When The Sun Is Overthrown And When The Stars Fall – The Mirage by Matt Ruff

The Mirage
Matt Ruff
432 Pages
Harper Collins
February 7, 2012 

I do not read alternate history fiction.  Most of the time it tends to be because I just don’t have a strong grasp on history, especially the Turtledove eras (which seem mostly compromised of The Civil War\Antebellum South, or WWII Europe).  But…

I was drawn to this book.  I read about it about a month ago on io9.com and was taken by the brief quotes and description.  Of course… Alternate history isn’t just making changes to history to tell another side of the story, and in this way The Mirage is no different.  Much of the story serves as satire and\or allegory and it is uproariously funny.

The best satirical moment comes when our hero, Mustafa al Baghdadi (a Homeland Security agent) is considering how his government is sending prisoners away to be tortured.  He reflects that he doesn’t like to see it happening, but doesn’t care about sending them to be bled for information to “a human-rights vacuum like Texas.”

So… the plot.  On 11/9/2001, the Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Tower buildings in downtown Baghdad were attacked by Christian Fundamentalists flying airplanes.  Thousands are killed, sparking a war between the Arab world and America.  In this case, though, America is a group of states on the Eastern seaboard ruled by a man with delusions grandeur who wants to unite the country, coast-to-coast, under one banner.  Manifest destiny!

That’s the basics.  Fast-forward to 2009.  Mustafa is working with his partners (Amal and Samir) to track down other Christian terrorists when they come across a man who claims that everything is flipped upside down and backwards, that the Arabs aren’t supposed to be the superior group, that America is supposed to be number one.  This sets in motion the rest of the plot and takes our characters all over their Arab world and even into America.

The book is, as I said before, very funny.  The Texas line from above is one of them, but a lot of it is a bit more subtle.  For instance, recent American historical figures are there (members of the Bush administration are especially prevalent), as are many figures from the Arab world.  Saddam Hussein is still a massive asshat, as is Osama, and the American politicians are very closely similar to their real-life counterparts.  My favorite manifestation is a character named The Quail Hunter.  Guess who he is?!

Overall, the book is good.  I would say that a very strong beginning and a consistent and funny middle make the slightly speedy and disappointing ending all the worse.  When I think about it, though, I can’t think of why the ending was so disappointing.

Maybe because it seemed predictable?  Ruff hints pretty heavily where the story is  headed and when the supernatural shit starts to fly, it almost seems too easy.  Then again, with a land that has a much larger history of mythology and fantasy… I suppose it fits pretty well after all.

Despite my quibbles with the ending, the book is definitely worth reading.  The satire is great, the prose in enjoyable and swift-moving, and the are lots of little moments of brilliance, especially in the pop culture references.  It is endlessly enjoyable to pick out all the little “oh, that’s a difference” moments (including an incredibly funny part where one of the characters watches Invasion of the Body Snatchers).

So what’s next for Books and Bits?  Well… March is going to be Neil Gaiman month.  Or at least partly Neil Gaiman month.  I dunno if I have enough material to get 8 posts on Neil, but… I’m going to try.  Also, I hope to talk about the sublimely weird book The Flame Alphabet in the near future as well!  Happy reading!

A History of Violence – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is an intense, difficult novel.  In different chapters, Jonathon Safran Foer describes war scenes from both Hiroshima, and Dresden, Germany (side note: the American bombing of Dresden was what inspired Vonnegut to write Slaughterhouse-Five) and also goes into disturbing detail about 9/11.

If you can get through that… the book is engaging, beautiful, and heartbreaking. I was first turned onto the book about a year ago when I finished The Instructions (also brilliant, check out my post about that book as well) and found many comparisons between the two.  It took me awhile, but I did finally snag a copy and read it.

I’ve read a lot of reviews that claim the book is sentimental and weepy and… well it is.  And given that it came rather quickly on the heels of 9/11, I can almost see where they’re coming from, but… Well, they’re fucking idiots (except you John Updike, I could never stay mad at you!).  Given the content, the novel is a bit sappy at times, but still an excellent glimpse into the mind of a grieving child.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Jonathon Safran Foer
368 Pages
Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt
April 4, 2005

In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, our protagonist is Oskar Schell.  He is nine years old, pretentious to the extreme, and just a little bit mad.  You see, his father died in the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001.

The story is told from primarily from Oskar’s perspective, but you also get letters written by his grandparents that will in the blanks and add some meat to the backstory of the family.  The book is also liberally coated with various images… a doorknob, hands, the back of someone’s head, someone jumping from the WTC before it collapses.  Like I said… intense.

Oskar is thoughtful and intelligent… much like Gurion Maccabee is in The Instructions.  Instead of revolution, however, Oskar is focused on his father.  A freak accident leads Oskar to find a key hidden in a blue vase on a high shelf inside his father’s closet and we follow Oskar around New York City as he tries to find the significance of the key in his father’s life.

So that key… the solution to the mystery is disappointing.  Not just for Oskar, but for the audience as well.  There are a lot of satisfactory answers as the story progresses, but the major one is an amazing letdown.  That said, it seems as if that’s the point.  The ordinary solution is necessary for Oskar to move on, but… it isn’t what you expect it to be.

I’ve had this post waiting int he wings for more than a week now and… I just don’t have much else to say about the book.  Oskar is a great character to me.  He’s got weird inventions (a birdseed shirt so people can fly away from falling buildings, a mattress that has arm space for someone to lie on their side and spoon comfortably, etc.) and Foer writes him in such a painfully sad way that you can’t help but get behind him, even when he’s being a complete jackass to one person or another.

Read this book.  Preferably as a physical book because the e-book really shows the limits of the technology (page numbers don’t add up, the images don’t all look perfectly aligned, and some of the pages are PDF\image scans and so you can’t use the handy definition look-up feature on them).  But definitely a recommended title.

8-Bit Rage – The Copy And The Paste of Adventure Island

Some time back in 1986 a company had a dream.  It was a strange dream to be sure, but it belonged to Hudson Soft.  Their dream?  To take a game that already existed, change a few sprites around, and release it as their own.

Their dream is the Nintendo Entertainment System “classic” known simply as… Adventure Island.  

Now, I hear what you’re saying…  I’ve never read Adventure Island… should I track it down and read it?

Whereupon, I answer… You stupid fucker… this is a video game post.

Fair enough.  It has been a rather long time since I’ve done one, especially considering my logo and the “Bits” part of my title.  Cool!  So what about finishing up that Crystalis post first?  OK, OK… enough of that.

So… Adventure Island…  This game was my bread and butter as a child.  I loved it from level one all the way up through level… well, I think Level 4 was as far as I could get.  But I loved the bastard.  And I decided… let’s take a bit of a walk down Nostalgia Lane and see how ol’ Master Higgins is doing.

And, my god, has he not aged well.

First… some history.

In the sorta-bronze-ish era of video games, SEGA released a console known as the Master System.  The system was released as a competitor for Nintendo’s NES and… well, it never quite caught on, at least in the United States.  But it had hits and successes, and laid the groundwork for SEGA’s much more popular 16-bit offering, the Genesis (and if you try to tell me it’s called the Mega-Drive, you can fuck right off… we called it Genesis here in ‘Murrica and dammit that was good enough for us).

Anyhow… SEGA released a game called Wonder Boy as an arcade game and an 8-bit port for the Master System and Hudson Came along, took the game almost entirely and pasted their own shit right on top of it.

To compare, one screen shot from Wonder Boy (the blonde kid) and one from Adventure Island (the doofus in the hat and porno ‘stache).


Of course, that would all be well and good if Adventure Island (or Wonder Boy for that matter) was actually any good.  And, as much as it pains the child inside of me to say… it isn’t.

Where to begin with this?  Well… to start, you’ll note an energy bar at the top.  Seeing all those nice bars, you’d think they would act something like the hearts in The Legend of Zelda, right?  WRONG! One hit… you die.  And get ready to die a whole helluva lot.

So what’s the point of that bar?  Dear friends… that is your timer bar.  Not very long, eh?  Well, worry not your pretty little heads… You can regenerate it by gathering fruit as you run through the level.  And here’s problem two…

Collection in 8-bit games isn’t always a chore… Rupees in Zelda games get you items, coins in Mario games get you free lives, rings in Sonic games get you another hit or two of damage, as well as free lives.  In Adventure Island… fruit gets you more time to complete the level.

Break out the fuckin’ part hats and streamers.

Now you’re thinking… What about the power ups?

Naturally, all power ups are delivered via the egg network.  Yes, eggs. Crack one open and find yourself the proud owner of… an axe!  Or a fireball!  Or even a skateboard!  And don’t worry, Master Higgins is smart enough to wear his helmet and knee pads.  Because a middle-aged guy with a child molester mustache could be someone kids can relate to.  All he really needs is a skateboard.

Oh and your greatest nemesis also comes from an egg.  So don’t go opening eggs with abandon.  If you do… you might come face to face with… The Eggplant.  And yes, it does have a face.

A face that will haunt your dreams.

A face that turns milk sour.

If The Eggplant flies over a house with a pregnant woman, she’ll miscarry. And, worst of all if The Eggplant follows you, it will tick down your timer, regardless of your fruit collection.  I present the face of your DOOM!

The Face Of Death

But all of this could be forgivable if not for two things…

Thing 1:  The levels don’t really change.  The layout gets shifted a bit and enemy placement\volume will change, but World x-1 will be Jungle, x-2 will be ocean, x-3 will be cave, and x-4 will be darker jungle with a boss fight at the end.  Every. Single. Time.  No matter what you do, the backgrounds recycle and the devs just pile on the enemies.

Suck.  Big time suck.  Challenge does not come from hordes and hordes of enemies.  Challenge (especially in platform games such as this) comes from good level design mixed with timing, enemy placement, and

Even then… I could forgive the game, put on my nostalgia shades, and enjoy jumping around Adventure Island again (yes, they actually have the gall to name the island Adventure Island…), but… Master Higgins… once revealed himself to me beside a fire.  Here’s the photographic evidence (and know that many Bothans died to bring you this disturbing image):

So there it is.  Adventure Island.  The bright side of all of this?  This enormous clusterfuck of a palette swap actually spawned an entire series of sequels across the NES, SNES, and Game Boy systems that were actually… quite good.  Much more fun and original.

If you want a platformer set on a desert island… You’ve got many other good choices.  Wonder Boy for one.  At least then, you’ll be playing the original version.  Then, there’s Joe and Mac on the SNES (OK, it takes place on a dinosaur island, but… it looks tropical!) and the criminally underrated Amagon on the NES (look for a post about that game in the near future).

High Schoolers In Bloom – Paper Towns by John Green

I’ve spent a lot of time building to this review.  Not anywhere in the blog, nor any place personal or professional.  But I’ve known I was going to read this book and I’ve known I was going to have a lot to say about.

I remember reading the publisher’s description more than a year ago because one of my co-workers is absolutely in love with John Green’s books.  And now I completely understand why.

By the way… light spoilers follow in the text, so feel free to skip it and know this: you should read this book.  If you like funny, touching, intelligent novels… you’ll like this.

But James, I don’t read Teen books!

Fuck you.  This ain’t Twilight.  This is fantastic literature with engaging characters, believable (if a bit precocious) dialogue, and a story that will keep you reading all the way through the night.  Just do it.

Paper Towns
John Green
305 Pages
Dutton Juvenile
October 16, 2008

This book.  Yes, yes, yes.  I started reading it yesterday evening and finished pretty much all but the final chapter (yes, I’m a glutton for subconscious punishment and had to sleep before I could finish) and… wow.  The ending was even satisfying.  The ending is hardly ever satisfying, especially when reading a novel intended for teenagers.

Where to begin?  This book is funny.  If all John Green books are this funny, I want to buy them all and place them under my pillow at night so I can be even a fraction as humorous.  Seriously though… the humor only accounts for a fraction of the novel, but given the way the book jarringly goes between suspense, dread, and general high school… high-schooliness… you need it.

OK, the story… Quentin and Margo have lived next door to each other almost all their lives.  As childhood friends, they found a dead body (spoiler alert: this does not have the same effect that it did on those kids in Stand By Me) and they just… float apart.

Smash cut.  Almost ten years later, Quentin is about to graduate from high school.  He’s hanging out with his two best friends (Ben and Radar… awesome dudes) and we catch him looking longingly at Margo… the girl next door.  Insert audience sighing here.  [random aside… I love that Green describes Margo as being soft and curvaceous.  Realistic body images FTW!]

Anyway… that night Margo approaches Quentin’s window and tells him she needs a wheel-man.  After some hemming and hawing, Quentin agrees and they embark on a crazy, passionate adventure full of breaking, entering (separate, not together), chaos, mayhem, and maddening fun.  Quentin is full of hope that they’ll reignite their friendship and then…

She’s gone.  Where to?  Ask the dust on the road…  Quentin’s hopes are smashed and he starts on a mad odyssey to find out where she’s gone.  From there… well, I don’t want to engage in too many spoilers.

The book will routinely tear your heart out of your chest.  Is Margo dead?  Is she just avoiding Quentin?  Torturing the poor schmuck?  Will she show up randomly at prom?  Graduation?  Ever?

So what’s the best part of the book, you ask?  Let’s start with the characters.  Quentin is lovable.  A bit naive, a bit of a douche in re: his friends, but endearing.  Also, you root for him through all this crap because he comes across as an incredibly genuine person.  And there may be parts of him I recognize from my own not-so-wayward youth… maybe! Mini-rebellions against an uncaring status-quo, tourist town annoyances, and unrequited love.  Ah, to never have to be a teenager again.

Ben and Radar are excellent supporting characters.   They’re supportive of a lot of Quentin’s insane plots to find Margo, but not above knocking him down a peg or two when he needs to recognize that he’s being an idiot (or busting his balls when he starts taking things too seriously) .  In other words, good friends.

And Margo.  Oh, I think I fell in love.  Not the creepy, why’s-that-guy-hanging-out-in-the-high-school-parking-lot-every-day-even-though-he-clearly-doesn’t-have-a-child-at-this-school love.  But her character, though mostly absent from the novel, is intelligent, enigmatic, and an absolute blast.

The novel also has great turns of phrase, hilarious bits of dialogue (the right simile or metaphor can make a funny scene a pee-your-pants funny scene… remember that).

Beyond the writing, the humor, and the characters, though, my favorite part of the book was how often I misjudged it.  In the beginning, I assumed I had another Virgin Suicides on my hands.  Quentin was idealizing Margo and, as a result, would never know what she was really like.  There’d be a dead body and 150 pages of characters coming to terms with the why without ever understanding the character.

Hell… the pieces were all there.  Bad home life with overbearing parents…  A mysterious disappearance… lots of weird clues (and a huge-ass record collection), but Green surprised me by allowing the characters to make reasonable guesses and intuit the truth behind the whole thing (thank you Internet!).

After that… I was expecting some big, disappointing ending.  Quentin would work it out, but it would lead nowhere and he’d spend the rest of his life pining away for the one that got away.  Also depressing.  But John Green had plenty of fun, surprisingly plot points to go…

The story keeps building and we get a bit of a traditional high school story… Finals, prom, drunken debauchery, graduation, the road trip… but (once again) the characters really bring it all together.  As they chug along to their final destination, the book just makes you ooze empathy.  You want them to make it.  They have to make it.  If they don’t, what proof is there of a loving and righteous God (and no, the atheist in my doesn’t have a joke about that… but the Catholic in me does… take it away Father Donald Roemer!)

OK that was too soon, too much, and a bit of an obscure reference.  Apologies to all involved.

Please, please read this book.  My plan is to head to the library and punch crappy books out of kid’s hands and drop this into them instead.  And if they try to refuse, I’ll just shake my head sadly and tell them… I can’t believe that you forgot to be awesome…  Seriously, read this book.  Read it!

Bites of Bits – Wilson by Daniel Clowes

So… Daniel Clowes.  The man is pretty much a genius.  You may know his work without knowing you know it.  Wait a minute, I think I just blew a gasket… rewiring my brain so I can finish this…

Anyway, Clowes is best known outside of the comics world for Ghost World (the film) and best known within the comics world for Ghost World (the comic) and Death-Ray (the comic and maybe someday the movie).  Oh, and a little comic book called Eightball that was published intermittently between 1989 and 2004 (incidentally, Eightball contained a majority of Clowes’ published work, including Ghost World, Daniel Boring, and Death-Ray).

Wilson
Daniel Clowes
80 Pages
Drawn and Quarterly

April 27, 2010

Wilson is a strange, strange little book.  When I first opened it at a comic shop, I read a few random pages and laughed.  I really enjoyed the varying artwork, the strange situations, and Wilson’s dialogue, delivered with an acerbic wit and brutal, biting sarcasm.  What I didn’t realize at the time was that each page (though housing a small, self-contained story) was a part of a larger story about a period in Wilson’s life.

So.  Wilson.

He’ll start conversations with some sort of long-winded  banter, and then insult his conversational partner when they attempt to reply in kind.

He calls up people who don’t have any idea who he is, or what he’s talking about and complains about their stupidity after they hang up.

He is the master of the backhanded compliment and isn’t above mailing a box full of shit to someone he doesn’t like.

In other words… he’s just about my favorite literary character of all time.

Yes, he’s an asshat.  A complete and utter douche.  But at the same time…well, I was going to say that his heart is in the right place, but… I’m not completely certain it is.

The book is definitely worth tracking down.  The humor is often awkward, sometimes to the point of pain, and there is a clever comeuppance that comes about 2/3s of the way through the story.  Of course, Wilson learns essentially nothing from his experiences and continues right where he left off… but despite his sociopathic tendencies, he’s… erm, well… he’s memorable, anyway.

If you’re looking for a snarky, sarcastic, balding jerk… Well… I’m married.  Sorry.  But Wilson is a hysterical read that will help take your mind off that fact.

Does God Listen On An Alien World? – The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

I’ve got no back information about this book, or author, but… I really loved it.  Wow.  Philosophy, science fiction, humor, action… this book is a great read and I’m ashamed it took me so long to get to it.  Have you read (or seen) Contact?  Imagine that movie (or book), but with a much less disappointing ending.

The Sparrow
Mary Doria Russell
408 Pages
 Villard
September 9, 1996

I’m going to get this out of the way up front… this book is tough.  From the first chapter, you find out that there is only one survivor from a mission to an alien planet.  No big deal.  Until the book starts introducing you to the rest of the cast and you realize… oh shit, these people are all going to the planet… and *sigh* they aren’t coming back… are they?
Well shit…
But I’m getting ahead of myself.  The book focuses most of its attention on a Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz.  Upon his return to earth, he is scarred, both physically and mentally.  After a brief explanation of his condition, the book’s chapters trade between the past (that is 2019, when the mission leaves) and the future (2059, when it returns), as well as many chapters on the planet’s surface.
As the book hops around, you get introduced to many other characters.  Married couple Anne and George, distant Sofia, intelligent giant Jimmy Quinn, and their grouchy, deformed leader D.W.  Each character is fleshed out over the narrative and you grow to like all of them.
Even the aliens that you meet become important, interesting, and (mostly) sympathetic characters.  As strong as the plot and the writing is, the strongest aspect of the novel is the characterization.
The build up to the take-off is very interesting, what with the introductions to the characters and the interrelationships that occur, but to me the strongest part of the novel is when they land on the alien planet, named Rakhat.  It is on this planet that many of the philosophical questions and ideas get raised.  For instance…
The idea of organized religion versus the role of the individual in religion.  The role of an all-knowing God in the development of the human character.  Does God even exist on an alien planet?  If He does, does He care?  But all these questions boil down to the basic one that most people consider:
Is there a God?  And if there is, how can he let bad things happen to people?  And that’s the crux of almost their entire time on Rakhat.  Despite all these big questions, the story flows well and never feels preachy, or overdone.
There’s a sequel out there, but I’m comfortable with just having read this one for now.  The novel stands out on its own as an excellent work (as long as you don’t try to consider it a piece of hard science fiction).