Otherworld – Review

“A future in which there’s only one all-powerful Company doesn’t seem totally preposterous anymore.”

Otherworld is the reboot of a virtual reality game that people swore was like heaven, it was so perfect. What we actually get in this book is Otherworld 2.0, the revamped version brought back from the virtual dead by a young billionaire.

Initially the headsets are limited, and Simon manages to get a set for him and his not girlfriend, Kat. Apparently this is the only way he can see her, and he goes to some pretty extreme lengths to do it. Obviously things fall apart fairly quickly, and both headsets end up getting destroyed.

But when Kat ends up in an accident, Simon is convinced it wasn’t an accident after all, and that Otherworld holds the answers he’s looking for. Stumbling into a top secret test program that eliminates the need for a headset at all, Simon begins to see the plans the Corporation actually has for Otherworld. Suddenly, he’s not just playing a game, but the game of his life. Literally.

“This is true virtual reality — not just sight, sound and touch. Tap into the brain and you can engage all five senses.”

It’s been a few weeks since I finished Otherworld, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. It’s still a solid three star read for me. I don’t know if I read it too soon after Ready Player One, which just blew the virtual reality parts of this book to bits, or if I just wasn’t that impressed. It was a fun read, and I enjoyed reading it, don’t get me wrong. But, if you’re looking for smart science fiction, this isn’t it.

Otherworld is definitely a YA book. It is written for a Young Adult audience, and while it has some humorous parts that adults and more mature readers will like, it’s still firmly in the mid-teen YA spectrum.

Simon is an interesting character. He is a weird mix of likable asshole. I had an easier time visualizing him when I pictured Jason Segel’s humor, but if you aren’t familiar with his previous movies and shows, I’m not sure it comes across on it’s own merit. He is a bit spoiled, very privileged, and while his loyalty to Kat is impressive, he just didn’t find his way into my heart. That said, I didn’t hate him either. I think he could have been a bit better developed.

We end up with a story within a story, or rather two different plots taking place. One inside Otherworld and one in the real world. Simon has to straddle both, and figure out how the two are related to each other.

“It’s not virtual if it changes who you are.”

Otherworld does bring up important conversations about technology. When does virtual reality just become reality. At what point can that technology take over our every day lives? Can it influence and change the way we behave as a society? I think presenting these questions to a generation that will have to explore these questions in more detail is smart. I wish it presented more for them to analyze, but to raise the questions is a valid start.

The plot inside Otherworld is also fairly interesting, and I wish it was a lot more developed, or that they continue to develop it in future books. The idea that somehow a virtual world could “create” it’s own new characters and rules. Sort of an advanced AI or sorts, limited to existing in just this world.

This war between the original components and The Children was an fascinating discussion into implications of technology and what happens when we humans begin developing things that we really have no control over, or really understanding of. I think that this would have been an endlessly fascinating thread to really examine. But, in the scope of that younger YA audience, the world building in that regard was minimal. Again, I hope they dive down this rabbit hole in the future.

I think pieces of Otherworld are unique and fun, but really, it’s fairly standard video game “levels” presented within a virtual world. It raises important questions but doesn’t really explore them in any meaningful way, at least not yet. But it is a fun read, and goes by fast.

The Evaporation of Sofi Snow – Review

“How quickly humans could turn on each other when fed suspicion. Like smoke tossed out as solid evidence, whispered into the frightened ears of those needing someone to blame in order to feel safe again.”

Sofi Snow is a gamer. Working as part of a team of gamers to help her Corporation fight for blood and glory in the FanFight Games, a sport combining virtual gaming with real life. In a world where the corporations took over in the place of governments world wide, playing in these games means a chance at freedom. A chance at life.

“The Fantasy Fighting Games had been the result of Earth’s unquenchable thirst for virtual fun, violent sports, and citizen-elected superstars.”

When a bomb explodes, killing her brother Shilo and nearly her entire gaming team, Sofi wakes up to a world she doesn’t recognize. A world where corporate espionage and power plays are working at things she doesn’t understand. But her life is at risk, and although all evidence shows her brother is dead, Sofi knows he’s alive.

Risking everything, she turns to a man she should hate to take her to the alien planet hovering just beyond our moon. Even though these aliens saved the planet, giving humanity life saving technology and working to establish diplomatic peace, Sofi can’t ignore feeling that her brother has been taken to their planet. Following her gut, she convinces Miguel help her get to the planet’s secretive surface.

“Miguel snorted and continued to study their faces as he sketched. A habit developed years ago by way of analyzing them. “You study them,” his father once told him, “if you want to work with them.”

Miguel enjoys high levels of freedom and privilege as an Ambassador to the Delonese. It isn’t just his reputation that he risks in helping Sofi. He’s also being blackmailed to help the ensure blame for the bombing lands on a certain Corporation.

Both Miguel and Sofi will need to decide who to trust and whether they can trust each other, regardless of their history together. The consequences of their decisions could be much higher than either of them realized.

The Evaporation of Sofi Snow is YA intended for the teenage reader. While adults can read, enjoy and appreciate the story, I found that this is a book written for her target audience. So while it was a fun read, and went by really fast, it was difficult for me to get lost in.

I also did not know going in that this is published under the umbrella of Christian fiction. While I didn’t find any religious undertones, I did notice that things like swearing was weird. Instead of making up swearing like many futuristic dystopians tend to do, or eliminate it all together, Weber chose to use words like gad, dangit, and heck. This felt like another example of aiming towards a very young teenage audience, but it pulled me out of the story. It felt unnecessary, and the sentences they were used in could have easily been rewritten to not allude to swearing at all, and been stronger for it.

In contrast, characters would use dialogue like ‘WTF’ and talk about how promiscuous Sofi is, which felt odd to me as well. If we can’t even say damn, why are we talking about her sleeping around? It made the non-swearing feel disingenuous, and again, in my opinion, the story would have been better had it been left out entirely. I also didn’t really understand why the promiscuity was raised at all since it didn’t fit with Sofi’s character or seem to serve a plot purpose.

All that said, I do think that this would be a fantastic book if you have teenagers at home. There are a lot of great topics to discuss wrapped in the plot like global warming, the role of corporations in our government, the use of power both in corporations and government, the advancement of technology, the potential of virtual reality, privacy, and even being able to use the idea of aliens to bring up feeling left out, different, or how to view people/cultures who are different from us. This book brings up a lot of those topics and could be used as a fantastic launching point for future discussions.

Overall, this book is a fun idea, and has enough mystery written into the plot to keep me going. I do need to find out what the deal with these aliens is. But, I do wish I had known it was intended for a younger audience, I could have adjusted my reading expectations accordingly.

Ready Player One – Review

“Going outside is highly overrated.”

Virtual Reality has been the stuff of science fiction for a long time. Simulated worlds, offering everything that real life simply can’t. And as a society that is closer to achieving the immersion into these worlds than ever before, I think the idea of exploring these virtual worlds is more important than ever.

 

Not only do I find the idea behind virtual reality so fascinating, but honestly, I am slightly in love with anything that is fully dystopian ready. And virtual reality screams dystopia. An entire system that appears on the surface to be utopia, exploited or manipulated by one or the many to be turned into a nightmare. I think the question we need to be asking ourselves is why there isn’t MORE virtual reality dystopias in the world!

Ready Player One shows us a grim future. A world where resources have dwindled, forcing people to build gigantic towers of haphazard homes near cities for the hope of power, food and water. It’s a dismal world, where reality is unpleasant. The only thing most people look forward to, the only thing that makes life bearable, is the alternate world of the OASIS.

“For me, growing up as a human being on the plant Earth in the twenty-first century was a real kick in the teeth. Existentially speaking.”

The OASIS is an entire virtual world, or worlds, where people work, go to school, vacation, and live their best lives. People don’t choose to spend time in reality. They choose to spend their time in the OASIS.

“You don’t live in the real world, Z. From what you’ve told me, I don’t think you ever have. You’re like me. You live inside this illusion.”

The world building alone in this virtual reality system is something I easily could have spent hours reading about. The level of detail and imagination that went into the systems, and these worlds was incredible. This is an example of writing that could have become bogged down with too much information, but Cline was smart in how he wove in the details of the world to be relevant to the plot. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by details, I was instead transported into a lush landscape that is mind-boggling in scope but sharp in focus.

Wade, our protagonist, is just trying to graduate his virtual high school and find his way in a world where jobs are scarce. His only plan is to find Halliday’s Easter egg, a hidden prize embedded deep within the OASIS world, coded by Halliday himself, and found only by solving a series of clues and puzzles. The person who finds this egg wins the entire fortune of Halliday, which means billions of dollars.

Here’s where the fun of this book begins. Rather than take us through a meandering bombardment of virtual worlds, Cline instead focuses the hunt in a specific way.

“The Hunt, as the contest came to be known, quickly wove its way into global culture. Like winning the lottery, finding Halliday’s Easter egg became a popular fantasy among adults and children alike.”

The creator, Jim Halliday, grew up in the 80’s. A time when he met his best friend and co-creator, Ogden Morrow, and they started a little company that grew into one of the largest corporations in the world. When Halliday died, an email with a video and a link to his website were sent to every player in OASIS. The only clue was an obscure riddle and a link to an Almanac. The Almanac itself was over a thousand pages long and went into Halliday’s thoughts on movies, music, video games and all things pop culture 80’s.

Suddenly, a decade once looked down on for it’s decadence and abundance, one that would have been forgotten, is thrust into back into relevance and popularity. Personally, I thought this twist was pure genius.

The 80’s was not the end all be all for science fiction, or video games, or even technology. So I get why some people may not see the connection between the future we are reading about and that particular decade. But, the 80’s was known for its greed, for its excess. To show it as an obsession in a time that knows only poverty and thin resources was subtle but brilliant.

Beyond that, the main competitor and threat to Wade after he stumbles on the answer to the first clue isn’t other gunters, the name he and fellow egg hunters are known as, but IOI, a giant corporation willing to throw any and all resources at finding the egg and owning OASIS. They want to take something that is very inexpensive and available to the masses, and turn it into a money making machine where only the privileged few can really thrive. Which fits in with 80’s greed. We may see that behavior in corporations now, but that mentality was born in the 80’s.

The writing is full of wonderful dry sarcasm, and there’s a subtle mocking tone to the absurdity of living life in a virtual world woven throughout the plot.

“It suddenly occurred to me just how absurd this scene was: a guy wearing a suit or armor, standing next to an undead king, both hunched over the controls of a classic arcade game.”

It also carries a really good analysis of what technology can do to a civilization. Or rather, the possibility of what can happen. The entire plot is carried primarily within a virtual world, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t see the wasteland the unvirtual one has become.

“It had become a self-imposed prison for humanity,” he wrote. “A pleasant place for the world to hide from its problems while human civilization slowly collapses, primarily due to neglect.”

I find that good dystopian shows us both the good and the bad of the world it presents. It may carry a message, or even a warning, but the information is merely presented for us to digest and interpret. We are given characters to embody the arguments and it is then up to us to form our opinions. Ready Player One does this spectacularly.

Ready Player One is fun science fiction. It takes us into a future that on the surface seems to be going backwards, but has the technology to move it forward. While it will appeal to video gamers by its sheer plot subject alone, I think even non-gamers will delight in falling into the virtual world Cline has created. I also cannot wait to see what magic Spielberg gives us on the big screen.