Reviewing Ready Player One, Wool, and The Martian

With a recent announcement by Paramount Pictures that they are going to scoop of the last the ‘holy trifecta’ of self-published fantasy novels I wonder, not for the last time, whether if I am alone in my apathy towards the ‘holy trifecta’ of Ready Player One, The Martian and Wool. They’re almost always mentioned together whenever I browse blogs, reddit or anywhere at all online. I legitimately believe something is wrong with me because I’ve read all three and found all three to be substantially similar, even if the details are all fiddled about, and for those reasons to find them as books to be terrible reads.

Ready Player One was a fluff fest that could be easily devoured and forgotten—sort of like a BigMac. Its careful curator of 80s memorabilia, who occasionally acts like a protagonist, strings together little set scenes that are barely related, which come together and pop apart without much ever happening. Some people come, some die and everyone is steadfastly opposed to personal growth of any sort. Death is followed by resurrection, defeat by victory, but it is impossible to say what, if anything, changed.

Similarly, if read literally, the Martian is about a sociopath stuck on Mars. Read literally it’s someone who has a complete absence of any emotional or psychological depth, much less growth, yet is someone vaguely concerned with proving thirteen year-old science ‘enthusiasts’ wrong about his methods. Or at least that’s the only conclusion I came to after reading this very thin presentation of ‘what-if-stranded-on-Mars?’ Read charitably, it’s a book about someone who has an above average understanding of ‘science,’ if science is periodically explaining a few quirks of chemistry and engineering. That is to say, it’s a book about the author and it shows. It’s certainly not about an astronaut actually on Mars.

I recently read Wool, and I was not entirely surprised for it to be equally devoid of any humanity and primarily concerned with concocting and connecting in a generally linear way a series of somewhat-thought-out scenes that would be more fitting for the ‘big screen’ than literature. It went down easily, sometimes I detected a faint whiff of irony but eventually I assumed that it was unintended self-parody rather than intentional. And again I was struck by the same feeling of not even reading a book, more like a type of frothy summer movie mixed in with an author who never really manages to disguise themselves. An acquaintance sat down with me and sort of hashed out his vision for a movie, but unfortunately we were interrupted so he took it upon himself to inflict on me his vision in an email. Unfortunately because I really don’t have much interest in reading a movie.

In fact, about a year ago, a few months ago and as recently as last week I was recommending for people who were truly divided on what one to begin (of the three, of the two or one of them singularly) to first wait for the movies. “If you really are torn between the three I’d suggest just jumping straight to comic books or a good television series. The books are either written with an eye towards television or edited that way. Or perhaps just read the few pages that are everyone’s “favorite scenes,” because that is exactly what they are. Scenes.” A reader would be much better served by ignoring “the shoehorning into the written word and enjoy them in a few years once Paramount picks them up.”

With obviously bogus protagonists, these authors must now depend on the cunning of their narrative gifts to propel these characters through great events. Finding the keys to the kingdom, finding a way off of Mars with some poop and potatoes, uncovering the secrets of a silo that depends on those very same secrets for its existence. Throughout it all the scenery, while entertaining, never quite matches up with the characters. I’m reminded of an archaic type of film where the scenery, painted on a tarp, is flung through the air by the operators without any prompting from the actors. They can keep up or they can fall behind. They can jump ahead. But the two aren’t related. At most it’s coincidence that they’re in unison.

Of course, Fox ended up picking up the Martian and Wool. Paramount captured Ready Player One. I was sort of right. They finally get to be what they were always meant to be, movies, and I still don’t get why anyone thinks they make good books. They’re scripts, at best, or at least good ideas for scripts. And really I can’t wait for the movies to air because then we can stop pretending that these novels are primarily, or even at all, concerned about sentences.

Notes

Dear Reader, let me apologize for my prolonged absence. I cannot explain the implosion. I have never been terribly productive. I have always felt a little out of place in the cult of the economy. I find myself, as if I was lost, in graduate school. The dual threats of work, fulfilling, and study, less so, strains my soul. I have also found a Dear Other who I love.

As my last post hinted this Dear Other is quite Dear. Like all people, unfortunately, they will always be an Other—no matter how Dear. My energy is sent to cheery exploits of exploring and mapping and existing with Dear Other. I have no other words to describe it, and since I cannot I will not. These energies are gratefully expended but writing becomes difficult. My world has collapsed and have my usual subjects.

In equal parts fortunate and unfortunate I have received a steady supply of comments and views—more than I ever imagined. Fortunate because each encourages me to do something I enjoy like a wink or a nudge. Unfortunate because I feel unable to meet even these humble expectations.

But perhaps I put too much pride in my work. Too much ego. Is writing that difficult? I can hear the silent head shaking from here, ‘producing my drivel, surely, can’t be hard’—is it a question or a statement of fact? I cannot tell. Or perhaps it is precisely because I can’t escape my love of needless literary blandishments that makes writing so hard.

What I do know, and now accept, is that I celebrate novels when they defy those dominations and powers that enslave us. This is my house of worship, and if you would like to take an occasional peek—dear reader—then all the better. If there is pride then I cannot escape it. Prometheus somewhat cryptically observes, “Time, growing ever older, teaches all things.” Or, as Dr Johnson notes, reflecting Matthew’s Gospel, “Pride must have a fall;” thus proving I have the real thing and not merely the mock.

In my spare time, for I have many hours that I fill with trivial pursuits, I write myself notes. I write myself notes about odd things. Recently I wrote some notes while I watched, equal parts amused and bemused, an American-Japanese animated serial called Cowboy Bebop.

I do not think the show needs much introduction, mainly because the exact content I relate well as this note goes along, enough and the actual content you either know, dear reader, or do not. Without firsthand knowledge you are not missing much, and with firsthand knowledge you are not missing much. Suffice to say the series details the exploits of two guys in the far future. Their job, or at least what they occasionally do to acquire money, is odd jobs. Usually capturing or killing people—think of a Western but in space. Needless to say the lessons I drew from my viewing did not relate to the plot.

One thing I’ve noticed from the two or three episodes of Cowboy Bebop that I saw, I’m afraid it never quite caught on with me, is how it paired itself down to two general themes. The first being ‘American Western’ to the point of being a farce or satire, campy, perhaps in the same mold as the Italian spaghetti westerns like the Dollars trilogy (e.g. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). The second being the Japanese penchant for pinpoint expression bridging a vast emptiness of unspoken (here, unwritten) details. Described, once, as “the emptiness, the nothingness, of the Orient… not to be taken for the nihilism of the West.”

I’m reminded of this passage from Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler, which may (or may not) be an excerpt from a fictional Japanese book On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon.

the shower of little ginkgo leaves is characterized by the fact that in each moment each leaf that is falling is found at a different altitude from the others, whereby the empty and insensitive space in which the visual sensations are situated can be subdivided into a succession of levels in each of which we find one little leaf twirling and one alone.

Like much of Calvino’s work it is, curiously and truly, unique. Part of that uniqueness in how he grasps something that, seemingly, Cowboy Bebop grasps. A certain zeitgeist paired away of all the other influences radiating outwards from the Home Islands.

In Japanese literature what does not move, and what goes unsaid, is often as important as movement. Absence propels just as rapidly as presence. I find a reflection of this dynamic on the screen in Cowboy Bebop because there is often never more than a single animation overlaid on a static background. It’s interesting to see this habit reflected, to an almost comical degree, in the show because one can count on a single hand any frame where more than one movement is shown. Even the fight scenes are carefully choreographed routines where one arm moves through the air to connect at one point.

Bebop’s arc captures, for me, the zeitgeist of Japanese literature. Perhaps the Bebop series, much less Calvino’s slender chapter, is too campy to fully capture Japanese literature in total. Actually there is no perhaps at all. But they are useful, at least as useful as Sergio Leone when he captured the American zeitgeist in Clint Eastwood. Because Bebop’s use is that it refracts a unique quality of Japanese literature across the screen, sometimes badly but well enough.

Dear reader, a quick note. My definition of unique is, well, unique. Thus departing widely from the practice of Irving Babbitt Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard, who, if I am to believe the indulgent fourth edition of Webster’s International Dictionary, could bring himself to write at least once of the “less unique” just as the novelist Dorothy Canfield Fisher could write of the “more unique” and the playwright Arthur Miller could cap it all by writing of “the most unique.” We can only look nostalgically toward that once-upon-a-time when “unique” was an exceedingly powerful and precise word. Now we observe the erosion of its meaning. No longer can we indicate the only one of its kind, having no like or equal. Another victim of sloppy semantic change for the word has deteriorated into a rough synonym of unparalleled–but not even quite. Much more closer to odd, curious, unusual or even quaint.

Japanese writers focus a tremendous amount of energy on the experience of alienation. The recent Murakami craze, which is certainly not limited to Japan, highlights the trend: South of the Border, West of the Sun. The book contains some extremely poignant explorations of coming of age, early relationships, etc. But crucially the protagonist never escapes the emotions and memories from that adolescent period in his life, the period that everyone faces as one of extreme alienation hangs over the protagonist for the rest of his life.

I think this is also why some people have such a strong reaction to his work. Even when Murakami is writing about adult protagonists he is describing adolescence’s (and adolescences’) alienation. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle the protagonist is faced with unfathomable changes in himself, his relationships with women, and the world around him. These changes bring him into a new, stranger world that he is unequipped to function but must. Everything from the wet dreams to the confusing inexplicable relationship with the girl next door evokes the creamy confusion of adolescence.

 

In Murakami’s works, the narrator is almost always somehow set apart from the world he ostensibly exists in. In the end of the world portions contained within Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World the narrator (apparently) possesses the only ego or mind in Town. This is mirrored in the hard-boiled wonderland portions of the novel, where the narrator is cut off from a portion of his own mind, and apparently unaware of the strangeness around him.

This is something Bebop captures and captures well. Perhaps it is also why the show fares so well with a particular age range and, like skateboarding, if you do not approach it at the right age you feel silly when you try. Ultimately the main protagonist in Cowboy Bebop is an adolescent. The other side-show protagonist plays a fairly conventional father figure. He is needlessly and inexplicably thrown from one situation to another where love, loss and confusion drift interchangeably—and senselessly—in a world where adults’ plans dominate.

As a passing remark, for everyone who enjoys Cowboy Bebop I hope that you would take a look at Phillip K. Dick’s novels, especially Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. I find the emptiness of Japanese literature reflected in Dick’s “California spirituality,” which was at least sincere and arguably superior to Cowboy Bebop’s heavy handed effort to apply a Zen-like emptiness to wild Japanese conceptions of American westerns.

Admittedly, Dick was not intentional in the same way about the sci-fi. In Bebop I found the sci-fi to be, largely, just enough to make it politically digestible. And perhaps most noticeably in Dick’s there are no real starships flying around the galaxy. But on the other hand Bebop always seemed to be in the future just far enough so one would care about whether he is driving a Toyota or Ford, whether his father killed my dad or your’s, ect. The future, in Bebop, functioned as a mechanism to place it beyond today’s political concerns but not so far we would not worry about alienation.

Somewhat amusingly, in Bebop the date was never important beyond the first few seconds for the obligatory ‘star port’ scene. And I always found those portions of the episodes to be stylistically and thematically at odds with the rest of the episode. The scenes were a simple device to provide a fig leaf of progression to the plot for audiences antsy about the post-modernist, inconclusive endings that characterized the show. The practical effect is rather small.

So Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? has the same setting, generally, and the same Eastern nihilism. ‘Who am I? What am I about?’ The style is generally similar, if we can agree on Bebop’s culture heritage. Finally, it has a great amount of reality-based science that may seem a little old, now, but at the time was quite forward thinking.

Quod scripsi scripsi.

Gorging on the Drugs of Solitude

It’s a quote by E. M. Cioran from A Short History of Decay. “I gorge myself on all the drugs of solitude; those of the world were too weak to make me forget it. Having killed the prophet in me, how could I still have a place among men?” His prose is a reflection of what he wants. At once a tide going out, sweeping up and out all the precious and precocious structures we’ve built on the shore.

“You imagine, in the name of faith, that you are conquering yourself; in fact, you seek to perpetuate it in eternity, this earthly duration being insufficient for you… The megalomania of monasteries exceeds all that the sumptuous fevers of palaces ever imagined.”

And some more.

“I have sought for the geography of Nothingness, of unknown seas and another sun — pure of the scandal of life-bearing rays — I have sought for the rocking of a skeptical ocean in which islands and axioms are drowned, the vast liquid narcotic, tepid and sweet and tired of knowledge.

Even the skeptic, in love with his doubts, turns out to be a fanatic of skepticism. Man is the dogmatic being par excellence; and his dogmas are all the deeper when he does not formulate them, when he is unaware of them, and when he follows them

One deception triumphs: there results a religion, a doctrine, or a myth — and a host of adepts; another fails; then it is only a divagation, a theory, or a fiction. Only inert things add nothing to what they are: a stone does not lie; it interests no one — whereas life indefatigably invents: life is the novel of matter.

The true believer is scarcely to be distinguished from the madman; but his madness is legal, acknowledged; he would end up in an asylum if his aberrations were pure of all faith. But God covers them, legitimizes them.

And how could modesty be a virtue of temples, when a decrepit old woman who imagines Infinity within reach raises herself by prayer to a level of audacity to which no tyrant has ever laid claim?

You imagine, in the name of faith, that you are conquering yourself; in fact, you seek to perpetuate it in eternity, this earthly duration being insufficient for you… The megalomania of monasteries exceeds all that the sumptuous fevers of palaces ever imagined.

Me… I want to wallow in my mortality. I want to remain normal.

If we put in one pan the evil the “pure” have poured out upon the world, and in the other the evil that has come from men without principles and without scruples, the scale would tip toward the first.

A conformist, I live, I try to live, by imitation, by respect for the rules of the game, by horror of originality… It is because we are all impostors that we endure each other. The man who does not consent to lie will see the earth shrink under his feet: we arebiologically obliged to the false.”

I ramble on in the style of an essayist who freely associates one remembered quotation, or fragment of an idea with another until it becomes time to stop. Of Vladimir Nabokov Arendt writes in 1962: “There is something in [him] which I greatly dislike. As though he wanted to show you all the time how intelligent he is. And as though he thinks of himself in terms of ‘more intelligent than.’ There is something vulgar in his refinement.”

Cioran seems like an error of Clio’s. Deposited in a world that he was already too old for. By the second day he was infinitely tired of it. But here he is. It’s a cold wind that flows across his work but in some perverse sense, after I’ve read and digested his aphoristic essays that always have me reaching for a highlighter, I can’t help but feel more alive.  It is disturbing, surprising.

I suppose, in some sense, this is a book review. I don’t know if that is accurate. But I would encourage you, dear reader, to pick up the book. It seems to be one of those books that never fail to spruce up my otherwise colorless writing.

Thoughts Under an Indolent Sun

There is no point to this piece, dear reader, so you should politely excuse yourself now.

I completed reading a novel by Alberto Moravia, Boredom. He is an author who embodies the modern-day author whose work has only one common requirement: the work cannot stand alone. The body of work needs to be taken in as a whole, instead of one artifact speaking for the man. Whether this is good or bad is up to you, dear reader, to decide. But the orientation of the novelist is not readily legible without acknowledging that fact and, even, placing him at the headwaters–along with Italo Svevo–of the Italian untouchables. Untouched by war, untouched by compassion and untouched by Italian upheaval following 1945. Boredom stands alone, but only weakly. His quality grows as you read him. But unlike modern writers he is not modern, and thus the typicality of his work is instead prophetic. He wrote what he could. The rest would be left up to others, perhaps those like Calvino, perhaps not. For that I admire him whereas some modern writers, given everything, still refrain.

Here is a nice quote from the Paris Review, which interviewed him: “Writers, like all artists, are concerned to represent reality, to create a more absolute and complete reality than reality itself. They must, if they are to accomplish this, assume a moral position, a clearly conceived political, social, and philosophical attitude; in consequence, their beliefs are, of course, going to find their way into their work. What artists believe, however, is of secondary importance, ancillary to the work itself. A writer survives despite his beliefs. Lawrence will be read whatever one thinks of his notions on sex. Dante is read in the Soviet Union.” The Art of Fiction VI: Alberto Moravia. Paris Review, (6), 16-37.

What a restricted view of agency! We cannot help but read Dante, Lawrence and Moravia. What an interesting thought. Continue reading

Lost in the Funhouse

Lost in the Funhouse

It should be, and probably has been, told to a psychoanalyst, and it has been elaborated into a novel which contains some wonderful writing, but it is overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian. To the public, it will be revolting. It will not sell, and it will do immeasurable harm to a growing reputation … It is a totally perverse performance all around … I am most disturbed at the thought that the writer has asked that this be published. I can see no possible cause could be served by its publication now. I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.

 

A cute, quick and entertaining look at Nabokov’s Lolita.