Book Reviews

I’ve read me some books recently, Ready Player One and two of the Last Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, and they could not possibly more different.

Ready Player One is a nerdculture bender of a book, about as hard to hate while you’re in the middle of it as it is to love in hindsight; it’s young adult literature for people who were born in the late seventies and haven’t really grown up yet. Of which I am apparently one, it has become clear, but you’re still left with the sense that you’re reading a Cory Doctorow book whose discerning virtue is that the lead isn’t a thinly-veiled Cory Doctorow. Which is a huge, huge improvement, make no mistake, but it’s still relentless, pandering fanservice.

I enjoyed it anyway, I think not because it was strictly good and certainly not because it’s without other flaws, but because it’s targeted with such mathematical precision at my child-of-the-eighties-whose-parents-could-afford-a-PC demographic that I felt obliged to at least appreciate the craft.

Even so, I’ve often said that some works don’t age well but this is the first time I’ve ever felt that way about something in less than a month.

The various Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, veterans of that series will agree, are the exact opposite of self-congratulatory nerdpop. Differing from RPO in every imaginable respect, maybe the most important distinction is that the primary characters absolutely, relentlessly hate themselves, loathing their own dispositions and actions at baroquely-detailed length at every pause in the narrative’s forward motion. It’s not even a little unusual for a character to spend half a page considering how terrible they are and how miserable they’ve made everyone else shimmed into the space between somebody asking them a question and their answering it. But Donaldson’s built a solid career out of this signature combination of nuclear-winter morality and arcane linguistic affect, so much like Ready Player One enjoying it seems less important at times than respecting the craft. Having said that, the depth of the world and breadth of the landscape is great; the world-building and supporting cast are fantastic, getting all the good lines and stealing all the best scenes. Smartly written and compelling enough to more than make up for the lead characters spending so much time wallowing in their own self-loathing.

But like every reference in Ready Player One, I was introduced to this series very young. There’s a saying, that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is “twelve”; I have a sense that in both cases these stories aren’t really getting their hooks into me, just tying into the anchors anyone my age had bolted on decades ago. Does that matter, if I enjoy it regardless? I’m not sure but I get the sense that it does, and it feels like cheating.

7 Comments

  1. Jamie
    Posted December 18, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    My opinion on Ready Player One is very similar. I enjoyed it the same way I enjoy eating a entire bag of potato chips in one sitting. Fun and fattening, but not necessarily recommended or good for you health. Having “read” it via audiobook, voiced by Wil Wheaton, helped increase my enjoyment of the book more than I think a straight read would of done.

  2. Posted December 18, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    So in re the Donaldson, man that sounds EXACTLY like a YA novel. Ugh, Hunger Games.

  3. mhoye
    Posted December 18, 2011 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, that pervasive self-doubt was almost certainly why I started enjoying those books in the first place – what prepubescent nerd doesn’t feel a bit like that, and wants to go on to change the world anyway?

    I remember being a person who could identify with that, but I can’t bring myself to feel that helpless anymore. All told, I’ll take that trade.

  4. Posted December 18, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Whereas I always liked books about omnicompetent kick-ass superheroes as a teen, because those were the characters I could (in retrospect, VERY OPTIMISTICALLY) relate to.

  5. mhoye
    Posted December 18, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Man, I always hated those. How can you tell an interesting story about Superman? “We need to hurt his feelings. Real bad. Like, real bad.”

  6. Posted December 18, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    You throw FUCKING GALACTUS at him, that’s how. Dude EATS PLANETS.

  7. Posted December 30, 2011 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Mike, I know I’m way behind here, but have you read Donaldson’s science fiction? His Gap series suffers from many of the failings of his Covenant books, but its scale and its tone and its self-conscious parallels to the Ring Cycle make it an interesting read.