Book #65: Red Rising (2014)

9781470380281author: Pierce Brown
language: English
length: 972 minutes (16 hours 12 minutes)
finished on: 11 July 2014

I can’t exactly remember how this was advertised on the Humble Bundle site – perhaps as sci-fi or as “young adult” fiction, but I did see a couple of things comparing it to The Hunger Games (which I still haven’t read), and my assessment of the plot summary was “Harry Potter in space” – it concerns a boy who lives on Mars who infiltrates a prestigious school of the upper classes, essentially. The author’s bio includes the word Hogwarts, which led me further along that trail.

Having read the book, I’d say it was less like Harry Potter and more like Ender’s Game – and although I’ve read neither of The Hunger Games nor Game of Thrones, it’s what I imagine both of their plots to be like too. The Game theme is relevant, because when the boy enters this prestigious school, he and the other characters are launched into what is called exactly a game, but includes a lot of death and destruction, and a pseudo-medieval setting, despite being ostensibly on a terraformed Mars in the distant future.

There’s a lot of buildup before that, though – the society is introduced right from the start as a dystopia, with all the population of the world being sorted into colours, but they are colours like red (the lowest), gold (the highest), and others like brown, pink or green. It’s unclear exactly how this affects their appearance – tattoos given at birth and eye-coloration are mentioned, but for instance, are browns all brown-skinned? Are reds all redheads? Furthermore, is this disrespectful to real-life racial tensions? Golds are described in the most detail – they seem to be veritable giants, the epitome of strength and possibly intelligence, but I’m still unsure whether they’re all blonde-haired. Certainly, the colour affects one’s position in life – golds are leaders, pinks are prostitutes and reds are slaves. But we are only introduced to about one character in the whole book who is neither a gold nor a red, so ultimately it all feels a bit irrelevant.

Naturally, the main character is from the lowest caste, and is a miner in the tunnels under Mars. When his wife is executed for an act of civil disobedience, he goes to commit suicide or something, but is saved by some activists who want him to infiltrate the school for golds on the surface – but that also involves educating him of the terraformed surface itself, as its very existence was hidden from the underground population of reds to keep them from rebelling (I guess).

Once he gets into the school, after a gruelling physical transformation, the book takes on the pseudo-fantasy style that I mentioned, and mostly ignores the Martian setting, except for mentioning that these superhumans can run very fast due to the low gravity. The place is terraformed, so the author can get away with a lot in terms of the description of the landscape, but there’s nothing about this part of the story that needed to be on Mars to be told (also, when I found the physical book in a bookstore recently, I noticed it also had a fantasy-style map of the school’s area – I wonder if I delve a bit deeper I could find where it’s supposed to be on Google Earth’s Mars section). I also groaned outwardly whenever Mars’ “twin moons” were mentioned, because it is strongly implied that the author envisages them as two shining lights similar to Earth’s Moon, when in reality they’re fast-moving dots racing around the planet at breakneck speed (this seems to be a depressingly common error that could be corrected with minimal research about Mars).

So, the setting was not utilized effectively, and the society felt unrealistic and overcomplicated, but the characters were alright, if a little numerous. The plot in terms of shifting alliances and intrigue was also very interesting and told reasonably effectively. I did also like the way the author simulated evolving language and various shibboleths that would only be used by certain castes, although I also think there weren’t enough of these, since there are only about two per caste or so.

I also liked that the audiobook’s narrator took the effort to use different accents with the different castes – his native accent is Irish, and he uses it for the reds, while he puts on a posh British accent for the golds. It’s that kind of attention to detail that leaves me with a good impression of an audiobook, and makes it much easier to keep listening. The audiobook also decides on a tune for an important song that plays a major part in the plot, and after the book itself is finished, a professional singer sings it with accompanied music. It was a nice touch.

This all makes it like most other media I’ve consumed recently: I broadly enjoyed it, but I’m not sure why, because when I pick it apart, I only find more and more negative points. It’s flawed, but readable.

Book #64: To Be or Not to Be (2013)

tobeornottobeauthor: Ryan North
language: English
length: 768 pages (but not read all of them, technically)
finished the main story on: 5 July 2014

This rang a bell when I saw it in another of the recent Humble Bundle offerings. I think I remembered seeing the Kickstarter for it briefly and then forgetting about it. Now there’s a trend and a half, Kickstarter – more and more books and movies seem to be getting funded that way after publishers tell the authors where to stick their manuscripts (I’ve listened to at least one more audiobook since reading this that was also funded by Kickstarter).

But I digress. Ryan North is the author of Dinosaur Comics, which is relatively famous among people that spend a lot of time on the internet, and he had the brainwave recently to rewrite Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a Choose Your Own Adventure style novel, with the choice of three characters you can “play” as. I’ve had only limited experience with Choose Your Own Adventure, I should note: I got two “gamebooks” based on Lemmings (they were CYOA books with the added use of dice) when I was in primary school, and at the time they were my favourites, although now I realize that in several ways they were fundamentally flawed. But this review is not about them.

Rewritings on Shakespeare in modern colloquial prose have, I’m sure, been attempted before, and so have CYOA adventures for an adult audience, but North takes both onto a whole new scale – he said in a video about the book that he found a whole new way of constructing a narrative, and I’d love to know what he actually meant by that. That said, I haven’t read any of either genre, making this a doubly new experience for me.

North’s prose is snappy and chirpy for most of the book, and he tends to quote the more important soliloquies verbatim for good measure. The canonical decisions made by the characters in the real Hamlet are marked with little skulls, so that one can follow them to see the real story. North openly makes fun of the decisions the characters make, and sometimes the decisions that Shakespeare made when writing the play, often deliberately viewing them through a modern lens to highlight how things have changed in the past 400 years. For instance, Ophelia’s choices at the beginning are mocked thoroughly, and when Hamlet gets depressed and starts wondering how to kill his uncle, it several times offers to let you grab a gun and blow a hole through his brain, cutting the story time in half. There’s also an extended scene describing how Hamlet fights pirates on the way to England, which was only mentioned off-hand in the play, and North chastises Shakespeare for not bothering with it – of course, pirates are much more of an attractive theme in the modern world.

Where the book really shines, however, are the sections where North lets his imagination run wild and completely diverge from the canonical plot of Hamlet. He reimagines Ophelia as a strong, independent woman, for instance, as long as you don’t choose the canonical plot, in which she’s weak and subservient at best, and you can also play as the ghost of Hamlet’s father and have various adventures.

It also has nice illustrations every time you get an ending, which encourages you to find as many endings as possible (this is in contrast to the gamebooks I mentioned before, and other traditional CYOA books, which have a very linear storyline and a defined goal). I should also mention at this point that this kind of book is very well suited to the ebook format, especially if you have a touchscreen. I read it using my phone’s Kindle app, since my actual Kindle has broken, and it was very easy to navigate by touching the little links rather than flipping back and forth to different pages, as if I was navigating a website rather than a book.

I don’t really have enough space to say many more positive things about this book. I also liked the fact that it was easy to pick up and put down at random, as reading one story branch to conclusion tends not to take that long. But it’s still a very dense book, and I guess my main criticism is that I got a bit bored of trying to find new storylines, and I wanted to move on to reading other books as well. I listed the book as “finished” when I completed the canon storyline, but I’m pretty sure that I haven’t yet found quite a few of the plotlines. I’d have to go back and search more thoroughly – the question is, do I have time for that?

Film #122: Revenge of the Nerds (1984)

Revenge-of-the-Nerds-1984-80s-films-25842688-1280-7202director: Jeff Kanew
language: English and a bit of Japanese
length: 90 minutes
watched on: 27 June 2014

Until my friend decided we should watch it a couple of months ago, I hadn’t heard of this film, which is quite surprising, given that it’s generally viewed as “seminal” and “classic”, and was in its way riding a cultural revolution of sorts. In the past thirty years, nerd culture has been becoming mainstream, and it seems like that shift was already in place at the time, given how popular the movie became, and how many characters in the movie itself identified with the label by the end.

Furthermore, the movie seems to single-handedly set up a lot of tropes about college movies and high school movies, particularly the idea of an interfraternity competition, which was recently taken almost verbatim as the main plot of such recent movies as Monsters University. As another example, it also came up with the name Poindexter, used as a shorthand for all things nerdy in the intervening years. Such things allow me to suddenly have that brainwave moment when thinking about many other intervening movies.

It’s a shame, then, that the movie is absolutely terrible: garbage of the highest order. For one, while it seems to stand with the nerds, and they’re the heroes of the story, its attitude towards them is one of derision… yeah, I know it’s a comedy, but this trend continues today with comedies such as The Big Bang Theory. This is not a comedy for nerds, it’s a comedy where we get to laugh at nerds and learn a pithy moral at the end of the story.

But that’s not even scratching the surface. Its attitude towards women is absolutely despicable. If it’s not bad enough to have these leery young men invading a women’s dormitory to set up hidden cameras and have some kind of circle jerk session over it at home later that evening (wow, what hijinks!), it should hopefully be bad enough when one of the main characters literally rapes a female character by duping her into thinking he’s her boyfriend in costume – and then instead of beating the dude up or calling the police like any sane person would, she has an epiphany and falls in love with him.

Perhaps it is just that mores have evolved since the 80s, but I have a hard time believing that that was ever acceptable. It’s even more sickening that this was so influential at the time, and I hate to think what people might have done as a result of that scene.

There are some funny comedy moments in the movie, and I will certainly acknowledge that this movie is historically important in several ways, but basically, these kinds of attitudes completely ruined the movie and I urge anyone considering watching this not to bother.

Book #63: Found (2008)

n246306author: Margaret Peterson Haddix
language: English
length: 419 minutes (6 hours 59 minutes)
finished listening on: 22 June 2014

The thing about Humble Bundle is, you never quite know what you’re going to get from it. I didn’t really know what this was until I started listening to it, and it turned out to be a children’s story (or is the term “Young Adult” now?) with a sci-fi bent to it, contrary to my expectation of perhaps-another-chick-lit-travesty that I was dreading from my experiences of some of the other audiobooks.

It’s obvious right from the start that this is written mainly to appease an adopted audience, as the main characters are both adopted and trying to work out their origins, which are suitably grandiose in the end. I guess I don’t know enough about that world, but the main thing seems to be that adopted children have a book that is about them. There is an unusual exploration of identity that perhaps is unique to this particular story, coming from the unusual way in which the children are adopted.

It’s alright as a story, although gets ridiculous at times, with a time travel story near the end that needs to jump through a few hoops to stay consistent with itself. It doesn’t quite stray into the territory of boring info-dumps, although it comes close near the end when the sci-fi elements come into play more obviously.

Importantly, however, the book is written in a fluent style, and even though I didn’t really identify with the subject matter, it was easy to listen to and easy to follow, and thus easy to finish. Pretty good overall. Even so, it’s the first in quite a long series by the same author, but I’m not currently tempted enough to try and obtain any of the sequels.