Tag Archives: sci-fi

The Speed of Dark -Elizabeth Moon

  Summary (Amazon): In the near future, disease will be a condition of the past. Most genetic defects will be removed at birth; the remaining during infancy. Lou Arrendale, a high-functioning autistic adult, is a member of the lost generation, born at the wrong time to reap the rewards of medical science. He lives a low-key, independent life. But then he is offered a chance to try a brand-new experimental “cure” for his condition. With this treatment Lou would think and act and be just like everyone else. But if he was suddenly free of autism, would he still be himself? Would he still love the same classical music—with its complications and resolutions? Would he still see the same colors and patterns in the world—shades and hues that others cannot see? Most important, would he still love Marjory, a woman who may never be able to reciprocate his feelings? Now Lou must decide if he should submit to a surgery that might completely change the way he views the world . . . and the very essence of who he is.

My Review (SpOiLeRs!):

Executive Summary: almost

So this is our science fiction pick for the year, and it’s not really science fiction. It’s set in a future world where all people who will have autism have been corrected before being born. There is a gap generation who were too old for the full correction, but have had some procedures, allowing them to work and have semi-normal lives. No robots, aliens, or flying cars. Just a story about an autistic man named Lou.

Lou has an apartment, a car, and a job. He works in a job in a special office with only other autists. They have some special perks which the other “normal” employees do not get, but this allows them to fully channel their concentration into their work and find patterns and sequences that others cannot.

A new big boss, Mr. Crenshaw, arrives at the company, and his goal is cutting costs. He decides that this group of autists is too much work, so he comes up with a (really contrived) plan. He is going to cut costs by eliminating the perks that these autists get by making them all sign up for an experimental medical procedure which makes them “normal”. Their direct boss, Mr. Aldrin, who has a severely autistic brother, gets to work foiling his plan.

Speaking of foils, Lou’s main past time is fencing. There’s a group he goes to once a week at Tom and Lucia’s house. It took Lou a while to get the hang of it physically, but he now is quite a good competitor as he can deduce the opponent’s pattern. A bunch of others go to the fencing group, but the story focuses mostly on two–Don and Marjory. Don’s a jerk, and Lou doesn’t really see it. The others defend Lou when Don makes crass jokes about him being a retard, but really this just makes him madder that they like Lou better than they like him. Marjory is a love interest of Lou’s although it takes him a while to realize it. He struggles to understand how to manage that situation, and Tom and Lucia explain to him that “normal” people also have a lot of difficulty in this situation!

His situation at work is getting more dire as he and the others in his group don’t know that their manager is working behind the scenes to fix things, and now Lou appears to be being targeted by someone who has slashed his tires and broken his windshield. The final piece comes when someone leaves an explosive jack in the box inside his car where the battery should be. After only slight investigation, they realize that it’s Don, and he is arrested when he tries to shoot Lou at the grocery store. Lou struggles with this as Don’s punishment is to have his brain altered so that he won’t want to do bad things. Lou has been reading a lot of books that he had borrowed from Lucia about the brain to understand better his own possible treatment, so he additionally knows what will be happening to Don.

It turns out that the big boss is fired when the rest of the C levels find out what he is up to, and the program is off. Mostly. The autists can still have the procedure done if they would like, and one of them does immediately. Lou struggles with deciding whether or not to do it, and then he eventually decides that he will. He awakes from the surgery and originally has no memory. Tom comes to visit him but it takes a few visits for Lou to remember who he is, but eventually he does. He starts to remember his old life, but he decides that he wants to get into a PhD program. He eventually loses touch with his friends from his old live including Marjory.

Verdict: 3 stars

The one thing that I did really like about this book was the glimpse into the mind of an autistic person. Reading some reviews of the book, including one written by a high-functioning autist, suggest that this depiction is actually very realistic. (The author has an autistic son.) However, the actual story of the book I found to be very unrealistic and at times very dull (like the detailed pages and pages about Lou reading about the brain). I thought that aside from Lou, every character felt very flat especially Mr. Crenshaw and Don. It also felt like a snap decision that Lou made in the end, and the book ended so abruptly. And in general, I thought it was quite the stretch of calling it a science fiction book.

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The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – Claire North

 Summary (Amazon): STORIES CANNOT BE TOLD IN JUST ONE LIFETIME.

Harry August is on his deathbed. Again.

No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.

Until now.

As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. “I nearly missed you, Doctor August,” she says. “I need to send a message.”

This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.

My review (major spoilers!):

Executive summary: creative

This book is SO good. I thought it was really creative, and I hope that this author puts out more stuff (Claire North is a pen name for Catherine Webb).

As you can probably guess from the title, there’s a reason why Harry August has had 15 lives. He cannot die. Every time he lives out his life, he is reborn into the exact same situation where he began with all the memories from his previous lives. His biological father raped (coerced?) his mother and Harry was born in the women’s bathroom of a train station in Northern England. His mother died during childbirth. Each life, Harry ended up being adopted by some close relatives who could not have children, and in general treated Harry just fine.

During his fourth life, he realizes that there are others like him (unfortunately too late) and upon starting life #5, The Cronus Club (made up of other ouroborons like Harry) begin to take him out of each of his lives early under the guise of special scholarships and the like so that his 100+ year old mind doesn’t have to sit through middle school over and over again. The Cronus Club operates in a sort of pay it forward type of way in that a scholarship fund of sorts is set up (they do a lot of betting on horses and the like since they know who will win) and older members are responsible for pulling out new members at the correct age when they are reborn.

Throughout lives 5-11, Harry learns and learns and learns. He travels, learns seemingly every language there is, and meets a variety of other oudoboron. They all spend their lives differently. Some prefer to engage in very risky behavior like fighting in wars. Others prefer to maximize their fun since there’s no consequences. Harry in general is fairly straight laced. He loves to learn. Sometimes he marries, other times he doesn’t. He typically lands in some sort of science-related field.

Nearing his “death” at life number 11, he is visited by a young oudoboron (he always dies for a similar reason at approximately the same time, but the only thing that is always exactly the same in every life is his birth) who passes along a message. “The world is ending, as it always must. But the end of the world is getting faster.”

He doesn’t really think too much of it because really, what does that mean? So he spends his twelfth life doing a lot of research. And he finds that technology is indeed speeding up. Following some leads to Russia, he finds a man who he had met in life #5 when he was a professor. The man, during that life, was a student named Vincent Rankis, who had big ideas even then and even bigger ideas now. Scientific curiosity convinces Harry  to join Vincent on his mission to develop a quantum mirror–something which would allow comprehension of the entire universe.  During this time, he discovers that Vincent is a mnemonic, a oudoboron who never forgets (this is quite rare as most of the others eventually begin to forget their early lives). It turns out that Harry, too, is a mnemonic, but he does not reveal this detail to Vincent.

Eventually Harry realizes that he and Vincent are the cause of the message that he received at his death bed. He decides to take a few days away from the lab (he hasn’t left in 10 years) and finds the Leningrad Cronus Club is gone. He tracks down the tomb of the one woman from there who he knew, and finds a cryptic message saying that her death was violent and unexpected (members of the Cronus Club always left messages and clues for each other throughout time). Harry knows in his mind who was behind this (Vincent) and is conflicted as to what to do. He decides to return, and Vincent confirms the suspicion. He doesn’t like the Cronus Clubs because in his mind, they don’t do anything new or different, just live the same lives over and over.

Harry decides to flee, but Vincent foils it. He restrains Harry and questions and tortures him about his point of origin. (The only way to truly kill a oudoboron is to prevent them from being born, and the only way that you can do that is to know where the person is born and who his/her mother is.) Harry refuses to give in. He convinces the main torturer to bring him poison, and Harry manages to take enough to not be able to recover. In his slow death, Vincent decides to perform a Forgetting on Harry. (This is an uncommon thing performed on oudoborons when they have had a particularly traumatizing event.) When he awakes, he realizes that the treatment didn’t work, but it doesn’t matter, Vincent has him killed.

When Harry awakes in life #13, he still remembers everything from the previous lives. And he knows that he needs to find Vincent. At six, he sends a letter, as he always does, to the London Cronus Club to save him, but no one appears. He sneaks away to find that the London Cronus Club no longer exists. Eventually when he is older, he finds out that the Cronus Club ceased to exist in 1909 due to lack of new members. Harry suspects that Victor had done a mass forgetting and heads to Vienna and proves it. He becomes a professional criminal both trying to trace Vincent and also trying to glean any information from remaining Cronus Clubs. Eventually he finds one in Beijing and learns that the forgettings began in 1965 and the pre-birth killings started no earlier than 1896 and accelerated in 1931 (presumably when Vincent can help) which gives him a good timeline to find Vincent. The Beijing Club provides a name of the original person and Harry sets off. When he finds her, he is devastated to find the woman who originally saved him so many lives ago. He initiates a forgetting on her, but never encounters Vincent. It will have to wait until life #14.

In life #14, technology is so far advanced in this life, he knows that the Vincent has been hard at work for the last few years. He makes an ally with an oudoboron whose live begins a few decades before his to help carry out the mission of stopping Vincent. Harry randomly meets Vincent at a colleague’s house, and must pretend not to know him (he should have forgotten). Vincent eventually contacts Harry and begins to get Harry to work for him. Harry does to learn about Vincent’s past. Harry is good at pretending not to remember even during particularly difficult time when Vincent marries Jenny–one of Harry’s wives from a  former life (and the one who he loved the most and told his secret to…and then she left him.) Harry dies earlier in this life, and before he dies, Vincent performs another forgetting. Again, it does not work.

His two other oudoboron acquaintances help him early in life #15 knowing that Vincent must be stopped. They suggest a forgetting but Harry knows it won’t work. So they begin on a plan. At sixteen, Vincent finds Harry at school, and it’s then obvious that Harry is being tracked until he eventually bumps into Vincent again in 1941 during the war. Again Harry pretends that the forgetting has worked, and again Vincent keeps Harry close, having him help with the research. Vincent is very close this time to completing his quantum mirror. Luckily Harry sabotages him from completing it despite his knowledge. Harry and Vincent both begin to die from radiation poisoning from being too close to the mirror for too long. Harry is dying more quickly and as he is dying, Vincent tells him everything. He tells his mother’s name, when he was born, and Harry has already figured out where he was born. Vincent performs yet another forgetting, and yet again it does not work. He checks himself out of the hospital, contacts his allies, and writes Vincent a letter. The game is over.

Verdict: 4.5 Stars

I thought this book was awesome. It’s a creative story set in a really great time period of modern history (which is important because it’s relived over and over). There are few stories that seem not to follow a predictable idea, and this was one. It integrated science and mystery with human drama. (Particularly in the last few lives, Harry struggled with being friends with Vincent while also knowing that he had to destroy him.) There were also sociological bits such as the fact that Harry continued to kill a serial killer in every life (even before the man had made his first kill). It was fascinating and I would definitely recommend it.

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The Windup Girl – Paolo Bacigalupi

  Summary (Amazon):  Anderson Lake is AgriGen’s Calorie Man, sent to work undercover as a factory manager in Thailand while combing Bangkok’s street markets in search of foodstuffs thought to be extinct, hoping to reap the bounty of history’s lost calories.

Emiko is the Windup Girl, a strange and beautiful creature. Emiko is not human; she is an engineered being, grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys of the rich in this chilling near future in which calorie companies rule the world, the oil age has passed, and the side effects of bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.

What happens when calories become currency? What happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for corporate profits and forces mankind to the cusp of post-human evolution? Bacigalupi delivers one of the most highly-acclaimed science fiction novels of the twenty-first century.

In this brand new edition celebrating the book’s reception into the canon of celebrated modern science fiction, accompanying the text are two novelettes exploring the dystopian world of The Windup Girl, the Theodore Sturgeon Award-winning “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man.” Also included is an exclusive Q&A with the author describing his writing process, the political climate into which his debut novel was published, and the future of science fiction.

My Review (spoilers!):

Executive Summary: terrible

I had a really hard time getting into this book. I found it to be boring, mostly unoriginal and terribly sexist. How it won both the Nebula and Hugo Awards is beyond me. I also found the plot to be overly convoluted while at the same time almost completely pointless. That’s a pretty impressive feat.

It’s a post-apocalyptic book set in Thailand. It has a lot of the stereotypical post-apocalyptic book premises–no oil, no cars, genetically engineered humans. But its main focus is on food. Huge food companies (i.e. Montesanto) have taken over and are controlling the food by genetically engineered blights and other things. OK that’s slightly different, but it’s still just a twist on starvation which other sci-fi books explore for one calamity or another.

The main character of the book, Anderson Lake, is a “calorie man” (not a windup girl as you would expect by the title). He owns some sort of factory which is on the surface producing a kink-spring to help increase energy potential. In actuality, Anderson is there to figure out where the Thai seedbank is because it is supposed to be the main one with a lot of genetic material. Presumably he will take this back to Iowa with him (which obviously is where the huge food companies are based). Which completely makes NO SENSE in a post-apocalyptic future where there are no cars.

Anderson meets “the windup girl” Emiko in a sex club. She’s some sort of Japanese new person (genetically engineered by misogynistic assholes to be the perfect little woman). And when her former boss abandoned her, he didn’t mulch her like apparently he was supposed to. So now she gets raped at a sex club on a daily basis (and is described in vivid detail in the book). Yes, this is the character the book was named for.

Emiko feeds Anderson information about the seed bank and he eventually lets her hideout at his place after she killed everyone who gang-raped her, including the regent to the child queen. Seems OK but she’s been his personal sex toy in the story for a while by this point.

At some point in the story, it is revealed that the manager of Anderson’s factory (Hock Seng) is trying to steal the kink spring design and sell it to basically obtain the equivalent of citizenship. Hock Seng is a refugee who in his former life was an executive. A bunch of stuff happens which I don’t really remember and some people from the factory start to die from some sort of genetic algae plague. Hock Seng and some girl who works there cover up the deaths and they leave.

At the same time as the main story is happening, there’s a separate, just as uninteresting, side story happening about the political unrest in Thailand which culminates after the death of the queen’s regent. I won’t even discuss it because frankly, it came off as completely hollow and I don’t really remember it.

In the end, Anderson ends up dying from the plague that originated from his factory (Bye, Felicia), and Emiko teams up with a different renegade scientist from one of the big food companies and his lady boy. The scientist tells Emiko that he will use her DNA to create a new race of better new people who will actually be able to breed.

The end.

Verdict: 2 stars

I rarely come away from books feeling as though they were a complete waste of time. This one was it. I would not recommend it at all.

 

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The Martian – Andy Weir

 Summary (Amazon): Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.

Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there.

After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.

Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first.

But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

My Review (Spoilers!!)

Executive Summary: hilarious

We picked this book for book club this year, and I have been VERY IMPATIENTLY waiting to read it. My husband read it. My dad read it. It feels like the entire population except for me had read it. But finally! I joined the club. And it was worth the wait.

The simple summary of this book is that Mark Watney was accidentally abandoned on Mars by his crew during a storm because they thought that he was dead and they needed to get out of there before they were all dead.

The long summary is a nerdy hilarious story of Mark Watney’s attempt to stay alive. Hilarious both because Mark has a great dorky sense of humor that made me laugh out loud multiple times, and also because of his sometimes disastrous attempts at making things work.

Once he realizes that he is alive and was abandoned on Mars, he manages to seal his spacesuit and assess the situation. He has no way to contact Earth. The next mission isn’t expected for 4 years, and he only has food for 300 days. On the plus, he has solar cells, water, and oxygen as well as plenty of vitamins. He also has terrible 70s television and disco music. He realizes that he was sent to Mars with some actual potatoes so that they can have a Thanksgiving. He decides to plant the potatoes using a combination of poop and Mars soil. He has to collect quite a lot of both to fill the space he has for crops (which is inside the Hab). He also has to figure out how to generate more water, which he does, although he almost blows himself up in a hydrogen bomb in the process.

Eventually a low level employee at NASA realizes that Watney is still alive due to various things moving around. They can’t contact him, but they keep track of him with their camera. They decide to not tell his returning crew because there is great concern of their morale of leaving a crew member behind on a long trip back to Earth. (Eventually they are told though.)

This is my favorite quote from the book: Teddy swiveled his chair and looked out the window to the sky beyond. Night was edging in. “What must it be like?” he pondered. “He’s stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?” He turned back to Venkat. “I wonder what he’s thinking right now.”

LOG ENTRY: SOL 61

How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense!

While Mark’s potatoes are growing, his next task is to trick out the Rovers so that he can take a journey partly as a test run for his 3200 km journey to the area where Ares 4’s MAV has already landed. And partly so that he can find the Pathfinder probe from 1997 for communication. He takes the battery from one rover so that he can swap out. He loads up the solar cells, and takes it for a test run. It gets far too cold so he decides on a crazy idea–using the radioactive power cell to supply heat. Once he works out the bugs, he heads out with Houston (and the rest of the world) watching remotely. A fairly uneventful trip, he recovers the Pathfinder and upon returning to the Hab, he manages to get it up and running.

With contact from Houston, things get better but also way more complicated. Mark can’t be a maverick doing whatever he wants any more. He has a world’s worth of scientists analyzing his every move. They have him double-check that all the safety mechanisms are still operating correctly, and they evaluate his farming. Everything is good. Everyone sets on finding a way to get Mark off of Mars. In the meantime, a fluke accident occurs causing a tear in the Hab, which ruins many of the potatoes–causing the situation to be much more urgent.

The main problem is that the planets are not lined up in a way that is optimum. NASA hurries a probe full of food to keep Mark until he can be rescued as food is the major issue. Unfortunately due to rushing it, it doesn’t launch properly, and now situations are really dire.

Luckily the sneaky Chinese have been developing a probe, and they are willing to cut a deal with the Americans. If NASA promises to put a Chinese astronaut into the next Mars mission. NASA agrees. In the meantime, one of the engineers at NASA has come up with an alternate proposal. They have to decide whether to launch the Chinese probe to land directly on Mars six weeks after Mark is scheduled to run out of food -OR- to reroute the returning Ares 3 to pick up Mark as he launches in the MAV adding over a year to their journey. With much debate, the decision is made to go with the first option so as to only endanger one life.

However, one NASA employee thinks otherwise and decides that there’s a way to force option two. He sends an encrypted message to Ares 3; they take a vote and decide to turn back. Once they have turned back, it’s too late to change. Mark begins his preparations for traversing to the MAV. NASA provides him with a plan to convert the second rover, which will be hitched to the other, so that he can carry everything that he needs for the journey. As he is doing the conversion, he short circuits his communication home. They can still see him, but he cannot communicate with them. Periodically he lays out rocks to spell out things in Morse code to communicate back, but it takes time and he has a lot to do. Eventually he gets everything ready to go and he heads out to the MAV. It is a long journey, but without too much disaster. He avoids a sandstorm (you’re humming that song too, aren’t you?) which is slowly making his solar cells not achieve a full charge (thus reducing the distance he can travel each day). He also has a small accident where he careens into a bit of a crater due to some powdery soil upsetting both his truck and trailer. But he makes it.

Upon arrival, he can again communicate with Earth, and they begin to communicate instructions on modifying the MAV so that it can be lightweight enough to make contact with Ares 3. It is ghetto. Mark cuts most of the roof off of the expensive piece of equipment to reduce the weight, and then reseals it with tarp from the Hab. He is using his urine along with a lot of his other water supply to generate fuel to power the MAV (hydrogen). “If I survive this, I’ll tell people I was pissing rocket fuel.”

Upon launch, everything starts according to plan. However, the makeshift roof does not hold up, and causes the aerodynamics of the MAV to be severely hindered. It causes the MAV to miss its target and Mark is passed out inside due to the severe g’s that he encountered. The crew of the Ares 3 decides to use the atmosphere as thrust to get to Mark to intercept him. They blow a section out which allows Beck to have an appropriate velocity to get Mark and return to the ship. Hooray! Everyone’s saved.

Verdict: 4 stars

This book was great. It was nerdy and funny, but I was a little wishy washy on the ending. I get it. You have to end a book somewhere, and maybe it’s set up for a sequel. But the crew has so long remaining in space with a damaged ship. It made the ending seem a little preemptive. But I guess it is called The Martian and not The Astronaut so once they leave Mars, the title and thus the book can end. I may have to assume that they all made it back and that Astronaut Johanssen didn’t have to eat them all. That certainly changes things if that was actually the real ending. Happy Halloween!

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Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut

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Summary (Amazon): Cat’s Cradle is Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical commentary on modern man and his madness. An apocalyptic tale of this planet’s ultimate fate, it features a midget as the protagonist, a complete, original theology created by a calypso singer, and a vision of the future that is at once blackly fatalistic and hilariously funny. A book that left an indelible mark on an entire generation of readers, Cat’s Cradle is one of the twentieth century’s most important works—and Vonnegut at his very best.

My Summary (Spoilers!)

Executive Summary: weird

Yet another book I read at the suggestion of Among Others.  I had never read any Vonnegut, and I figured that this was a good one to start with (this opinion was verified by the cashier at Brown Bag Deli who saw my book and said that it was the best one to read). With that in mind, I think it will be a while before I read any of his other stuff. It’s kind of like how I feel about the Beatles–I appreciate it, but I just don’t like it.

General premise of the book is that the narrator, John, decides to write a book about what important Americans were doing on the day when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He begins by investigating Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the “fathers” of the atomic bomb. Dr. Hoenikker had died, but his three children were still alive, and John tries tracking them down, but only gets a response from the youngest, Hugh, who is a midget and was very young at the time of the bomb. He writes John a letter saying that he remembered very little, but he remembered playing on the floor when his father, totally out-of-character for him, showed Hugh the cat’s cradle made of string. He asked Hugh if he could see the cradle where the pussycat slept, and Hugh became afraid and cried.

John then went to the town of Ilium where Dr. Hoenikker had worked and spoke to his supervisor, Dr. Breed. Dr. Breed was only a supervisor in technicality. Dr. Hoenikker essentially did whatever sparked his interest. Dr. Breed tells John a story of how a Marine general approached Dr. Hoenikker to do something about mud. Mud made it difficult to do battle, and finding a way to get the Marines out of the mud would be a huge help. Dr. Hoenikker suggested that there could be a way to create some sort of way to make a crystal that, introduced to mud, would cause the water atoms to freeze solid. John suggests that there would be consequences for using such a thing as all the world’s water supply is connected, and Dr. Breed assures him that this “ice-nine” thing does not actually exist, and escorts John out.

Throughout the book, the reader is slowly introduced to the “religion” of Bokonism but it doesn’t really connect until John sees a copy of the Sunday Times, where he sees Dr. Hoenikker’s other son, Franklin, in a picture with regard to the republic of San Lorenzo. John decides to go. Not only to talk to Franklin, but also because he had apparently fallen in love with the adopted daughter of the dictator of the island, Mora, who was also in the photograph.

John flies to San Lorenzo (flying in the 1960s sounds utterly amazing) and meets a variety of misfits on the airplane. He meets Horlick and Claire Minton; Horlick is the new US ambassador for San Lorenzo. He also meets H. Lowe and Hazel Crosby, of Indiana, who are moving to San Lorenzo to start a bicycle factory, and he also meets Newt Hoenikker and his sister, Angela. He finds that they are going to San Lorenzo for their brother’s wedding, to the lovely Mona.

Horlick (seriously, what a terrible name) gives John a copy of “the only sort of scholarly book about San Lorenzo” which was written by Philip Castle, the son of Julian Castle. John discovers the odd history of Bokonon and San Lorenzo. Through a convoluted story, a Marine deserter named McCabe approached Lionel Johnson, aka Bokonon, to sail him to Miami from Haiti. En route, the weather turned bad and the two washed ashore naked on the beach of San Lorenzo. They took control of the island rather easily as no one really wanted to control it.  Castle Sugar, the former ruler, withdrew with no complaint. All the many other rulers had gone in with lofty expectations but the land was sterile and the people could not be bothered.

They landed in San Lorenzo and see a sign saying “Anybody practicing Bokonism in San Lorenzo will die on the hook” and another saying that Bokonon was wanted dead or alive.

They’re greeted in grand gesture, due to the Ambassador, by the dictator himself. And as the ceremony completes, Papa Monzano collapses. John checks into his hotel and receives an urgent call from Papa’s right hand man, Franklin Hoenikker, asking him to come right away. John goes to Franklin’s house but only finds Newt there. Newt is painting, and the black scratchy mess apparently was a painting of the cat’s cradle. John asks him to explain, and Newt essentially sums up the entire book at this point.

“No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hand and little kid’s look and look and look at all those X’s…and…no damn cat and no damn cradle”

Angela and Julian Castle arrive. John asks about Papa’s condition, but Julian has no news. However, he gives more information about Bokonism. When Bokonon and McCabe arrived and took over San Lorenzo, they removed the priests, and Bokonon created a new religion for them. The main tenet of Bokonism was to “live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.” (foma being harmless white lies) This provided the people with hope as the truth was far too unbearable, and eventually Bokonon forced McCabe to outlaw his religion to make it more enticing and he disappeared into hiding. Everyone on San Lorenzo was a devout Bokonist.

Frank still hasn’t appeared at dinner but phones John to tell him that he must stay because it’s his fate. After dinner, the power goes out, and eventually everyone goes to bed. They are awakened by the power returning, and John, Angela, and Newt, race out thinking that they were in danger. John has his passport, wallet and watch with him whereas both Angela and Newt have identical red thermoses. Frank appears as he has been the one to return the power, and he has his urgent meeting with John. Frank wants John to be the next President. John instantly says no, but then he finds out that the future president gets to marry Mona, so he changes his mind. (Men, seriously…) John and Mona perform the “Boko-maru”, which is an intense Bokonist “religious” experience of putting the soles of your bare feet against the other person’s. Now that John is going to be her husband, he forbids her from performing the Boko-maru with other people. She tells him no because Bokonon says that it is very wrong to love people differently.

John and Frank go to meet with Papa, who is still alive but it is only a matter of time. When they see him, he continues to say “Goodbye” interspersed with “Ice”. The doctor says that Papa has been given ice water but he refuses it. They perform the Bokonist last rites on him and wait.

In the meantime, John prepares a speech to announce his presidency. He plans to do it in conjunction with the fly over ceremony honoring the Day of the Hundred Martyrs to Democracy. The day arrives, and before the time for the speech, Papa’s doctor rushes out. Papa has committed suicide by way of a vial of something that he had kept around his neck. The mysterious substance has turned the former leader into stone. John and the Doctor go into Papa’s room, and the Doctor tries to rinse the substance off his hands, but the water freezes into  a large ball around his hand. He sticks his tongue to it, and he also dies. Ice-nine was not a myth. John gets security to bring in the Hoenikker children.

He finds that at Felix’s death, the children divided the remaining ice-nine in thirds. Frank used his to get in a position of power in San Lorenzo. Angela used hers to grab herself a handsome husband, and Newt used his for romantic times with the Russian midget dancer (who has presumably since used hers for a position of power in Russia). Felix himself died by accidentally ingesting the ice-nine too. Frank decides that they need to clean up the mess, and they begin scraping all the little frozen pieces into a pile to burn. The plan is to burn Papa’s body in a funeral pyre during an official ceremony, so they leave him where he is. They go out to watch the flyover, and one of the planes has an accident causing it to crash into the castle thereby releasing Papa’s body which crashes into the water forcing all water to freeze.

John and Mona go into an underground hideout and they remain there for a week before resurfacing. When they did, they found everything was hard and quiet, but they did not see any dead anywhere. As they went looking, they eventually found them on the mount where only Bokonon had previously gone along with a note from Bokonon himself. The people had apparently brought him there asking him what to do, and he had told them that God was surely trying to kill them so they should have the good manners to die. So they did. Once John and Mona finish reading the note, Mona also takes the advice of the note and touches the ice-nine to her mouth.

Frank is rescued by a car carrying Newt, Hazel, and H. Lowe and go to Frank’s house. The five of them continue to live out their lives as the last people potentially in the world. One day driving around, John sees Bokonon sitting on the sidewalk. They stop the car and John goes to speak to him. Bokonon is thinking of the final sentence for The Books of Bokonon and he shows John what it is:

“If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.”

Verdict: 3.5 stars

This book has a lot of points to make about a lot of things. But in general, I found it a bit depressing, and I felt it dragged in the middle. Essentially nothing matters and we fool ourselves with harmless lies of religion or with the false security of science, which intrinsically has no morality as can be seen with the development of both the atomic bomb and ice-nine. I like reading to escape real life, not to ponder whether life itself has any meaning or purpose. Anyway, like I said in the beginning, I appreciate this book, but I don’t like it.

 

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Book Review

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

IMG_0664.JPGSummary (Amazon): In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade’s devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world’s digital confines—puzzles that are based on their creator’s obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them.
But when Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade’s going to survive, he’ll have to win—and confront the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

My Review (Spoilers):
Executive Summary:
creative

So this was the book that I picked for book club for this year. I had the “sci-fi/fantasy” category, and my husband has been suggesting I read this book for a couple years, so I thought it might be a good book club suggestion.

In my opinion, it was. This book was really impressive. It’s perfect for late Gen X’ers, but it’s written well enough that those of us who didn’t grow up playing Atari can still follow along!

The Backstory:

James Halliday was the man responsible for designing the OASIS, the global virtual reality “game” that most everyone used on a daily basis (akin perhaps to the Sims except a lot more). Halliday was a major introvert and never married or had children. Upon his sudden death, a short video of his was released, inviting everyone in the world to find the Easter Egg that he had hidden in the OASIS. And whoever found it would inherit his fortune. Halliday had been born in the 70s and had grown up during the advent of video games. So most of the gunters (egg-hunters) spend all their free time beefing up on their 80s pop culture and video game knowledge. From the video, it is known that there are 3 keys and 3 gates. At the end of those, the egg will be there.

The Pre-Story:

Now, five years after Halliday’s death, the Scoreboard of people who have found keys or gates still empty, the story begins of the first person whose name gets on that list–eighteen year old Wade (Parzival) Watts. Wade lives in Oklahoma City, which sounds like it’s actually gotten worse in the next 40 years. He lives in “the stacks”, a series of trailer homes stacked on top of themselves to conserve land. He lived with his aunt and 14 other people after his mother had died from an overdose. Apparently the world is in shambles due to an over-attachment to fossil fuels which collapsed the economy and extended the economic recession into a great depression. (This was a bit cheesy and dramatic but luckily the book spends almost no time in the real world).

Even though Wade was very very poor, he was able to get access to the OASIS through school. His grades were good enough that he was accepted at a virtual school in the OASIS and was therefore given the gloves, goggles, and access to get in. His avatar had the original clothes that it came with –a black shirt and pants–as he didn’t have the money to buy new ones. He spent all his time on the school planet, Ludus, as he doesn’t have enough virtual currency to travel from it. For a while, he was able to hop rides with his one friend, Aech (“H”), so that he could level his avatar and then have enough money to return to Ludus. But lately Aech has gotten too good, and he has missed too much school to make it work any more. And if he misses too much school, he has to relinquish his OASIS gear, which would defeat the purpose. Aech, whose avatar is a brown haired, brown eyed white man, makes a lot of money competing in PvP competitions. He has his own “chat room” in the OASIS (aka a place where invited people can go and hang out. And play video games.)

Wade has a secret hideout in an old van in a junkyard where he sleeps, catches up on his 80s trivia, and goes into the OASIS. The search for the egg is a salvation for him, and he spends every waking moment working on it. Meanwhile, he knows that even after 5 years, there are still others looking for it too. Aech, for one. A blogger named Art3mis who Wade has a mega-crush on. Numerous other gunter clans (groups of gunters working together who would then split the bounty), and also the Sixers. The Sixers were a group from IOI, a large conglomerate and the largest internet provider, who hoped to gain the egg to gain control of the OASIS. They wanted to cover the OASIS with advertising, start charging a fee to use it, and in general, make it everything that people hate. All the other gunters hated them.

The Story:

As Wade is daydreaming in Latin class, he begins to think back on all he has learned since the original message from Halliday. He’s studied music, movies, TV, and video games. He scoured through Anorak’s Almanac (Halliday’s journal that was released after the video aired). Through that, he found a series of notched letters, that he put together to spell out the first clue:

The Copper Key awaits explorers
In a tomb filled with horrors
But you have much to learn
If you hope to earn
A place among the high scorers.

He’d already figured out the first two lines. The first one was obvious. And the second line referred to an old D&D pamphlet called Tomb of Horrors. (Halliday and his partner Morrow, the face of the operation, spent much of their youth playing D&D and is how they met in the first place). And as he is sitting in Latin class, he wonders who would have more to learn than students? And to top that off, the planet where all the schools are, Ludus, also means “school” but it also means “game”. After school, he searches the topography of Ludus for something that looks like the Tomb of Horrors, and to his delight, he finds it. It’s far away though, and he doesn’t know how he’ll get there, until he remembers that the school gives free inter-school teleportation vouchers to attend away game sporting events. He finds a nearby school that they are playing in football, and teleports there. He then runs the rest of the way to get to the Tomb, and finds a way inside. Wade has the pamphlet with him, which helps him navigate the monsters and traps. He knows there is one boss in there, Acererack, and he is surprised when he finds him somewhere different from where the pamphlet specifies.

Acererack challenges Wade to a best of three game of Joust–an old game where you joust each other while riding on birds. (Totally unfamiliar but sounds hilarious.) Acererack wins the first, and Wade is a little disheartened, but he knows he knows the game and asks Acererack if they can switch sides. Wade manages to eke out a win on game #2, and goes on to a solid victory in game #3. Acererack presents him with the copper key and tells hims, “What you seek lies hidden in the trash on the deepest level of Daggorath.”

On his way out, Wade runs into Art3mis who admits that she discovered the tomb 6 weeks prior, but isn’t very good at Joust. She’s been returning every night to try again. Wade suggests maybe she should try playing on the left side, and he heads to Middletown, the planet designed after Halliday’s hometown, Middletown, Ohio. (Wade loaded up on lots of money and items while on his way through the Tomb). Wade heads to Halliday’s home and inserts the cartridge of “Dungeons of Daggorath” into the computer and begins to play. At the end of the game, the printer (dot matix obviously!) printed a line of text: Congratulations! You have opened the first gate! Wade glances around and sees that there is now a wrought iron gate in the bedroom wall where previously there was a WarGames poster. He inserts the key into the poster and falls into the movie WarGames. Wade has to proceed through the entire movie saying the correct dialog at the correct time. Luckily he had seen the movie many times and makes it to the end where he gets the clue for the second key:

The captain conceals the Jade Key
in a dwelling long neglected
But you can only blow the whistle
once the trophies are all collected.

When he gets out, he sees that he has 110000 points on the leaderboard, and Art3mis has 9000. She has made it through Joust! The next day Ogden Morrow gave an interview about the sensation that not one, but two people have found the first key. He speaks directly to the camera telling them that they should not speak to the media especially because of the Sixers.

Wade calls Aech who has left him a million messages. Aech turns on his video feed to show Wade that he’s at the Tomb of Horrors. He knew that Wade didn’t have the cash to go anywhere so it had to have been on Ludus. He makes it through and adds his name to the leaderboard.

Wade receives a bunch of offers for endorsements and other things. He goes through them and calculates that he’ll have enough money from the endorsements to move to an apartment and live frugally for some time. He also has an email from Nolan Sorrento at IOI. They have a lucrative business proposition for him. Wade decides to meet with them via chatlink to see what they have to offer. They offer him a position to be the chief egg hunter over everyone else and a salary of $2million per year with a bonus if he finds the egg. He negotiates back and says that he wants Sorrento’s job. IOI offers Wade the job, and he proceeds to turn them down and tell them that he can’t be bought. They proceed to tell him that they know who and where he is and that if he doesn’t tell them how to reach the First Gate that they will kill him right now. (They think that he is in his aunt’s house when he’s actually in his hideout.) He thinks they’re bluffing and he logs out. And then he hears the explosion.

Wade goes to tell Aech what has happened and Aech tells him that the Sixers have figured out that the first key is on Ludus and have fully invaded the planet. They decide to warn the other on the Leaderboard (Art3mis, Shoto, and Daito) what is happening and they invite them to Aech’s chat room that evening. By the end of the evening, the remaining spots on the scoreboard had been filled with Sixers.

Wade changes his identity and moves to Columbus, OH (apparently it has the fastest internet) and vows to do nothing but search for the egg. Falling head over heels for Art3mis wasn’t exactly part of the plan. They get invites to Ogden Morrow’s 73rd birthday party (80s dance themed) and decide to go. Totally unsurprisingly, Sixers crash the party, gunning directly for Wade and Art3mis. Luckily Morrow’s super-powerful avatar vaporizes them, but in the confusion, Art3mis leaves and stops answering any of Wade’s communications. Wade slips into a depression and begins to just go through the motions for a few months…until Art3mis finds the jade key which shakes him out of his wallowing.

Wade decides to go to Archaide, a planet where all the trophies that Halliday had won for being game designer of the year were located. He’s trying to piece together the rest of the clue. When he gets to the museum where the trophies are located, he stumbles across Happytime Pizza, a replica of a pizza place in Middletown. In Happytime Pizza, there was a Pac-Man game displaying a high score of 3,333,350 points–10 points shy of the perfect score. Wade doesn’t have any other clues on where he’s supposed to be so he decides to try to get a perfect Pac-Man score. Eventually, after a handful of false starts, he manages to get a perfect score. And he adds a quarter to his inventory. Perplexed, Wade realizes he has an email from Aech who gives him the clue that he needed to get the jade key. And he forgets all about the quarter.

He goes to Frobozz to find a house similar to the one that Zork began the game outside of. Inside that house was a trophy case. He arrives and begins his quest. He collects all of the trophies and puts them into the case. At the end, he gets the whistle out of the Captain Crunch cereal box and blew it. The whistle transforms into the Jade Key. Wade is back in second place on the leaderboard. The key has the following clue etched into it: Continue your quest by taking the test. As he’s flying away from Frobozz, the Sixers begin to attack. His ship is damaged, but he doesn’t fare the worst. Daito is killed during the attack.

As Wade is debating the next clue, Sorrento jumps to the top of the scoreboard. He has made it through the second gate. Wade invites Shoto for a visit to find out what had happened with Daito. Daito’s avatar was ambushed by the sixers when trying to make it into the house to get the Jade Key. But that wasn’t all. He had also been killed in real life. Presumably by the sixers. As Shoto is leaving, he gives Wade the Beta Capsule that Daito had kept from a mission that they were on.

Wade begins analyzing the Jade Key’s package in a microscope when he figures out what’s next. He thinks of a final scene in Blade Runner and whispers “the unicorn”. The package folds itself into a unicorn, and Wade heads to the Tyrell Building to use a Voight Kampff machine to “take the test”.   He arrives and inserts his key into the machine which drops him into the game Black Tiger. Similar to the movie, he is actually in the game. At the end of the game, he gets to choose a giant robot as his reward. He chooses Leopardon, a robot who appeared in Supaidaman. He watches all of the credits, and at the very end, the Crystal Key appears spinning slowly in a red star. Wade knows where the symbol is from–a Rush album called 2112. The title track of the album has lyrics that say

We are the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx
Our great computers fill the hallowed halls.
We are the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx
All the gifts of life are held within our walls.

Wade heads to the planet of Syrinx. Using other details from 2112, he finds a cave behind a waterfall where there is an electric guitar buried in a stone. He pulls the guitar out, gets a guitar pick from his inventory and begins to play the song “Discovery” from the 2112 album. A message appears in the stone:

 The first was ringed in red metal
The second, in green stone
The third is clearest crystal
and cannot be unlocked alone

He returned to the temple he had found on Syrinx and as he did, the guitar changed into the Crystal Key. The key has a calligraphic A on it. It appears to be the same A that is on the gates of Halliday’s Castle Anorak–a place where no one had ever been able to enter. Wade heads to Chthonia, the planet where Castle Anorak is, and finds that the Sixers have shielded the castle. He realizes that he needs a new strategy and he concocts a plan. He emails Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto telling them where to find the Crystal Key and then initiates the rest of his plan.

The IOI (Sixer) police come to arrest Wade (seriously. I didn’t miss anything.) He wipes his hard drive and lets the police escort “Mr. Lynch” out of the apartment. The go to the IOI building where he begins his work as an Indent (Indentured Servant) as Bryce Lynch, his fake identity who owes the . He performs some aptitude tests and intentionally fails any regarding Halliday so as to not draw attention to himself. Wade receives the ankle monitor and eargear that all indents receive, and he heads to his room. He has an entertainment console, but most of the programming is blocked until he receives good performance evaluations. He’s also monitored by a camera. During the day, he works doing technical support customer service. And it’s awful.

Wade has figured out a system for every night. He watches Tommy Queue on his console until he falls asleep. Roughly the same time every night and then he sleeps soundly until morning. But what actually happens is that in the few seconds when he switches off the lights and his monitoring camera switches into night vision, he has found a way to override it with the feed from the first night where he is sleeping soundly. And he proceeds to get inside the IOI network by way of some black market passwords he obtained before his arrest.

He finds out that the Sixers know a lot about him, Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto. And they knew a lot about Daito but his folder has a red X on it now. He realizes that they know where Art3mis and Shoto live, and that they kept a video of them pushing Daito over his balcony. He copies as much data as possible to a jump drive and then programs it so that his ankle monitor and eargear unlock. He walks out of the IOI building and goes to a wireless point to alert Art3mis and Shoto to get out of Dodge. And he changes his identity back to Wade Watts.

He goes to an OASIS parlor where he logs in and meets Art3mis, Aech and Shoto. He tells them what he’s been up to. Together they watch the Sixers’ video that Wade swiped of trying to open the 3rd gate and they immediately figure out what the Sixers are missing. The door says Charity Hope Faith, and they realize that it is from Schoolhouse Rock’s song Three is a Magic Number. And that it will take 3 of them together to unlock the door. But they still have a problem–the Sixers.

Wade sends out an email to the entire OASIS and tells them all to arrive at the castle the next day at noon to take down the Sixers and the shield. (Wade has already programmed that the shield will come down at that exact time.) But they realize that it’s going to be tough for all of them to get there as Shoto and Art3mis are on the run. Wade is using a portal. And Aech lives in an RV. And then…SURPRISE! Ogden Morrow appears. His avatar can enter any chatroom invisibly and he has been listening in on them. He doesn’t want the Sixers to gain control of OASIS so he invites them to his home to try to find the egg. He arranges private jets to pick up Shoto in Japan, Art3mis in Vancouver. Aech is currently in Pittsburgh (Go Steelers!) and will drive his RV to Columbus to pick up Wade, and they will take a jet from there. They’ll all meet at Morrow’s house in Oregon.

When Aech arrives in his RV, Wade realizes that Aech is NOT as expected. He’s not a tall muscly white man. She’s a chubby black woman! Her mother had told her that life would be easier for her as a white man (ugh I hope we can fix this by the future) so she created her avatar as a good looking white man.

They arrive in Oregon and immediately go into their OASIS bays (they’re on a timeline). They arrive on Chthonia and to their pleasant surprise, many, many gunters are there to support them.They activate their robots (from the 2nd gate) but many of the Sixers also have robots, including Sorrento. He comes out and his robot is Mechogodzilla. It’s 11:59 and Sorrento has no idea that his shield is about to go down. 12:00 and the shield falls exactly as Wade planned. An epic battle occurs, and Shoto continues to fight Sorrento allowing Wade, Art3mis, and Aech to get inside the castle to get to the gate. Shoto’s name disappears from the scoreboard, and Wade realizes that he has been killed by Sorrento so Wade decides to use the Beta Capsule to kill Sorrento. The three go to the gate, recite the Schoolhouse Rock song and open the gate. And then they are killed!

Except Wade isn’t. The Sixers had used a device to destroy the castle and all the avatars in the area. All that remained was the Crystal Gate. And while everyone else saw “Game Over”, Wade had an extra life. From the quarter he got at the Pac-Man game. It was up to him alone to defeat the Sixers!

He’s still able to hear Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto, and he agrees to split the prize with them. (Duh!) He has to play the game Tempest, and he has to beat Halliday’s score. Before the Sixers do. It’s not one of Wade’s best games, but luckily the model of the game has a glitch allowing the player to gain a lot of extra lives, which Wade takes full advantage of allowing him to beat Halliday’s score eventually. But the Sixers are close behind him. As the game fades away, Wade finds himself in the midst of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He recites the appropriate words and makes it to the end where he appears in Halliday’s office and finds the final clue.

Three hidden keys open three secret gates
Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits
And those with the skill to survive these straits 
Will reach The End where the prize awaits

Wade knows the egg is hidden somewhere in the office, but where? His link to the others has ended, so he is fully all alone. He tries booting all the computers in the office, and he finds that only one, the IMSAI 8080, will boot. The screen says “Login:” Wade tries “Anorak”, “Halliday”, “Og”, “Ogden”, a bunch of others, and then he remembers something. Ogden’s wife, Kira, was the one woman that Halliday ever communicated with. And he only ever called her by her D&D name. Wade tries “Leucosia” and the computer begins. He inserts the game Adventure and finds his way to the secret room in the game. It doesn’t contain the name of the programmer. It contains the egg! Wade picks it up, and Halliday appears.

Halliday congratulates Wade and transfers all the money and powers to him. Wade’s avatar can now do everything that Halliday’s could. Halliday tells Wade that he has now programmed the office so that only Wade can enter. He has the power to shut down the OASIS if there is ever a need. And Halliday gives him a bit of a life lesson. He tells Wade to not spend all his life in the OASIS like he did. And then he wishes Wade good luck and vanishes.

Wade reconnects with the others. He reactivates their avatars to their pre-death state and holds true on his promise to split the prize. Shoto and Aech log back into the OASIS but Art3mis doesn’t. She wanted to go outside, and Wade goes to do the same. But before he does, Aech shows him the news–Sorrento is arrested as the video of the IOI agents killing Daito has somehow been leaked. Wade logs out of the OASIS, leaves the bay, and thanks Morrow for all his help. He goes outside to meet Art3mis, and he tells her that he loves her. And that for once, he has no desire to log back into the OASIS.

Verdict: 4.5 Stars

This book was a lot of fun. It was an adventure and a love story, futuristic and historical, all wrapped into one. I really got absorbed into the book (which I always like) and was disappointed when it was over. Eventually the book will be turned into a movie (Cline sold the screenplay the day after he sold the book) and I definitely will want to check it out. In the meantime though, I need to catch up on some of my 80’s movies!

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

IMG_0573.JPG

 

Summary (Amazon): Seconds before the Earth is demolished to make way for a galactic freeway, Arthur Dent is plucked off the planet by his friend Ford Prefect, a researcher for the revised edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who, for the last fifteen years, has been posing as an out-of-work actor.
Together this dynamic pair begin a journey through space aided by quotes from The Hitchhiker’s Guide (“A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have”) and a galaxy-full of fellow travelers: Zaphod Beeblebrox–the two-headed, three-armed ex-hippie and totally out-to-lunch president of the galaxy; Trillian, Zaphod’s girlfriend (formally Tricia McMillan), whom Arthur tried to pick up at a cocktail party once upon a time zone; Marvin, a paranoid, brilliant, and chronically depressed robot; Veet Voojagig, a former graduate student who is obsessed with the disappearance of all the ballpoint pens he bought over the years.
Where are these pens? Why are we born? Why do we die? Why do we spend so much time between wearing digital watches? For all the answers stick your thumb to the stars. And don’t forget to bring a towel!

My Review (Spoilers):

Executive Summary: quirky

So I picked this book because A) it was mentioned in Among Others and B) my husband owned it. So I packed it to read on our flights to and from a wedding we went to last weekend. And, to my delight and my husband’s total annoyance, when I opened the cover of the book, there was an old cheesy photo of him and his high school girlfriend. So approximately 327 times during the flight when he wasn’t looking, I would slyly open the book to reveal that photo so that he would glance over and see it looking at him. (I think if he could have gotten a different seat, he might have considered it!)

That was just the beginning of how great this book is.

The book begins with Arthur (who lives in England), whose house is about to be demolished. He had just found out about the demolition the day before but he was assured that all the paperwork had been filed and was placed in the local planning office 9 months prior. So he had plenty of time to file the complaint about the thing that he didn’t know existed. As Arthur is laying in the mud between the bulldozer and his house, his neighbor, Ford Prefect comes by.

Ford is not a human, but no one knows that. He looks human, and he has been on Earth for the last 15 years. In fact, he’s a researcher for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and has been awaiting the time when he can hitch a ride off of Earth and continue his research. The time has come! Ford’s Sense-o-matic has alerted him that the Earth is about to be destroyed. He convinces Arthur to come to the bar with him where they get significantly drunk (relax their muscles) so that they can hitch a ride on the ship that is about to destroy the Earth.

When that ship arrives, the Vogons inform the Earth that the documentation about the demolition has been in the local planning office in Alpha Centauri for the last fifty years, so there’s no use getting worked up about it now.

Elsewhere in the universe, Zaphod Beeblebrox, the President of the Imperial Galactic Government, holds a press conference to introduce The Heart of Gold (the most unique starship in the universe) and then he steals it.

Meanwhile, Arthur and Ford are on the Vogon ship as stowaways. They used Arthur’s Thumb (an electronic signaling device) to catch a ride. Luckily for them, the kitchen of the ship employs the Dentrassis who are more lenient on hitchhikers than the Vogons. (Mostly they just like to annoy their bosses.) Eventually the two are found by the Vogons who put them out the hatch. 29 seconds later (they figured they could hold their breath for 30 seconds), they end up on The Heart of Gold.

It turns out that The Heart of Gold uses an improbability drive, which is basically exactly what it sounds like. The more improbable something is, the more likely the ship is to make it happen. Like, picking up Arthur and Ford, 1 second before certain death, had a probability of 1 in 2^276709.

Zaphod and Trillian, his earthling co-pilot, send Marvin, the depressed robot, to get Arthur and Ford. Upon uniting, they realize that they are all connected. Ford knows Zaphod from long ago. Arthur met Trillian at a party, and she left him to go with a man who told her that he was from a different planet (Zaphod). (Ford was a little perturbed about the fact that Zaphod visited Earth and didn’t rescue him!)

They fly along and come to what Zaphod had been looking for–the most improbable planet that ever existed. Magrathea. (Magrathea used to be the planet where they designed custom-made planets for rich people. But then the economy tanked, and the richest planet disappeared and was forgotten.) They decide to descend, also because Ford doesn’t believe that this is Magrathea, and along the way, missiles are released on them. Arthur switches on the improbability drive to evade them (how convenient), and they land safely on the surface.

Something else improbable that happened during the improbability drive was that a sperm whale appeared several miles above Magrathea, and then, of course, crashed into it.

Zaphod, Trillian, Ford, Arthur, and Marvin begin to traverse across the surface of Magrathea. It’s dull and boring. Eventually they come to the location of the whale impact and find that the crash has created an opening into the underground city. Zaphod, Trillian, and Ford decide to go check it out, leaving Arthur and Marvin to “keep watch” (even though the planet has been abandoned for five million years). Zaphod tells Trillian and Ford that he has a lack of memory that he knows that he created himself. He believes that the previous president, Yooden Vranx, convinced him to steal The Heart of Gold but to accurately pass the brain scans required to be president (and therefore have access to the ship), Zaphod could not know the reason why. So he removed it from his memory.

Meanwhile Arthur quickly tires of Marvin’s depressing conversation, and he wanders off for a walk–running into an old Magrathean named Slartbartifast. The man tells Arthur that the people of the planet didn’t die off or move. They merely went to sleep until the economic situation was better, and since it is recovering, they are reawakening. S takes Arthur to the factory floor where they used to make all their planet and reveals that Earth was a custom designed planet (S had won an award for Norway as he was a master of fjords.) and they were in works of creating Earth Mark Two when unfortunately the Earth was destroyed just a few minutes too early.

And it turns out that the customers who bought Earth and Earth Mark Two were the mice. Mice are by far the most intelligent creatures who lived on Earth. Many millions of years previously, a super computer was created and asked to give the answer to everything. It took the computer 7.5 million years to return an answer, and the answer…was 42. Of course, everyone was very disappointed with the answer, but the computer suggested that the answer was valid. They just did not fully understand the question. So a second, more impressive computer was created to answer that question, and that computer was Earth. But unfortunately the Vogons destroyed the Earth 5 minutes before the computer finished.

Then S takes Arthur and they meet up with the others, and the two mice that Trillian had brought with her when she had left Earth. The mice ask Arthur if they can buy his brain and replace it with a computer one. They figure that since he was organically linked to Earth, that he can help them answer the question. Luckily at that moment, all the alarms sound and Arthur, Ford, Trillian, and Zaphod take the opportunity to get out of there before Arthur’s brain is stolen. They are stopped by some policemen who start shooting at them. Eventually the shooting stops, and the group goes out to investigate finding that the policemen have been killed. They take the policemen’s guns and escape to Slartibartifast’s ship which he has conveniently left there with a note telling them how to drive it!

They return to their ship, and find Marvin, still depressed as ever, waiting for them. It turns out that he saw the police ship land and began talking to the ship’s computer. It became so depressed by the conversation that it committed suicide, taking the officers (they had a computer link) with him.

They take off. And the book ends.

Verdict: 4 Stars

My review does little justice to how silly and fun this book actually is. In a lot of ways (the creativity and writing style most specifically), it reminded me of The Neverending Story which I also really loved. The one downfall is the abrupt ending. I had originally rated the book 4.5 but the ending was just such a surprising disappointment to me, I felt like I had to drop the rating some for it. (I do realize that the original formatting was not technically book form and that there are further books. However, I feel like some editing could have been done to make the ending as great as the rest of the book.) I definitely recommend reading this book though. It’s a quick read, a cultural icon, and a lot of fun.

 

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