Physics, Comedy, And Alternate Realities – Tom Holt’s Doughnut

Previous to this, I had never read any of Tom Holt’s work.  In fact, I don’t know that I had ever heard of Tom Holt.  This makes me sad.  Mainly because he’s got such great titles, such as Snow White and the Seven Samurai, Djinn Rummy, and Grailblazers.

From what I understand, his books are a little odd.

In fact, from reading Doughnut, I think he’s easily comparable to comedy genius Christopher Moore, who writes with a similar recognition of how ridiculous the ongoing story is.  Holt also writes similarly to another sci-fi\humor genius Douglas Adams.  Holt’s British wit pours off of every page.

So the basics of the story are this: Theo Bernstein is a physicist, a very smart one.  So smart, that he works at the Very Very Large Hadron Collider (VVLHC) in Switzerland.  Or he did before a very minor error in calculation caused the entire thing to explode, taking with it his arm, his job, and (collaterally) his wife.

Oh, but his arm is still there.  But invisible.  Why?  Nobody knows!  And Theo, as he’s out on his ass with no money, no job, and no family to fall back on, doesn’t have much time to think about it  He works in a slaughterhouse for several weeks until he receives a letter telling him that’s he has inherited his old college professor’s safe deposit box.

His professor, Pieter van Goyen, must had a really sick sense of humor because the deposit box contained a small empty bottle, a powder compact, and an apple.  Oh and a rather odd note explaining how he had managed to set up a job for Theo and that the bottle might end up somehow killing him.

What a friend!

From there, things go from bad to worse.  Pieter’s letter explains that there’s this guy with a job opening that Theo would be an absolutely dynamite fit for, so Theo reluctantly seeks out this position.  And who could blame the guy? His alternative is trucking cow parts from one side of a hot, smelly factory to another… how bad could it be?

Well…  when he arrives at the hotel, it seems… closed.  Or if not closed, then going through some major renovations.  The hotel’s proprietor, Bill, and the only other staff member, a young woman named Matasuntha, are extremely odd.  In fact, they’re awfully interested in the bottle small bottle in Theo’s possession.

This is where the novel takes a turn for the weird.  On night, after solving on a massively complex formula he discovers at the bottom of the empty bottle, Theo is transported to a new, different world.  Upon arrival, sky-writing informs Theo that he now resides in a “hand-held portable pocket universe” known as YouSpace.

That’s where I’m going to leave the plot.  Suffice it to say, it gets weirder.  Theo soon joins in on a hunt through YouSpace (multiple YouSpaces, technically) searching for answers to why the VVLHC exploded, what happened to his arm, and where his brother disappeared to all those years ago…

Holt is exceptionally clever in the plotting of a story that becomes increasingly complex as Theo begins traveling into further and further dimensions and it all works.  Or seems to…  I was an English major, not a scientist.

And the humor!  There’s a lot of dry dialogue, of course, but much of the humor comes from the narration.  My favorite gem comes about when Theo is on the precipice of learning a crucial bit of information.  Holt writes, “He had to ask, but he already knew, with the resigned foreboding of an infant at the font who knows that his three elder brothers are called John, Paul, and George, what the answer would be.”

The best recommendation of this novel I can make is that it reminds me intimately of many Kurt Vonnegut novels that I loved greatly in college.  The humor, the complex mixture of literary and sci-fi moments…  Just a great novel from start to finish.  Check it out if you’re on the hunt for a sci-fi novel with a heart and more than a dash of humor.

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Death of (Several Thousand) Ensigns – Redshirts by John Scalzi

What surprises me most about John Scalzi is that it has taken me so long to read one of his novels.  I read his non-fiction book Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded a year or so ago and loved it.  Scalzi was smart, erudite, and hilarious.  I looked at Old Man’s War and The Android’s Dream several times at both work, and the library, but never bit the bullet.

After following Scalzi on Twitter some months ago, amongst the promise of nude buttercream  frosting pictures (long story, don’t ask) and stuck with him because of his frequently random, funny thoughts.  A solid addition to my Twitter line-up, but I still hadn’t read any of his other novels.

That has now changed.

Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas
John Scalzi
320 Pages
Tor Books
June 5, 2012

Redshirts is a novel that I really have no business liking.  For one thing… I’ve always hated Star Trek.  No matter which iteration… movies, TV, video games, whatever… I’ve never enjoyed any aspect of the franchise (well, except for the most recent reboot by JJ Abrams… that was fun!) and I don’t typically enjoy a lot of traditional science fiction (Arthur C Clarke being a lone exception).

But Redshirts… is so much fun that I just have to love it.

I’m going to warn you now… heavy spoilers from this point on.  And, despite recent studies showing that spoilers don’t necessarily detract from the enjoyment of a story… Well, fuck that noise.  I hate spoilers.  They’re annoying and detract from my enjoyment of the story.

HEAVY
F’N
SPOILERS
BELOW

Seriously, spoilers ahoy.  Just sayin’.

Our story begins with Andy Dahl, an ensign who has just be assigned to The Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union.  From the get go, he notices strange things.  How does everyone in Dahl’s Xenobiology lab seem to know exactly when a senior officer is incoming?  Why is the important work always done without science, but instead with an item that looks like a microwave of some sort and is referred to, almost reverently, as The Box?

The weirdness doesn’t end there!  When comparing notes with the ensigns he entered the ship with (Finn, Duvall, Hanson, and Hester), they discover even more strange inconsistencies (and sometimes  consistencies!).

For instance, why do the same floors get damaged whenever the ship is attacked?  Why do the ship’s officers come back from “away missions” (that is, missions on hostile, alien worlds, missions to derelict ships overrun with killer robots, etc.) while the ensigns do not.

And what in the cool blue hell is an ice shark?

After several close calls, Dahl and his friends start making a concerted effort to avoid away missions (unless an officer named Kerensky is there… he seems more apt to be injured, which may or may not save an ensign or two from death).

At this point, Dahl and his fellow ensigns set up a plan.  They want to track down a yeti-like man named Jenkins who seems to know everything that happens on board the Starship Intrepid.  But when they find him, things are worse than they thought…

Jenkins reveals that they are part of a world that is directly affected by the plot of a sci-fi television show from 2012.  And worst of all?  The show wasn’t even that good.

As would anyone… the ensigns refuse to believe it.  And who could blame them?  Television hasn’t even existed for hundreds of years… how could a crappy show from the stupid ages possibly have any affect on them?

But as time goes on, and more of their friends fall victim to what Jenkins has labelled “The Narrative” (i.e.: a plot twist from the show that will invariably leave an ensign dead, Kerensky injured, and the rest of the crew miraculously unharmed), Dahl and co. realize their days are numbered and concoct a plan to go back in time, stop the shitty writer from killing them off, and return to their time triumphantly… and alive!

The first problem: they have less than a week to do it… because The Narrative had already set up that in their Universe, time travel will kill anyone if they stay out of their timeline for more than a week.

Of course.

While much of the book is funny up to this point… when Dahl and his rag-tag crew of ensigns (and Kerensky… since they’ve got to bring an officer to ensure their survival) arrive in 2012… the real humor begins.

This ends my long-winded plot explication.  A lot more happens in the final third of the novel, but… you’ll just have to read the book to find it out what.

The events that take place in Los Angeles are my favorite. They’re funny, touching, and a lot more real than most of what occurs on the Intrepid.  And the three codas at the end of the novel?  Well… I loved ’em, which is in direct contrast to many of the reviews I’ve read so far.

The codas, told from the POV of a different “real world” character, are the most philosophical, funny, and imaginative parts of the book and I think they really allow Scalzi to give his themes a stronger emotional punch in ways that couldn’t be as successfully explored in the ridiculous universe that Dahl and his friends existed in.

The favorite of these themes comes up in the first coda.  What sort of responsibility does a writer have to his characters?  Does a writer have to treat a fictional character with respect?  Should an author be allowed to kill off characters on a whim, even if it doesn’t affect the story in any way?

The codas are thought-provoking and provide a much-needed glimpse into the real world of the novel.  Additionally, the first coda is absolutely hysterical, and reads like one of Scalzi’s Tweets (or blog posts).

As I said before, I have almost no direct knowledge of Star Trek.  I’ve never seen any of the movies (well, except for the recent reboot which I loved), and I’ve only sat through a handful of episodes of any iteration of the popular TV series.

Despite this, I feel I was able to enjoy a large number of the jokes (thanks Futurama audio commentaries!), and the book itself felt like a complete entity, even if I couldn’t tell the difference between a horta and a tribble (OK, I know those… once again, thank you Futurama audio commentaries!).

So, even if you’re not a fan of Star Trek… pick Redshirts up.  There’s humor, heart, adventure, and death by ice shark.  What else is there to a good summer read?

The World Ended And All I Got Was This Lousy Simulation – Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One

So I’m back to post-apocalyptia sooner than I expected.  But that’s ok…  My first summer reading book has been completed and I enjoyed it!

Ready Player One
Ernest Cline
384 Pages
Random House
August 16, 2011

The economic downturn in the early 21st century became a serious depression and the world economy never recovered.

Around the same time, a man named James Halliday created a realistic video game simulation known as OASIS.  In OASIS, you could become a completely new person through your avatar and escape your tedious life into an untold number of worlds ready for exploration.

The year is now 2044.  Halliday has died and left behind a video will that claims if any player in OASIS is able to find his hidden Easter Egg, they will inherit his riches (which are sizable considering the popularity of OASIS) and complete control over OASIS.

One one side of the search, we have the “gunters” who are (either solo or in groups) hunting for the easter egg with more noble intentions.  At the very least, they’re in it for the sport, as well as the money.

Your hero, on the gunter side, is Wade, not-so-better-known by his OASIS handle Parzival.  He has been searching solo, as have many other millions of people.  But one day, Parzival’s name shows up at the top of the High Score board, as the first person to ever score…

On the other side, you have a corporation known as Innovative Online Industries (IOI).  Their plan, backed with thousands of their own gunters, is to find the easter egg and use the money and power to transform OASIS into a advertising-heavy money machine.

IOI is represented by a man named Sorrento, a real knob end and all around douchebag who will stop at nothing to become the first person to solve all the game’s puzzles and emerge victorious in the easter egg hunt.

The plot is fairly straightforward, but it keeps the book moving at a rather brisk pace.  Because much of the story takes place in the virtual world of OASIS, it takes away some of the dramatic tension when one realizes that the characters themselves aren’t in any real danger… but Cline gives enough detail as to why we should be just as afraid for the character’s avatars as we would for their weak, human bodies.

The writing is also rather funny and the interactions between Parzival and his friends are typically laugh out loud funny and they bleed warmth, and familiarity.  The characters, and their interactions, are essentially secondary to the true star of this novel…

References to the 1980s.

The book gets so bogged down in the constant references to 80s movies, music, and video games that it often reads like a Family Guy script with some of the references not going anywhere.  I would be able to write this off easier if the writing was a bit stronger, but…

The book reads like it’s meant for a teen audience.  The writing isn’t bad, but it lacks complexity and (especially in the case of the villains) subtlety.  This wouldn’t be an issue if not for the fact that most teenagers aren’t going to have any familiarity with about 99% of the references made throughout the book (except maybe Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which was from 1975 anyhow).
So there’s the main problem with the novel.  People my age, who are going to understand the references (and they are plentiful and often integral to the plot) may not be able to get into the prose of the novel… and those that would really enjoy the prose aren’t going to understand what the hell Cline’s talking about when he references Joust.
Just the same, Parzival’s story is a fun response to books like The Hunger Games and if you like your post-apocalypse infinitely more geeky, fun (with just enough social commentary!), and packed chock full of references to old video games and movies… You’ll find more than enough to enjoy here.
This is starting to sound like my post about the Hunger Games series.  I really did enjoy Ready Player One.  I really did!  But with a week’s worth of reflection, I’m more able to look critically at its faults.
But there are to reasons the book is worth reading:
1.  For the interactions between Parzival and Aech.  Their funny, and eventually touching, battles for the Nerd-Weight Crown are some of the best parts of the book, and it was the hope of their eventual reunification that kept me reading the novel.2. OASIS.  The real world is not the setting for the novel.  OASIS is where much of the book takes place and Cline has done a bang-up job of making OASIS seem like a real fictional world.  The sheer impossibility of OASIS makes it one of the most fascinating settings in recent science fiction because just about ANYTHING can happen.  And it does (and don’t get me started on why that’s a problem… I don’t want to knock this novel any more!).
So if you’ve ever enjoyed playing an Atari game, or ever been able to quote the entirety of Monty Python and the Holy Grail… this is a novel for you.  Plunk down the $15 and start your summer off right!
Up next:  John Scalzi’s Redshirts, Grant Morrison, and approximately ten tons of superhero comics… Summer reading is in full swing!

Ant-Warriors and Alcohol – Love Is Not Constantly Wondering If You Are Making The Biggest Mistake Of Your Life

This post may well be shorter than the title of the book I’m writing about.

The book in question today is titled Love Is Not Constantly Wondering If You Are Making The Biggest Mistake Of Your Life, written anonymously and published right here… in Portland, Oregon.  Hurrah for the independent press and hurrah for authors who aren’t afraid to tackle big issues with weird interruptions of science fiction.

Love Is Not Constantly Wondering If You Are Making The Biggest Mistake Of Your Life
Anonymous (Illus. Sarah Miller)

116 Pages
Perfect Day Publishing
November 2011 (Second Printing)

Obviously, from the cover, we’re going with a Choose Your Own Adventure style.  And even the book’s layout gives you choices (If You Do This, Turn To This Date, etc.), but the book warns you that it isn’t meant to be read that way.  So why have the whole thing set up to look like a Choose Your Own Adventure?

The most obvious (or perhaps too obvious) reason would be to show that there’s always a choice… even when there isn’t.  After all, the entirety of the plot is a story about how you got into this crazy relationship with an alcoholic named Anne… that you just can’t seem to extract yourself from (yes, like the Choose Your Own books, this is in a second-person narrative).  You have the choice to just leave it all behind, but you can’t.

Instead of ending it, you make other decisions and the relationship continues.  So, even though you’re presented with choices (you the narrator, not you the reader), the only real choice is to stick with it, because (as the narrator states), “you realize there was no possible outcome besides the one in front of you now.”

OK, this is confusing.  From here on out, “you” the character is just going to be referred to as the narrator.  Razza frazza second-person narratives…

Despite the seriousness of the narrative, there are a lot of funny moments interspersed throughout.  The narrator questioning if Anne may have been created as part of the Weapon X program, the narrator celebrating Anne’s first time completing Super Mario World, constantly saying, “You have a bad feeling about this,” and the long stream of fuck that follows the discovery of Anne’s pregnancy (120 if I counted correctly), all very funny moments that provide much-needed levity once you realize the narrator won’t be getting out of the self-destructive relationship.

Plus many of the references are super-nerdy and… well I’m also super-nerdy and really appreciate them.

The science fiction elements are mostly presented through choices and accompanying illustrations, but the choices almost always parallel a choice the narrator has to make in the story.  For instance, on the page dated October 20, 2004, the narrator questions his love for Anne, and wonders if he can put up with her unmedicated.  The corresponding “choices” at the bottom of the page are to pull the Ant-Warrior up from the ledge, or to let him fall to his death.

The truly ingenious part of this, though, is that the pages it redirects you to are earlier arguments and fights the narrator had with Anne, which shows the cyclical nature of his fucked up relationship.  In the end, the reader must choose to just keep reading, and watch the narrator dig himself in even deeper in a truly distressing relationship.

At the very end, the narrator has a break in his sanity and the science fiction world of Ant-Warriors, laser pistols, and nutrient pools becomes the real world for him… and it’s probably the saddest moment in the novel because you see the narrator retreating into a fantasy world to escape his troubles… not terribly unlike Anne’s retreat into alcohol.

And there the book ends… Despite the serious subject matter, the author is able to give moments of humor that temper the darkness that would otherwise envelop and swallow any normal reader.  The references to pop culture are numerous (and geeky… a Gremlins reference? wow…), but aren’t overbearing in any way.

The narrator has an ironic, detached tone through the early part of the book that eventually gives way to anger, sadness, and frustration in such a heart-breaking manner that you want to scream at him to just get out.

But does he?  How does the relationship end?  You’ll have to buy the book to find out.  Copies are available at Powell’s, Reading Frenzy, and at the  Perfect Day Publishing website.  Skip a cup of coffee and dig into one of the best indie published books of the last year!