As my summer reading-for-pleasure run continues, I’m in the midst of Cline’s Ready Player One. I’m enjoying it – certainly more than my last half dozen reads or so – and this bodes well. There is, however, one (fairly large) aspect of the book that I’m not enjoying half as much as I feel I should, and I kinda want to talk about that. It has to do with the 1980s.
Now, I’m a bit younger than Cline, but not by a lot. I remember the 1980s well – they were my childhood. So far, I’m picking up just about every 1980s reference the book is laying down (which is a LOT) with the possible exception of Zork, which was a bit before my time. I’m getting the impression (and have picked up from others) that this incessant river of 80s nostalgia is part of the book’s appeal. But, like, it isn’t really doing anything for me. I mean, I nod my head every so often and think to myself “oh, right – WarGames. I should watch that again,” but I do not, myself, feel anything upon the reference to WarGames. Reciting dialogue from the movie does not have the same feel or magic as actually watching the movie.
And this is where I think the book is failing to grab me: I love the 1980s, but I don’t especially love a non-stop discussion about how much I love the 1980s. That kind of nostalgia-based story doesn’t grab me, because it does not, in and of itself, actually do anything but reference the existence of some other story I liked. It’s like watching a clip show of your favorite show in lieu of an entirely new episode.
Now, to its credit, Ready Player One does have its own story and its own characters and plot and so on, and the aspects of the book I’m really enjoying are entirely in those parts. The problem develops when we have a five paragraph explanation of a movie I’ve seen dozens of times and then I have to be led through it all again, scene by scene. Cline does his best to get through these things with efficiency, but the fact is that I’m not so much getting a new story as a re-shoot of a classic thing I’ve known since childhood. I don’t really want to play through the Tomb of Terror again, since I’ve already done that before.
What I’d really prefer is a story that takes the elements of the movies and stories common to the 1980s that I enjoy and see those elements used to make a new story in the same loose genre. Ready Player One is, on some level, telling a “1980s” story in a number of ways (the love interest, the down-on-his-luck kid, the evil rich guys, etc.), but it isn’t doing it as well as I feel Stranger Things does, and that’s because too much of Ready Player One expects me to cheer when they reference Joust or Back to the Future without actually replicating the emotional content or importance of either of those properties.
Now, in Stranger Things, I felt real, actual nostalgia. The film looks, feels, and sounds like the movies and books I watched and read as a kid. However, it does all of this without constantly bashing us over the head with “ain’t the 80s cool” stuff. Yes, yes, many of the camera shots are direct homages to Spielberg and Zemekis and others. Yes, a lot of the elements are things we’ve seen in Stephen King novels or Richard Donner films. However, the show is not actually about any of those things. They are incidental – they’re establishing a mood, but the mood is not the main course. Even if you don’t pick up any of those references, the story is, in and of itself, emotionally compelling and interesting. This is in large part because it is telling the kind of story that is emotionally compelling in a similar way to its forebears. It is not, however, a simple retelling of any one story, nor is it a ripoff or shallow imitation. It is a new, legitimate entry into a genre of film that has been somehow forgotten.
The same, unfortunately, can’t be said about Ready Player One. If you don’t get any of the references, a significant aspect of the plot and action is going to be lost on you. Yes, Cline does a pretty good job of trying to get you up to speed, but if there is no actual preexisting emotional attachment to the things referenced, the book isn’t going to work half as well as it should.
Here’s another way to look at it: we are currently as far away from the 1980s as the 1980s were from the 1950s. So, let me ask you this question: does Back to the Future still hold together as an interesting, emotionally compelling film even if you don’t know jack about the 1950s? Of course it does! Because, even if you don’t get the “Marvin Berry” joke, more or less everything of significant import in that film is relatable to anybody. Now, if, on the other hand, the movie asked us to follow along as Marty went through an incessant primer on 1950s scifi from his father, all the way to the point where he began summarizing Asimov’s Foundation and Marty started quoting passages, you’d lose the audience. Because at that point you are more interested in making references than you are in telling your own story, and story always has to come first.
I realize that I’m coming down a bit hard on Cline here, and I don’t really mean to say that Ready Player One isn’t a good book – as mentioned, I’m enjoying it a good deal – but I think the things it does best are not the things everybody seems to pay attention to and the things it struggles the most with are the things everybody assumes are the draw.
If you don’t have small children, you probably haven’t encountered the PBS Kids show Dinosaur Train. Let me tell you about it and why it gives me the shakes while I watch it.
For starters, let me say that it is a wonderfully educational program about the lives of dinosaurs and, more broadly, an introduction to natural history and evolution. It is not doing children any disservice by watching it at all and, indeed, my kids watch it plenty. The show does, however, give science fiction and fantasy writers the heebie-jeebies, and here’s why:
The show’s premise is that a family of Pteranadons and their adopted T-Rex son (no, not the crazy part yet) go on vacations (yes, but wait for it) during which they ride a train (yes, a train) that is run and operated by other dinosaurs (I know, I know) and takes said thunder-lizards on a tour of the land, introducing them to other species of dinosaurs. Oh yes, and just so they can visit dinosaurs from every historical epoch, THE TRAIN TRAVELS THROUGH TIME.
Yes, that’s right: A dinosaur owned, built, and operated time-travelling railroad that takes other dinosaurs on vacations. This is where I start losing my mind.
Here are my questions, world:
1) Why did the dinosaurs build this?
There is no pseudo-modern society in this show, no Flintstones-esque tech, or anything of the kind. Why do creatures with no jobs need vacations? If they have no other visible infrastructure whatsoever, how on Earth would they hit on “let’s build a train?” Even assuming some hyper-genius dino had such an idea, how would they build it with their notable lack of things like tools, mines, quarries, a workforce, and, oh yeah, opposable thumbs?
2) Time Travel? WTF?
So, say they manage (somehow) to build a railroad system. How does time travel get involved? What, did aliens come down and give it to them? Did some human go back in time with a time-train and give them ideas? Why would they even think to do this? Dinosaurs don’t have fossil records – there are no archaeologist dinosaurs. THEY WOULDN’T KNOW THERE WERE OTHER TIMES TO VISIT!
3) What do they buy tickets with?
Mom Pteranadon buys tickets for the kids when they go places. What does she buy them with? Does she get change? Where does she stash said change (they don’t wear clothes)? How much do they cost? What use is the money anywhere else? If this is some kind of self-contained currency system (like the tokens at Dave and Busters), how does she buy in? Maybe the tickets are free, but again, then, why the hell is this being done?
4) Why is the Conductor wearing clothes?
No other dinosaurs wear clothing. None. What is with this guy? Even assuming somebody had the idea for clothing, what purpose would it serve? Dinosaurs are exothermic, so it isn’t like it would keep him warm, precisely. Of course, we also get back to the question of who makes the damn stuff. Is there a dino-tailor somewhere?
5) What happened to predation?
When the family meets an apex predator (like a T-Rex), why does the scene never end with the family being devoured? What’s going to happen to this family when their T-Rex “son” grows up and eats his “sister?” Why doesn’t anybody talk about this? How are they all still friends, dammit?
My Working Theory
So, retain my sanity, I have developed a working theory, here. It’s a bad one, but still:
Okay, take for granted that the dinosaurs can talk to each other – that’s just a gimmie. Turns out all paleontologists are wrong on that for some damned reason or we’re dealing with a hyper-intelligent subset of the dinosaur population that had a monolith dropped in their midst or something. Anyway, in the midst of their prehistoric savagery, in pops Doctor Emmett Brown on his – you guessed it – his time travelling train. Now, they’re stuck in the Cretaceous Period with no train tracks and, therefore, no way to get up to 88 miles an hour and out of there.
The solution? Well, they make contact with these hyper-intelligent dinosaurs and screw up history something fierce by teaching them to build a train system. “But what’s in it for us?” ask the dinos. Doc comes up with a plan to create a kind of dinosaur utopian state wherein these hyper-intelligent dinos agree to only feed upon their less intelligent brethren. Doc leaves them with a means of scientific discovery (a duplicate train), a framework of an economic system, and a basic social order in exchange for him, Clara, and the boys escaping back to modernity.
The only question left is this: Did Doc tell them about the asteroid? Did he?
Somehow, I think not.
- I’d like to thank Elisa Birdseye and the Adams Street BPL for hosting me for my “Building the Fantastic” talk and reading. It was tons of fun to get to cut loose with a captive audience about things I’m passionate about. I hope to be able to do it again sometime.
- If you haven’t bought Writers of the Future Volume 31, you’re missing out. Don’t listen to me, listen to Dave Farland.
Say you had a time machine. Not a Delorean, but a real, honest time machine under your control with no strings attached. Say it just makes doors from the modern world to whatever time you like – you can pop back and forth, like commuting. Also, given that time is not linear, you don’t actually have to worry about altering your current timeline if you go back and, say, step on a butterfly or something. Quantum theory accounts for all that stuff – if your timeline gets messed up for whatever reason, you can just travel sideways in time. Time, no matter what the Doctor says, has no fixed points we know of.
Anyway, say you had one: where would you go?
Time machine stories usually answer this question by sending their protagonists to a point in time that is crucial to their character development. Marty McFly winds up in the 1950s because his unresolved issues with his parents are what is holding him back and preventing him from reaching true maturity. The Time Traveler of HG Wells goes to the distant future because the Time Traveler is an Upper-class British Imperialist sent to witness and experience the (proposed) endpoint of the British social system and imperialist doctrine if extrapolated through the aeons. None of this, of course, really helps us in making our decisions. Ultimately, where each of us goes would be a facet of our psychology and personality, perhaps settled upon by factors we are not even consciously aware of.
For my part, I always think about going back to the Middle Ages and becoming a wizard.
I don’t mean to say that I think magic is real – of course it isn’t – but science and technology sure are real and would appear to be as magical as anything else in the context of medieval Europe. Now, mind you, this plan is almost certainly a bad idea. The dangers are tremendous – disease and violence alone would account for most of the reason not to go. Even assuming you weren’t murdered by a bandit or burned as a witch, you’d probably catch something nasty, like the Plague or Smallpox, and wind up in pretty deep trouble. Now, granted, you’re just one short time-machine trip from the good old 21st century, but still it would be a pretty crazy risk. Even all of this stuff wouldn’t be much help.
It would be cool, though, right? To see a medieval tourney, to walk the streets of medieval London, to see the castles when they were still operational – all the stuff of fairy tales. Of course, you’d see the ugly side of it, too: filthy people, suffering and starvation, barbarism and ignorance. You’d be pretty badass, though, with your layer of high-tech body armor under your robes, a stun-gun up your sleeve, and a whole bunch of scientific and technical knowledge to impress the locals. Once you learned the language, you’d be a pretty important and dangerous guy.
Me, I’d build myself a tower off in the wilderness somewhere. I’d fortify it against attack (reinforced concrete, steel doors, tear gas emitters, strobe lights, etc.), stock it with all the supplies I’d want, and let the rumors of my existence spread. I’d be a legend. Hell, even at my age (mid-30s), I’d be pushing old age anyway. I’d get to entertain knights and priests, peasants and kings. I’d give them wise counsel, impress them with my ‘magical’ knowledge, etc.. Perhaps they’d write legends or stories about me.
Of course, at this point in my little fantasy I usually realize something: man, how self-centered! Is my only reason for travelling back to this time to exercise my ‘power’ over the people of that era? Is it all about me? Wow, talk about egocentrism. One might think I don’t feel powerful enough in this world so therefore I’d feel the need to go to another better suited to realizing my ambitions. Its purpose, ultimately, is an ego-boost.
Come to think of it, is such egotism all that far from the vast majority of time-travelling stories? I mean, even if the time traveler eventually realizes he isn’t superior to the people he meets in the past (or future), all too often the storyline involves the feeling of superiority or, at least, of a higher level of cool. Marty McFly is cooler in the 50s and also cooler in 2015 than those he meets there. Sylvester Stallone is superior to the future he encounters in Demolition Man and Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is the story of a guy who goes back to the court of King Arthur and modernizes the whole operation (even if, in the end, he regrets doing so). One wonders, given the prevalence of such a theme, if the very idea of time travel itself is, essentially, egotistical. We, the blossom of modern humanity, wish to travel back (or forward) to a time and place in need of the enlightenment we can bring them and, in turn, hope to receive the adulation of the benighted masses. No imperialist or colonial power of any era could have goals any more selfish, right?
So, on second thought, let’s scrap the time machine idea for the nonce. Let’s see if we can’t clean up the now before we go prancing off to the then.
Star Trek 5 is an abysmal movie. No, no, Star Trek Nation, don’t bother defending it–you only make yourself look ridiculous. The plot is stupid, the action is boring, and the vast majority of the movie is pure drivel. There are only two moments worth remembering. I am going to include them here (courtesy of YouTube) so you don’t need to see the movie.
The first is the camping scene:
The second is this:
These two scenes, essentially, sum up what this film is about (despite the filmmakers best efforts to the contrary, apparently). It’s about death and pain and just how important they are to who we become and who we aspire to be.
One of the things that science does badly is explain motivation. Yes, it can tell us that we eat because we need materials to continue breathing, or that we are afraid because we fear harm or destruction. What it can’t do is explain to us why it should matter that we are harmed or destroyed. This is because, by every logical measure, it doesn’t matter. There are very, very few living things that, were they to die, it would actually matter. Hell, there’s even a really healthy debate to be had about what ‘matters’ at all, if anything.
Life comes hand-in-hand with pain, death and a lot of other things that we might not want. We try like hell to avoid them, but we can’t. We make mistakes, we are hurt or hurt others, we make poor decisions and are buried in regret, and so on. This stuff is inevitable. Do we wish to undo it? Are we the less for such experiences?
The pat answer, and the go-to sideplot to most if not all time travel ventures, is ‘yes, let us undo the badness that has occurred.’ Let’s go back in time and catch so-and-so’s cancer before it’s too late. Let’s patch up that relationship we had before it is irreversibly gone. Let’s go on that vacation and keep a keen eye on our passport. Let’s have a do-over and do things ‘right’ this time. Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. We’ve all cursed the skies and said ‘if only I’d _______’.
The thing is, though, is that by going back and fixing those problems–by erasing them from our souls, whether actually (via time travel) or mentally (via what Spock’s Brother offers Kirk)–we erase who we are. Star Trek shows this to us time and again, and not just in Star Trek 5, but through Picard’s interactions with Q, through Sisko’s negotiations with the Prophets of the Wormhole, and in many other instances, too. Yeah, maybe you can go back and fix things, but that won’t make you any better. It probably just makes you different and, possibly, a lesser person for it.
So, Kirk’s question at the conclusion of ST5 (and, seriously, don’t see it), when he asks the ‘Supreme Being’ “What does God need with a Starship,” can be looked at metaphorically, I suppose. The starship is a journey–a promise of adventure or ordeal, depending on perspective–and God might ‘need’ it not to get around, but to show us something that we need to understand: Change is inevitable, pain is assured, and the only thing that really matters is how you chose to deal with it. Are you Captain James T Kirk, hero of the Federation and savior of worlds?
Or are you this dope: