The most popular post on this blog, by far, is this little bit of Goonies fan fiction I wrote a few years back. In it, I describe a loosely plausible explanation for One Eyed Willie’s pirate ship winding up in Astoria, Oregon and imagine it as having been written by a grown up Mikey, who is now a history professor at Portland State University.
This thing has been viewed thousands of times and a day doesn’t pass where it doesn’t get 10-20 hits.
So, just on the off-chance somebody in Hollywood is reading this here blog (Hi! Check out my action-packed swashbuckling fantasy novels!), I figure it can’t hurt to whip up a quick, very rough treatment for a hypothetical Goonies sequel (it’s just a sketch, really). This is the age of 80s nostalgia, right? May as well see if I can cash in. So:
Open on a prison, present day. The guards come to a cell to escort the occupant out–it’s the day of his release. It’s Francis Fratelli, who managed to plea-bargain his way out of the death penalty by ratting out his mother and brother. His cell is a lunatic’s collage of newspaper clippings, history books, and computer printouts. Prominent in the center: a picture of Michael Walsh, PhD.
Michael is a single father raising an only daughter, Sarah. He lectures at the university and does his best to keep Sarah out of trouble, but Sarah is the definition of trouble. She is relentlessly curious, endlessly stubborn, and usually unsupervised. She finds her dad incredibly boring – there is literally nothing on this Earth more boring than history. “It’s all dead people and pointless places, Dad. It has literally no bearing on anyone’s life.”
Sarah is going to be a scientist. She is a chemistry whiz. This is how we meet her – she’s devised a stinkbomb that renders the entire teacher’s lounge at her Junior High school uninhabitable. Mikey has to pick her up from school and finds hazmat trucks out front. The principal implies she may be charged with some “light terrorism.”
Father and daughter fight on the way home. “You have so much potential,” he says. “And you’re wasting it.” She’s sent to her room without supper (“how 1984, dad – you’re such a nazi.”), and she promptly sneaks out. A dark and stormy night. Sarah meets up with her super-nerd friends, Milo and Kwan – they are entering their battlebot in a local battlebot arena against some super-geeks from the engineering department of the university. They lose, big time.
Back and the house, Mikey is alone. He’s going through a scrapbook, looking through old photos. We see some familiar faces from the first movie. Lightning flashes, the lights go out. The door bangs open. “Who’s there?”
A flashlight lights underneath Francis’s face. “What? No pictures of me?”
Sarah and the boys come home to find her father missing. Also missing: a bunch of stuff from his old trunk, the one he had from grandma’s house (we see Willie’s treasure map, news clippings from the events of the first movie, a book by her father about the treasure).
The cops are called. They want to take her to Uncle Brandt’s house. She has other ideas.
Sarah eludes the cops with the help of Milo and Kwan and head over to “Chunk’s Auto Mart.” That’s right: Uncle Chunk owns a car dealership outside of Portland. Clark (Mouth) is one of his salesmen. The kids explain what has happened. Sarah shows them the book: Her dad always insisted that, given the amount of treasure found aboard Willie’s ship, a significant portion of it had to have been moved off the ship at some point, as Willie’s own log indicates they should have had several tons more booty aboard. In other words: there’s more treasure, and Sarah thinks Francis Fratelli has kidnapped her dad to make him find it for him. She needs help to go after him. Well, more specifically, they need a car.
Chunk doesn’t give them a car. He offers to drive. Mouth agrees to come, too. Off they go.
But to where? Cut to Francis and Mikey on a dysfunctional road trip. They’re heading south, into California. Francis tells him how he blames “you kids” for the death of his family and the loss of his whole entire life, and how he thinks Mikey owes him. We learn that Mikey theorized the extra treasure was probably transported overland by sailors who abandoned Willie and tried to make their way south to Spanish California. Mikey never figured out where, though. Francis: “A billion dollars on gold bullion don’t just vanish, Mikey!” He waves a weather-beaten, oft-folded map of California at him with a big red circle around a settlement near San Deigo. A church – a huge mission, built by some “random Spaniards” a few years after Willie’s ship was entombed.
Sarah doesn’t know where they’re going, though. She reads her dad’s book in the back seat as they drive south. She starts to learn a lot more about his adventures as a kid from Chunk and Mouth. Chunk’s car breaks down at a gas station somewhere in California. While Mouth and Chunk argue and the nerds fix the car, Sarah sees a library across the street. She goes in. If she wants to find her dad, she needs to think like her dad. She figures out where her dad is being taken by going through some old land record books in the library.
Francis and Mikey arrive at the mission. It’s a museum now; they’re on a tour. Francis has a sledgehammer over one shoulder. No sign of any treasure, but when they reach the basement, they hang back. Francis goes to a water bubbler. “Remember this trick?” He smashes it with the bat, follows where the water drains. Sure enough, they find the lowest spot–at the back of the cellar. Behind a dusty old bookshelf, there’s an “X” carved into the wall. “Start digging, college boy.” Francis slaps the sledgehammer in Mikey’s hands.
The kids, Mouth, and Chunk arrive at the mission at dusk. Mouth and Chunk want to call the police, send them into the mission, and that’s it. Sarah says no way. “Walsh’s solve their own problems. I’m going in there to get out my dad – he’d go in there for you.” The nerds break out headlamps and their drone gear. Sarah has a few bottles of various chemical mixtures. They go into the mission. Reluctantly, Chunk and Mouth follow (Chunk: We’re seriously going to do this again? Mouth: Let’s just hope we don’t find Mikey dead in a fridge again, okay?).
The kids find the tunnel at the back of the cellar. It leads to the bottom of the mission well – more coins, but this time no wishes. Beyond is a deep pit, a waterfall dropping into an abyss. The nerds fly the drone down, headlights on – they find a hidden staircase. Chunk almost falls. Milo is scared of the dark. Sarah presses on.
At the bottom is a labyrinth of tunnels. No tracks, no way to know where they might have gone. Despair. But then Sarah notices a mark made in the wall – chalk from her dad’s coat pocket! It’s the chemical symbol for a compound Sarah knows. She figures out that the atomic numbers of each element are the turns they need to take. Her dad is talking to her with science! They race through the labyrinth, headlights bobbing.
Meanwhile, Mikey and Francis have reached the final challenge. A series of stone levers to be shifted around a table, each with a number on the top. Shift the stones into the right pattern and you can pass. Shift them into the wrong one, and you die. On the wall is a number – the solution. Mikey doesn’t know how to solve the puzzle. Neither does Francis. “Math! Fucking MATH?”
“They were engineers,” Mikey says. “What do you expect?”
A drone flies into the room. Francis shoots it. Then he gets an idea.
The kids and Mouth/Chunk are coming around a corner when they see Francis holding Mikey at gunpoint. “Hello, braniacs. Do exactly as I say, or the fat nerd gets it!”
Mouth mouths off. Francis shoots him in the leg, “You think I’m fucking around, here? You think this is some kiddie games? Do as I say, or I will kill every last one of you!”
In the puzzle room. Chunk is freaking out, babbling about how Francis has been in his nightmares. The nerds are hugging each other. Mouth is swearing as he hugs his wounded leg. Mikey is telling Sarah to get out of there – to call the cops, to run for safety. He’s angry that she came after him.
Sarah and Mikey fight. It all comes pouring out. How she felt abandoned after mom died. How he was never there for her except to punish her. How it seemed he never seemed to know her or care to. “But none of that’s true!” Mikey said. “It’s not true! You’re just like me. Just like me.”
Sarah nods, crying. “I get that now.”
Francis, pissed, orders her to start work on the trap. Sarah starts work with the nerds. They shoulder her out of the way–they’re the math nerds, anyway. Milo screws up, though–the chamber begins to flood, the exit is blocked. Kwan takes a shot next–fails. The ceiling begins to descend.
Mikey and Francis struggle with the gun. It goes flying. Chunk tries to find the gun in the rising water.
Sarah pushes the nerds out of the way. She moves the levers in a different direction. Success! Or so she assumes.
The floor falls away. Everybody drops into darkness. They land in a vast underground cistern. There is a dock here, and pieces of an old ship. On the shore are rows of big, heavy chests. Whooping in victory, Francis swims to his prize. Everybody else is busy trying to save Mouth, trying to get out of the water.
Francis knocks open the chests, one by one. Empty. Empty. Empty. Empty. “What? No! NO!”
Everybody else gets to shore. Mikey sees old writing on the wall–Spanish. “It’s another clue!” Francis screams.
Mouth reads it. “You who seek our treasure, know that you are too late. Gold belongs not in the ground, but in the hands of those around you.”
“The mission!” Sarah smiles. “They used it to build the mission! To sink this huge well! To help people!”
But we aren’t out of it yet. Francis is beyond angry – he’s irrational. The past 30 years of his life, wasted. And all because of some stupid smart-ass kid! If he can’t have money, he’ll settle for revenge. He pulls a knife and comes after Mikey. They struggle. In the commotion, the dock breaks loose from its moorings. The current in the cistern is pulling them away from shore. Sarah leaps after her dad. The three of them swirl into the dark, beneath stalactites and past whirlpools.
Francis gets a hold of Sarah, puts a knife to her throat. “Last thing I want you to see, Walsh – you killed my family, I kill yours!”
Sarah reaches to her belt and throws a bag of something in Frances’s face. He screams. Mikey pushes him off the side. Down he goes, howling. He’s gone.
The dock emerges from underground. They are in a stream, running through the old center of town. Everything Willie’s men built – a community. “I take it back,” Sarah says. “History isn’t boring.”
“What was in that bag?” he asks.
“Itching powder.” Sarah says with a laugh.
“I take it back,” Mikey answers. “You haven’t wasted anything.”
The police are on the shore, helping them out. Francis is also dragged from the river, headed back to jail. Their friends find their way out on the river, too. All is well, lesson learned.
They go home.
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.
A couple years back I was given a Kindle as a Christmas present. I had acquiesced to the idea of getting an e-reader when it became obvious to me just how many paperback novels I had
stashed in my parents’ attic and in my own apartment and that, when I moved, they filled a cool dozen cardboard boxes after I had jettisoned at least 60% of them to goodwill (enjoy my complete collection of Dragonlance novels, suckers!). Since then, I have purchased only e-books and hardcovers. The e-books are for reading; the hardcovers are for those really cool books I want to collect and show off. Most of my paperbacks have sat on various oddly-matched bookshelves in my office for the past couple years, collecting dust.
Fast-forward to this past weekend: I had dug out my old copy of Asimov’s Foundation to give it another read prior to discussing it in one of my classes. I’ve done this every year for a few years now, but this time I happened to get a whiff of the pages. It was that stale, dusty, library smell – a shoebox-ish odor of old paper drenched in too much sunlight. It took me on a journey.
I was fifteen. I’d come home from high school the long way (I took public transit to and from school; it taught me all the values of independence without the cost or anxiety of owning a car). I’d swing through Quincy Center and, rather than take the first bus, I’d wait on the second and wander up the street to my favorite bookstore. I say ‘favorite’ as though the quality mattered to me – it did not. They had books there and I bought them by the armload. I stuffed them in my backpack and smuggled them home, reading by metal desk lamp in the darkness of my room long after I ought to have been asleep.
Everything I bought was from the science fiction/fantasy section. I had no idea what was good – nobody I knew had any idea about this stuff and the bookstore employees were just as clueless – so I bought things more-or-less at random, based off of cover art or title. This was how I met Heinlein and Asimov, purchased by purest accident at the same time – Foundation and Starship Troopers, side-by-side, forever bookending my understanding of the genre (I wouldn’t meet Clarke until much later, in college). I got hooked on Robert Jordan from a free sample being given away at the counter – the first nine chapters of The Eye of the World, back when everybody figured there would only be six books. Jordan, in a very real sense, changed my life. He made writing as a profession seem real, and I can’t say how. Maybe I had always sought a medium to tell my stories, and Jordan’s books showed me how to do it. Maybe it was something else.
My parents were athletes of modest renown. My mother held swimming records at her college until well into the 1990s and, indeed, she still might hold a few somewhere. My father was one of those guys who could play anything pretty well. They took their kids camping, swimming, to the beach, hiking, skiing, sailing – you name the physical activity, I did it. Everytime we went to one of those places, though, I would have a paperback squirreled away in a bag somewhere. My teenage years sometimes come back to me as just one long string of people interrupting my reading. “Auston, why don’t you go swimming?” or “Auston, we’re going for a hike – put the book down.” or “I can’t believe we took you on a sailboat to an island in the middle of the ocean and you’re going to sit there and read.”
It isn’t that my parents were against reading – far from it. My father is one of the best read people I know, devouring three or four books at a time. My mother was a teacher. I just don’t think they quite understood why I had my nose buried in those space-books so much. The reasons are layered, nuanced, submerged beneath unknowable strata of my unconscious, most likely. It doesn’t really matter. I did it, I still do it (though not enough).
Picture me in an attic bedroom, curled up on a carpet under the eaves, a skylight over my head. I’m an awkward teenager of the 1990s, so I’m dressed like an idiot – poofy hair, glasses held in place by a tie-dye Oakley cord, a collared shirt with an alligator on it. I’m fit – athletic, even – but I’m nose deep in C.S. Friedman’s In Conquest Born or book four of The Death’s Gate Cycle, breathing the stale air of a room in the summer with no windows open. My mom is yelling for me from downstairs. I pretend I don’t hear her.
For as convenient as the Kindle is and, by extension, as convenient as the whole Internet is, there is something to be said for hunting down something unknown. Making informed purchases is wise, of course, but also sad. It lacks romance. Of course, there’s nothing stopping me from going and smuggling my paperbacks home today, I guess (I now have a whole new set of people I love determined to interrupt my reading). Maybe I’m getting old and I just don’t have the energy anymore, or maybe I’m just being a curmudgeonly hypocrite, but I know I won’t go back to a bookstore anytime soon. I won’t spend an afternoon in a deathly silent library, just me and the soft roar of the air conditioners and the smell of old books.
For the rest of my life, though, when I open an old paperback and breathe in that scent, I will remember.