Tag Archives: 1980s

Book Review Saturday – ‘Ready Player One’

Ernest Cline’s 2011 début novel, ‘Ready Player One’ is, at its heart, a love letter to an affectionately remembered past, and a thinly-veiled declaration that no era since the one in which he spent his childhood has ever been quite so good. Perhaps he’s right.

Image: amazon.com

Image: amazon.com

In some ways, I find it amusing that the 80s – for that is the decade in question – are making a big comeback, in terms of music and fashion in particular, but in another way it’s not surprising at all. People my age (and up to about five years older) would have been young during the 1980s, and so as we’ve begun to reach the age of ‘maturity’ – settling down, getting a bit of cash behind us, that sort of thing – we’ve started to want to relive the cartoons and movies and music that we grew up with.

But what about the 1980s was so amazing?

Well, there's this. Image: brisayhowto.blogspot.com

Well, there’s this.
Image: brisayhowto.blogspot.com

It’s no wonder that so many survivors of the 80s grew up to be nerds – it was the era when computers, outside of government facilities and academic institutions, really began to take off. Space travel cropped up in kids’ movies – Explorers and Flight of the Navigator, anyone? – and movies like D.A.R.Y.L., about a cyborg child, were memorable for their treatment of technology as something which had limitless possibility, but which might also exact a massive price. Video games were everywhere. I remember, from my own tastes in movies and cartoons, that the idea of exploration and potential was ubiquitous, computers – if you knew how to master them – could do anything, and space was only a step away.

This feeling – based more in nostalgia than reality, I suspect – suffuses ‘Ready Player One.’ The book is set in the year 2044, when the energy crisis and collapsing economies have forced much of the world to live in poverty and darkness. One thing they do have, though, is OASIS, a giant online MMPORPG (Massively MultiPlayer Online Role-Playing Game), which acts as a sort of drug. It keeps people sane, and takes them out of the minutiae of their own hardscrabble existence. Everything is done in OASIS – people, like our protagonist Wade, even attend school there in a sort of Second Life scenario, where you can be who you want – and absolutely everyone is connected to the network. James Halliday, the man who invented OASIS, died about five years before the book begins, and it’s rumoured that, somewhere in the workings of OASIS, there is hidden a huge prize – his fortune, and control of his company.

The only problem is that there are loads of clues to follow if you want to find the prize, and – so far – nobody’s been able to get beyond even the first of them.

Halliday was obsessed with the era of his youth – the 1980s – and because of this, millions of people have taken on a level of familiarity with that decade that most of those who lived through it couldn’t have matched. This is because the clues to Halliday’s ‘easter egg’, or the prize within his game, all relate to 1980s movies, books, video games, pop culture references, and so on (and, if you have any familiarity with the 1980s, these little gems and in-jokes pepper the book in such a glee-making way that I can’t even find a word for it.) Despite the fact that, over the years, most people have given up on the search for clues, one day our hero Wade unlocks the first one – and his name springs to the top of a global leaderboard, just like it would in an arcade game.

And that brings out all the people who’ve been quietly beavering away in the years since Halliday’s death, trying to work out the clues. And then, the race begins.

Image: onemetal.com

Image: onemetal.com

It’s a very visual book, and as I read I was imagining it like a movie or a video game. You can’t really help it – everything about the story and the 80s references naturally draws your mind back to the movies and games of that era, and the book lends itself to being seen, rather than being read. It doesn’t surprise me that a movie is in production.

There’s so much to like about this book. It’s huge fun, for a start. It also deals with ideas like internet freedom and free speech, as well as the possibility of reforging your identity in a world where everyone and everything is online, 24/7. It’s a scary, but shockingly plausible, vision of the future. It tackles questions of humanity, and how we’ll keep a hold on it as we drift further and further away from a flesh-and-blood existence. It deals with the nature of greed and whether idealism and equality wouldn’t be a better way of doing things. I loved it.

Having said that, it might not appeal to people who are either too young or not quite young enough to remember the 1980s, or who weren’t into the pop culture of that era. I was, just a little, but a little is enough. There’s loads in this book which I didn’t understand – but I didn’t need to. You get swept away by the action and even if you don’t get the in-jokes when Wade and his friends are doing digital battle, you care enough about them to make the battle important. It does escalate up into a rather ridiculous-seeming conclusion, but even then I found myself cheering the heroes on, while just enjoying the story.

In short, I’d say this one is worth a try. If you’re anything like me, you’ll love it. Hopefully.

‘Cinnamon Toast’ and a Book Review*

Behold the loveliness of this book cover:

Hypnotic, isn't it?Image: amazon.ca

Hypnotic, isn’t it?
Image: amazon.ca

I read this book over the long weekend, and it wasn’t a second before time. I’ve been waiting for it to come out for several months (it’s so hard to wait for books!), but it was more than worth it. It’s the kind of book which turns its reader into a really rude so-and-so, a person who’s unable to talk to anyone or take part in anything that doesn’t involve their faces being stuck into their book. So, apologies to anyone who might have tried to speak to me while this book was anywhere within grabbing distance. I probably didn’t hear you.

The book (Janet E. Cameron‘s debut novel, ‘Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World’) is set in 1987, in a small town in Nova Scotia. We meet Stephen Shulevitz, a boy who spends his early years living with his parents in a hippie commune, dealing with their unusual relationship with one another as well as with him. At the age of eight, he moves to small-town Riverside with his mother and begins to attend regular school, where he suffers due to his perceived ‘snottiness’, or superiority, over the other children. Of course, Stephen has no intention of elevating himself above his classmates. He simply sees the world differently, has been educated differently up to this point in his life, and finds it hard to adjust. His parents separate, and we read of the sometimes poignant relationship between Stephen and his mother. There is a lot of love between them, but on occasion it fails to find its way to the surface. The book basically takes us through Stephen’s life as he negotiates his family difficulties (including re-establishing a relationship with his estranged father), makes friends, makes mistakes, deals with his Ukrainian, Russian and Jewish heritage, and falls in love. And all this before he’s even finished school.

The book begins with a scene from Stephen’s teenage years on the night he realises he’s fallen in love with the ‘wrong’ person – this is the ‘End of the World’ of the title. The story flips gently back and forth between the pages of his life as he tries to explain to us how he got to this point, and why, exactly, he fell in love. The book is narrated by Stephen himself in a very effective ‘memoir’ style; at times, he feels he’s ‘left out too much’, and he’ll go back to fill in the gaps. We are brought from the ‘present day’ back to important scenes from his childhood – the day his father left, the day he meets his beloved (and the circumstances behind their becoming friends in the first place), among many others – which gives a very realistic feel to proceedings. Despite this, the story doesn’t flinch from telling us all about Stephen’s mistakes. When he messes up, he’s self-aware enough to tell us about it without attempting to explain it away. One particular episode, when he (almost without meaning to) betrays his best friend, had me in tears. I wasn’t sure if it was because I felt terrible for Stephen, or because I could relate so much to his friend (Lana); perhaps it was a bit of both. In any case, it was moving and real and completely believable. Despite the fact that it’s set in Canada (and there are significant differences between their ‘High School’ experience and ours here in Ireland), the emotions, insecurities and relationships were so effective that the story immersed me completely. For the length of time I spent reading this book, I was an awkward Canadian teenager in the 198os (despite the fact that the real me in 1987 was a greasy kid wearing glitter-boots, a sideways ponytail and a Jason Donovan t-shirt).

The characterisation in this book is excellent – even the minor characters are memorable. I found it interesting that the most fleshed-out and ‘real’ character in the story is the person with whom Stephen falls in love. This person’s failings and flaws, as well as their heroism, protectiveness and kindness are all described with such tender touches that by the end of the story I was a little bit in love with this character myself. It surprised me, because the love-interest is full of anger, and at times the hatred and darkness they exude oozes out of the pages. At one point, they hurt Stephen very badly and his life is put at risk, but despite this, Stephen’s love doesn’t waver and, as a result, neither did mine. I understood the character’s reactions, and I felt I knew where they were coming from – product of a broken home, left to take care of a much younger sister, overlooked by teachers and allowed to fall through the cracks at school – so their rage seems natural and even understandable. I was left feeling sympathetic and sorry for this character, as well as full of admiration for Janet Cameron, the book’s author – how right it is that the person into whose psyche we are given the most insight is the one with whom our narrator is in love. Who else does he know more deeply?

I enjoyed everything about this book, from its structure to its narrative voice to its evocation of a world at once totally alien, and completely familiar, to my experience. I have been the character of Lana, also in love with the ‘wrong’ person, feeling too large for comfort, not quite fitting in with the other girls; I felt such affinity with Stephen’s mother Maryna, dealing with her own memories of a hard childhood with an unforgiving father and the cultural baggage she carries, not because I’ve experienced this myself but because Ms. Cameron describes it so well. I admired Stephen for his bravery and constancy, and I hated his father, Stanley, for the way he treated his son. The book deals unflinchingly with drug use, AIDS (particularly the fear felt around the topic during the 1980s), sexuality, self-harm and suicidal thoughts, and rape – so in some ways, it may not be for the faint-hearted. But if you like books which touch your heart and make you think, books which evoke a time and place so skilfully that opening them feels like stepping into a time machine, and books which deal with the Great Universal of unrequited love, then this is a book worth reading.

Image: frontroomcinema.com

Image: frontroomcinema.com


*In the interests of full disclosure, I feel I should say that the author of this book is someone with whom I communicate on Twitter; this has not affected the impartiality of my review, however.