maine tells us, “When Doug injects K., he feels as if he is injecting himself.” All the same, he does become disenchanted and disgusted enough to begin passive-aggressively slacking off, a decision that makes K.’s dramatic escape from confinement while performing at Madison Square Garden as inevitable as the failure of Jurassic Park’s electric fences. Life finds a way.

Betty, whom K. abducts all over again in New York, is not just a damsel in distress, but a woman of her generation whose deepest urges tell her to “throw herself into” her marriage and to give Johnny the benefit of the doubt. This extends to playing along with their friend Billy’s scheme to take the monster on tour, reenacting her abduction as a modern Romeo and Juliet story for paying audiences, against her better judgment. Johnny, over the course of the novel, finds that his experience in rescuing Betty has awakened a taste for adrenaline and alpha-male displays of prowess, a search for ever-greater highs that is ultimately his undoing. Ultimately it comes down to sex in forms as polymorphous as K.’s own mismatched body. “By now,” Maine writes after a particularly perverse episode, “you might be forgiven for wondering: Are there any normal people in this movie? It’s a fair question. To which the only possible answer would have to be: Are there any normal people in the world?

Finally, Monster, 1959 is no mere pastiche or stylistic exercise. Like the best environmental horror, it’s a warning, with K., the troubled child of the atomic bomb and master of an island of mutated terrors, returning like a bad dream to the country that created him and had hoped to forget him. Just as in a movie, the monster may be dispatched, but audiences know the fears that created it are still out there, and the monster can always come back.

THE END . . . ?

Review: A Field Guide to Kentucky Kaiju

The United States has its share of giant monsters, most famously King Kong, but let’s face it: if you’re really a fan, you’ve probably looked to our friends in Japan and wondered at the range of kaiju (“strange beasts”) that make the Land of the Rising Sun their home: Godzilla, Gamera, Ghidorah, and even some whose names don’t begin with the letter G. It seemed like unless you lived somewhere on the Pacific Rim, your chances of finding a native-grown kaiju were pretty slim . . . until now.

kk-cover

Justin Stewart, Tressina Bowling, and Shawn Pryor have provided A Field Guide to Kentucky Kaiju to introduce some of the critters that call the Bluegrass State home. Just as its title indicates, Kentucky Kaiju is a bestiary, a collection of two-page spreads with descriptive text, a guidebook that populates its imaginary Kentucky with both creatures that fit the character of their home and a history that ties them together. The book features dozens of imaginative creations, from the reptilian, hundred-foot-tall Komodo Supremis to the “micro-kaiju” Mini-Mainframe, a super-intelligent mouse. It’s the kind of book I would often spend hours at a time browsing as a kid, and the creators haven’t forgotten the simple pleasure of looking at pictures of cool, larger-than-life monsters. Every page has some witty or inventive surprise.

In fleshing out the beasts that might live in Kentucky, the creators naturally draw on the native fauna as well as such regional staples as horse racing, bourbon, and barbecue, giving a local flavor to the genre (the phrase “unregulated country science” is just one of the many delightful hooks that sent my own imagination racing). There’s also a sly humor in many of the details, from the “kaibetes” (kaiju diabetes) that the insectoid Black Gnat contracted from its obsession with New Coke to the super-patriotism of Navigator Ace, a three-headed eagle who lives on red, white and blue bomb pops and listens to Garth Brooks between bouts against other kaiju.

Texant illustration by Justin Stewart

Texant illustration by Justin Stewart

Historically, many kaiju have represented the awesome power of nature or man’s scientific hubris; many of the creatures in this book are primal in their appeal, with connections to the still-untamed wilderness of mountains and forests. Some of these wild and powerful creatures are described as being contained in special wildlife reserves and isolated state parks, away from population centers where they might cause trouble. But for the more domesticated kaiju, the Kentucky they inhabit is modern and down-to-earth, with many of them making their homes in truck stops, pizza joints, and even a drive-in movie theater. And there’s more to life for these beasts than rampaging: you’d be surprised how many of them enjoy the poetry of Langston Hughes. Yet more are described as already dead, having perished in battle with their monstrous cousins.

True to the kaiju genre, many of the kaiju have become guardians of their particular town or landmark. Some of these heroic creatures were the results of scientific experiments (indeed, one of the threads that runs through the book is the attempt to harness or exploit the kaiju’s miraculous qualities, which doesn’t always work out as planned), or are second-generation kaiju that retain the good qualities of their unmutated parent animal. An example is Catdronius, defender of Battle, Kentucky, a hybrid cat-butterfly kaiju so gentle in repose that it allows children to ride on its back (if they’ve signed a waiver).

Catdronius illustration by Tressina Bowling

Catdronius illustration by Tressina Bowling

A Field Guide to Kentucky Kaiju is a lot of fun to look at, thanks to the loose ink-and-brush illustrations (by Stewart and Bowling; the companion text is by Pryor). The creature designs are inventive, mostly true to the spirit of the “rubber suit” monster movies that are a clear inspiration, and which leave enough to the imagination to inspire readers to come up with their own explanations for details in the picture. (Personally, I have a lot of questions about Convoyacon, the result of a sentient liquor-barrel mating with a train car; hopefully one of the promised future installments of Kentucky Kaiju will shed some light on that episode.)

Although not explicitly being promoted as a gaming supplement, I can see game masters getting a lot of mileage out of this book as both a colorful campaign setting or as a source of wacked-out monster ideas. As with those bestiaries and monster manuals I enjoyed flipping through as a young reader, Kentucky Kaiju is perhaps most valuable as a launchpad for readers to imagine their own stories; as with any “shared world” or open-ended mythology, be it the Godzilla series or the tall tales of the South, it invites readers to play along and add their own pieces to the crazy quilt laid in front of them.

A Field Guide to Kentucky Kaiju by Justin Stewart, Tressina Bowling, and Shawn Pryor will be released by Apex Book Company (who graciously provided me with a PDF preview copy) on October 18. It’s currently available for pre-order.

Purple Prose, Purple Death

Cap.purpledeath

In watching the 1944 Captain America serial (for which I’ll have a full write-up next week), I was struck by the title of the first chapter, “The Purple Death,” a title shared by the first chapter of the 1940 serial Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. In Captain America, the Purple Death refers to the extract of a rare orchid that makes its victims susceptible to hypnotic control (the “death” part comes when the victims are ordered to kill themselves, helpless to resist); in Flash Gordon, it’s a mysterious, fatal disease spread from Mongo to Earth that leaves its victims marked by a purple spot.

FG3.purpledeath

The pulps (as well as comic strips and serials) were known for lurid, vividly-drawn stories with larger-than-life heroes and impossibly wicked villains to match. Purple is an attention-getting color, to the point that we speak of “purple prose.” I was also reminded of the Purple Empire, one of the enemy nations that Operator #5 fought against in the 1930s. (I thought there might be some significance to that, but the Operator series included a rainbow of enemy nations, possibly influenced by the color-coded War Plans developed by the U. S. military during the 1920s and ’30s.)

Cap.headline

In reading and watching stories from the 1930s and ’40s, I’ve encountered the phrase “purple death,” or uses of purple as a dangerous and dramatic color, enough times that I wondered if there was an underlying connection. So, in the spirit of Philip J. Reed’s Pop Questions, I’m asking: what’s the significance of the color purple in the pulps, and why particularly is death purple? Does it refer to the livid color of a bruise or the marks left by strangulation? Is it the association with royalty, by extension gaudy and powerful? I have a few leads that seem likely, but if anyone reading this has a specific answer, I’d love to hear it.

Cap.headline2

Purple is associated with death and mourning in many cultures, including the Victorians of the nineteenth century, for whom purple was the color of “demi-mourning,” to be worn after a period of wearing black. It was also the color of royalty, originally due to the rarity and high cost of purple dyes in the ancient world. It would certainly match both the dramatic style and frequent (if shallow) references to history and classic literature in the pulps if that were the reason. I don’t have statistics at hand, but my hunch is that as comic books became the dominant medium for pulp storytelling, more villains than heroes had purple uniforms or color schemes.

joker

However, the most likely answer goes back to the 1918 influenza epidemic: the disease killed quickly, and often left its victims purple in color as their lungs filled with blood and starved the body of oxygen. One book on the subject is even titled Purple Death. According to some estimates, as many as 50 million people worldwide died during from the disease. Just as pulp heroes were often veterans of the Great War, so the memory of the epidemic would have resonated with writers and readers in the decades that followed. In Flash Gordon, the Purple Death was also a disease, and the scenes of public panic and the scramble to find a cure hearken directly to the 1918 epidemic; by comparison, the use of the phrase in Captain America is almost poetic, but would likely have still induce a twinge of fear for those who remembered it. Even today, with no direct memory of the influenza epidemic, it sounds ominous.

iowa_flu2

So perhaps that’s the answer. If any readers have more details to offer, or facts to contradict my speculations, I’d love to hear them. Any other examples of purple as a color marking death or danger are, of course, welcome.

My 2015 in Books

20151206_144709.jpg

As the year draws to a close, it’s time for another post to summarize my activity in the past twelve months. As I did last year, I kept track of the books I read this year (I’ll look back on films I watched this year tomorrow). As before, I’ve only listed books I read from beginning to end (that’s why only one of the Robert E. Howard collections I wrote about in October is listed, the others having been read before). All were first-time reads (although I know I had read parts of American Humor before, but apparently not the whole thing), and I managed to keep my resolution to read more than I did last year, including some classics (hey, it turns out Moby Dick is a pretty good book!).

How does one summarize a year of reading activity? I don’t read by working through a list: I have books in mind that I want to get to, and I own a lot of books I haven’t read yet, but in general I let the last book I finished help me decide what to read next. Sometimes I continue along a certain track (several threads appeared in my reading this year, including books about the art and craft of writing; Wonder Woman and the fascinating behind-the-scenes story of her creator, psychologist and sex researcher William Moulton Marston; non-fiction on a variety of subjects; and several novels and collections of fiction).

After reading so much about Wonder Woman, the opportunity to pick up a set of reprints of her contemporary Phantom Lady made for a useful comparison. For one thing, it’s interesting to observe how much bondage and role-playing is in the wholesome Wonder Woman as opposed to the supposedly racier Phantom Lady; the difference is largely in that Moulton’s Wonder Woman presents its themes of domination and restraint from a playful perspective, and Harry G. Peter’s simple illustrations don’t draw quite as much as attention as Matt Baker’s famous “good girl” art (although in Classic Phantom Lady Volume Two, Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. makes a strong case that Baker drew much less Phantom Lady than he is usually credited with).

At other times, after spending time in a particular headspace, I’m ready for a change: I was eager to part company with “Walter,” the narrator of the Victorian sexual diary My Secret Life, after nearly 600 pages (and the original work was published in eleven volumes!). “Walter’s” escapades are by turns titillating, horrifying, and deeply sad, the book itself a mixture of Victorian letters to Penthouse, inadvertent social history, and pre-Freudian psychosexual analysis. Even abridged, it’s “everything you wanted to know about Victorian sex but were afraid to ask.”

That made Edmond Hamilton’s The Valley of Creation, a short and breezy pulp novel, a welcome palate-cleanser. I used to read such short novels frequently; although I enjoyed most of them, I also thought of them as research, fleshing out my picture of the pulp era and stocking up on plot and character formulas for future reference. I still have many on my shelves that I haven’t gotten to (many of them were boxed up until this year, when I got some new book shelves and was able to unpack them), so perhaps 2016 will be a year to renew my acquaintance with the diverse output of the pulps.

ValleyofCreation

January
Danse Macabre, Stephen King
Ghost Story, Peter Straub
On Writing, Stephen King
Don’t Fear the Reaper: Why Every Author Needs an Editor, Blake Atwood
The Juggler, Rachilde (trans. Melanie C. Hawthorne)
Wonder Woman: the Life and Times of the Amazon Princess, Les Daniels

February
American Humor: A Study of the National Character, Constance Rourke
The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore

March
Moby Dick, Herman Melville

April
The Wonder Woman Chronicles Volume One, William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peter
A Year with a Whaler, Walter Noble Burns
Wonder Woman: Feminism and Bondage in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948, Noah Berlatsky
Revival, Stephen King
The Wonder Woman Chronicles Volume Two, Marston and Peter
Cities of Dreams, Stan Gooch

May
Guardian of the Gods, Mark Rodgers

June
The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, ed. Sean Wallace
Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan, John Taliaferro
The Wonder Woman Chronicles Volume Three, Marston and Peter

July
Classic Phantom Lady Volume One, various
Classic Phantom Lady Volume Two, various
Classic Phantom Lady Volume Three, various
Ladies in Distress, Kalton C. Lahue

August
The Pentagon: A History, Steve Vogel
The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission, Jim Bell
Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder
Illegal Tender: Gold, Greed, and the Mystery of the Lost 1933 Double Eagle, David Tripp

September
The Orientalist, Tom Reiss
The Haunter of the Ring & Other Tales, Robert E. Howard

November
The Log of a Cowboy, Andy Adams
All the Wrong Questions: “Shouldn’t You Be in School?”, Lemony Snicket
The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell

December
My Secret Life, Anonymous, ed. James Kincaid
The Valley of Creation, Edmond Hamilton

So, readers, I ask you: what did you read this year? Did you meet any reading goals, and what do you look forward to reading in the new year?