Thursday, November 23, 2017

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline review



    READY PLAYER ONE is a combination of Willy Wonka and Snow Crash. It's kind of funny that this description appeared in a review of the Washington Post, except this was "Willy Wonka and The Matrix." I don't blame the Post for getting this wrong because there's not that many well known cyberpunk works in the mainstream media.

    However, the similarity to Willy Wonka is strong: an eccentric billionaire leaves his vast fortune to whatever child can solve his mysterious test of character. The big difference is that it is a cyberpunk dystopia and full of a massive number of 80s references anyone under the age of thirty-five will be hard pressed to get.

    Plus, how many young adults have seen Revenge of the Nerds (which didn't age well due to the rampant horrifying misogyny). On the other hand, the obscurity of some references (Buckaroo Banzai!) is part of the charm. It's a book about finding an Easter Egg in a video game but which is full of countless Easter Eggs.

    The premise is Wade Watts is a teenage hacker who lives in the dystopian cyberpunk future of the 2050s. Global warming and an expenditure of all the world's oil means the planet is a wasteland but humanity continues to thrive thanks to the existence of the OASIS. Halliday, the Willy Wonka figure above, made his clues in the form of 80s pop culture so Wade has devoted most of his young life to memorizing as much of it as possible so he can be the one to win the contest.

    The biggest flaw, if you can call it a flaw is the fact this is obviously made for adults who had their childhood in the 80s yet written like a YA novel. It's a little weird, also, because it references everything in the 80s rather than any certain topics. You'd think there'd be one thing he didn't like from the time period (correction, there is, a feel good song he describes at the end).

    The second biggest flaw is the story is pretty paint by the numbers. The main characters search the OASIS (a virtual reality internet) extensively for clues, run into the bad guys a few turns, there's a relationship with a girl before a breakup then reunion, and everything works out in the end. There's perhaps one or two twists but I think the story feels a bit rote at times.

    I actually think part of the issue I have with this book is the fact I like just about every character more than Wade himself. Art3mis and Aech are both characters with more interesting stories than Wade himself as well as more genuinely heroic. I also was more intrigued by the villain and wanted to know what his deal was. There were times the book also skipped over interesting story beats while giving us only exposition in return.

    Despite this, I found the book to be fun. The pop culture references are usually awesome and if I could have a Delorean time-machine, a Firefly-class vessel, my own personal asteroid, and an unlimited free internet with access to a cyberpunk universe as well as all the 80s nostalgia I could get--I might never want to leave too.

6/10

Friday, November 17, 2017

Politicizing genre fiction and why it bothers me


    I've been debating whether to do this blog post for a long time. Basically, I didn't think it was an issue and didn't warrant discussing but I've seen a lot of the sentiments I strongly disagreed with being echoed without argument. Basically, it's the argument of fictional conspiracy theories being dangerous, reactionary fantasy, or the idea of superheroes being a right wing power fantasy. It seems like three separate ideas but they both relate to the idea of a certain, let's call it an "idea" of politics and how it interacts with genre fiction as well as whether there's a responsibility for writers to support things they may believe in with their work.

    Before we begin, speaking as a Master of Literature, this is stupid. I believe it was Larry Niven who said, paraphrased, "There's a word for people who assume the writing of an author reflects their worldview: that word is moron." A writer has no responsibility to reflect any specific ideology or worldview with his writing than anything else. A man who loves democracy can write about the divine right of kings, a man who hates tyrannies can write about dictatorships, and a person who absolutely hates romance can write characters who are deliriously in love. There's a reason why it's called fiction after all.

Conspiracies are my bread and butter.
    However, the ability to appreciate an existing work of art is often influenced by outside factors. A lot of people can't read The Chronicles of Narnia as an adult because they have a nasty reaction to being evangelized to and dislike C.S. Lewis using Aslan as an allegory for Jesus. I have difficulty with Phillip Pullman's The Golden Compass because he reverses the effect in his writing. David Weber's early Honor Harrington novels trouble me because he somehow believes welfare created an underclass of super-parasites who went on to conquer a chunk of the galaxy.

    On March 3, 2015, Lindsay Ellis (the former Nostalgia Critic) wrote an article about why she couldn't get into the X-Files revival because conspiracy theories were cute in the 90s as well as harmless. However, she argued conspiracy theories like the Birthers, 9/11 Truthers, and John Birch Society lunacy like the United Nations plotting the takeover of the USA were things which had caused serious issues in the United States. They were the bread and butter of people like Alex Jones and contributed to the way some people chose to vote in the then-upcoming election. She argued the X-files gave a legitimacy to the ideas and conspiracy theories shouldn't be indulged.

    Given that a massive number of my books depend on conspiracy theories with Agent G being about corporate conspiracies, Esoterrorism being about the secret mages who rule the world, and The Supervillainy Saga's protagonist routinely dealing with corrupt cults or supervillains hiding behind legitimacy--this kind of annoyed me. Even more so, it reflected a blindness of literary criticism which is really what's annoying me here. Basically, it looked at the surface elements of the characters without bothering to follow them to their natural conclusion--conspiracy theorists=Right Wing nutjobs ergo bad. Which is ridiculous.

A sci-fi novel written by Hitler.
    The weird thing, though, was we live in the time where if you're a Left-wing nutjob like myself then it's a perfect place for all manner of conspiracy theorist protagonists. The past two decades have included: assassination orders carried by government sanctioned murderbots, secret prisons, mass government surveillance, wiretapping everyone's cellphone as well as laptop, murder cults trying to bring about the return of ancient kingdoms, and the fact corporations really do run damn near everything. I even made a list about how we live in a cyberpunk future. Indeed, the original conspiracy theorists were Woodward and Bernstein who turned fantasy into reality.

    This isn't about whether there's any real life conspiracies. That's utterly irrelevant as there will always be conspiracies as long as power or money is to be gained by lies while equally there will always be theories that are just plain stupid. No, this is about politicizing tropes--which bothers me. The attempt to turn tools of genre into things which have some innate bias to them. It's a clickbait sort of argument that is meant to make the people making the accusation look smart while also making the people consuming media look dumb.

    This is nothing new as J.R.R Tolkien has often been accused of being pastoral, conservative, and Medievalist. He was some of those things but the accusation is based on his writing versus his personal beliefs. Attempts to argue the orc is racist, he supported the divine right of kings, and he was preaching about the terrifying horde of "foreigners" entering Middle Earth are just some of the things I had to deal with in academia. These were interesting discussions when I was in college but the idea of the orc being an orc was always a nonstarter the way Freud's famous saying about cigars was. Michael Moorcock discussed this in his "Epic Pooh" essay which I disagree with completely but enjoyed reading.

    As mentioned above, sometimes authors really are trying to say something or making a statement with their work. As with Lewis and Pullman above, sometimes they're attempting to convey ideas via metaphor or allegory. Lots of fantasy/science fiction deals with exploring big and deep ideas. Unfortunately, confusing portrayal with endorsement is something that I think people need to get over. Robert A. Heinlein has been accused of being a fascist because of his work in Starship Troopers for decades. However, he's also the guy who wrote The Moon is a Harsh Mistress which is radically libertarian and Stranger in A Strange Land which is--well, what it is. Even authors fall prey to this with The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad being a critique of the supposed fascist underpinnings of sci-fi. This despite the fact he had to write the idealized fascist sci-fi novel in order to talk about fascist underpinnings in sci-fi.

    It reached something of a nadir for me with the frequent accusation of superhero fiction being innately right wing. The argument, so to speak, being that vigilantes take the law into their own hand so they're a crime busting power fantasy. This argument immediately falls apart with the fact Superman started as a socialist New Deal Icon and Batman targets rich mobsters (as well as clowns) rather than the poor. Wonder Woman and the X-men being right wing is about as ludicrous an argument as you can make if you know anything about the characters. Its a surface detail accusation that warps an entire genre into fitting a narrow category.

Sometimes authors incorporate DO politics--badly.
    Now here's where I'm going to reveal I'm an enormous hypocrite. I'm an intensely political author myself and my characters have very strong opinions on the world around them that often (but not always) reflects my biases. Agent G in the above mentioned novel is a man who lives in a society controlled by corporations and is a cog in a pre-cyberpunk work, The Supervillainy Saga's Gary Karkofsky a.k.a Merciless is a left-leaning anarchist who often comments on the world's screwed up nature (many times referring to things only true in "comic book" worlds), while Cassius Mass in Lucifer's Star is a man who grew up in a fascist military aristocracy only to realize he was the bad guy. They have very strong views because characters who don't are pretty dull.

    The thing is, all of these elements are inherent to the world created in my fiction. They don't necessarily reflect the actual world but just the character's own. Protagonists must be dynamic to hold the audience's interest even if their beliefs are wrong--narrative or otherwise. I also make these themes overt and part of the narrative--I don't need to "trick" readers into ascribing to my view. I also think readers can't be tricked into it. It will either fit with their views already or will be something they use as allegories or applicability for their own views. Like the police in my state who have a raging mad-on for the Punisher. In simple terms, sometimes an orc is just an orc.

The Punisher's hippie creator made him as a villain.
     So does this mean genre fiction has no value for discussion of real life issues? Not at all. I think Tolkien said it best that his books were endlessly applicable for discussing ideas through metaphor. He was furious, though, when people said his books were ABOUT WW2 or the environment. Stephen King also had serious issues with his own literature professor (which was fictionalized in It) who insisted his stories couldn't just be stories. I think it's important to make sure you take a step back whenever reviewing fiction before seeing patterns that may or may not be there--before deciding how to use fiction as a talking point or deriding a work as pro or against any one thing. There is plenty of fiction which has a big message behind it, plenty of good fiction, look at Star Trek--but trying to turn literature into another weapon in the cutlure wars is a mistake.

    In conclusion, I just spent a page ranting about people trying to turn tropes into tools and dismissing genre fiction based on surface ideas. I also have mocked my degree given politicizing fiction pretty much is the basis of literary criticism. There's plenty of meaning in fiction and plenty of politics that is informed by reading works--but you should always keep a certain distance. Every book is something created by both what the author puts in as well as what the reader takes away. Now I return you to your regularly scheduled review blog.

Valerian and the City of a 1000 Planets


    I really wish this movie had succeeded and this is one of the few times I'm writing a review because I'm encouraging people to give it a chance. It's not a film which I think is going to have quite the same staying power as The Fifth Element (which we'll get into below) but it probably should. It's entertaining throughout and while I can definitely see they shot the money, it's a beautiful world and I wouldn't mind Luc Besson having another crack at the series.

I like the movie's effective anti-war pro-refugee theme.
    The movie is based on the psychedelic sci-fi French comic which follows the titular characters in adventures across space and time. The movie is kind of in a weird place as Luc Besson shot himself in the foot making it because he's already made a knock-off that's better known in America. I speak, of course, of The Fifth Element which is the trippy beautiful The Phantom Menace-esque view of the future that starred Valerian and Laureline knock-offs in Bruce Willis as well as Mila Jovovich. It's sort of like George Lucas making his Flash Gordon movie after Star Wars.

    Indeed, The Fifth Element hangs like a cloud over this movie because Dane DeHaan and Vara Delevingne are not as good as Bruce Willis and Mila Jovavich. This is not a slight on them as actors but the fact Bruce and Mila did fantastic jobs in The Fifth Element. They had excellent chemistry, the plot was surreal but comprehensible, and everything just seemed to gel in what is still an action sci-fi classic. Dane and Vara just aren't QUITE up there with the movie feeling a bit like we're treading old ground. It doesn't help, for whatever reason, Dane does a Keanu Reeves accent the entire movie. Despite that, it definitely does feel like The Fifth Element and that's not entirely a bad thing either.

I do like the way the actors play off one another.
    The premise for the story is the Earth built an international space station which gradually was built upon (that's not how space stations work), turned into a multi-species city, and fell out of Earth's control. It's basically the Citadel from Mass Effect only even larger with more biodiversity.

    Meanwhile, a conflict among humans resulted in the destruction of a planet inhabited by mermaid-like people called Pearls. Valerine (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Vara Delevingne) get involved due to a smuggling deal gone wrong before they decide what to do about the cover-up. Less amusing but still plot vital is Valerian is trying to wear down Laureline into marrying him by repeatedly asking despite her obvious disinterest.

    What follows is basically a series of short adventures, like a comic book, which deal with our heroes visiting a wide variety of oddball and strange locations. They have shoot outs with the Pearl "terrorists", they go in a submarine to get a special jellyfish, they sneak into a brothel, they have Rihanna do a striptease (that part got quite a few people's attention), and they almost get eaten by a set of monsters. It's a vignette movie and benefits from the fact while not everyone on the screen may make sense, it's always entertaining.
The aliens are extraordinarily well-designed

    Sadly, the movie does have two major flaws for something which seems primarily composed of mind-sugar. The first of these flaws is we never actually get to know the characters that well. We see them punch, quip, and shoot things but what makes them tick never quite gels. Valerian is something of a playboy and Laureline is an idealist while they both have extreme devotion to the other but I never got a real handle on who they are. The second of these flaws? Man, does this movie drag at times. There's like ten minutes of seeing the space station constructed and shaking hands--literally. There's also weird moments like the fact they shrug off the dead of a team assigned to help them complete a mission like they don't matter in the slightest. We also are introduced to our lead characters when they're well into their relationship yet not romantically involved so it feels like we're playing catch up.

Clive Owen does a decent job as the villain.
    I do give credit to the movie for being an anti-war action film which actually works. We see the conflict which destroys the Pearls' way of life, how the attitude of the military brought it about, and how the subsequent actions of the government to cover it up were wrong. Clive Owen is entirely believable as the General Ripper-esque war criminal The Commander and yet also over-the-top enough to be enjoyed as a comic book villain.

     I also have to say the movie's most interesting and entertaining cast members aren't the leads. I can't name who their characters are but Rihann, the platypus alien triplets, the Pearl Princess, and the Commander are all incredibly good bits of acting which carry the film along. All of them seem more interesting than Valerian and Laureline as well. I think it's because they emote a lot more while our heroes remain a bit dull even when in the throws of passion.

    This is a visually stunning movie. It is an artistic treat with all manner of fascinating aliens, environments, and materials. Do I recommend it? Yes, I do. It's not one of the best sci-fi movies of all times but I think it's something well worth checking out. Could it have been better? I think so but I think part of the issue is lightning is hard to bottle--especially twice. I think this is also a fun movie and isn't that really the point?

8/10

Thursday, November 16, 2017

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY S108 and S109 review


    I fell behind on my reviews for this week and the next so I'm sort of stuck with reviewing both simultaneously for the mid season finale. However, they work together as a single storyline which carries from one story to another. In a way, it's very similar to the original pilot of the series and brings an end to many of the preexisting plots while opening up others.

    The premise for the two episodes is that the starship Discovery has discovered a planet which can serve as a massive biological transmitter. The planet Pahvo turns out to be sentient, however, with its population being all the life-forms on it working together as a singular organism. I'm not going to say it's a direct rip off of the planet in Avatar as Gaia theory is a legitimate (if somewhat "isn't that just changing the definition of alive?") scientific model.

This is an awkward situation for poor Saru.
    Saru finds the integrated nature of the world intoxicating to the point of driving him temporarily insane. Fearing the Klingons would target Pahvo (because it turns out they would), he attempts to sabotage Starfleet's attempt to use the planet and a transmitter and almost kills Burnham in the process. Too late, however, the Klingons have been lured to the planet and will attempt to destroy it for its potential dangers.

    On the Klingon side of things, we find out T'Kuvma's plan to unite the Klingon Empire has gone horribly right. Kol of House Kor, the brutal honorless dictator, has all but taken over the Klingon Empire by bargaining the cloaking technology which T'Kuvma invented. L'Rell attempts to "join" him but actually intends to rescue Admiral Cornwell so she can defect to the Federation. This despite the fact she apparently tortured Ash Tyler while he was her prisoner.

I like Admiral Cornwell and am glad she's alive.
    These episodes have both a lot of ups and downs that make rating them difficult. I absolutely hated Saru's arc because it depends on the idea he's motivated by fear at all times when we often see his 'threat ganglia" aren't in operation. Also, he showed both courage as well as fortitude when he was required to step up and rescue Captain Lorca earlier in the setting. Having him drunk on not being afraid was just plain weird and felt a bit like character assassination.

    The villain, Kol, is a character who is completely one-dimensional and while he sounds like a Klingon at the end--we don't really have any reason why he's a worse character than T'Kuvma himself. After all, T'Kuvma was a racist evil jerkass himself. L'Rell is appalled by his behavior and he murdered her comrades but I can't really bring myself to care so much about her horror at him taking over. The Klingon War has been mostly off-camera and the confrontation with the sarcophagus ship at the climax of the midseason finale feels unearned if it's supposed to be the end of the war. The vast majority of the conflict has been off camera and it seems the vast majority of people killed in the war have been in the first battle with 10,000 listed as the number of casualties despite the Klingons being vicious evil savages.

Kol is either hot for L'Rell or an idiot or both.
     There's good things in this pair of episodes as well, though. I'm actually intrigued by Ash Tyler's origins and while it's very likely my theory about him is correct--it's also a really good plot twist. I also appreciate L'Rell's complicated relationship with him will actually make an interesting foil to Michael Burnham's romance with the possible sleeper agent.

    The planet Pahvo feels like an intriguing addition to the Star Trek universe and I appreciated returning to the realm of the "weird" for the episode. The entire series, except for the desert planet in the pilot, has been on starships so far so it felt good to get back to some old fashioned exploration of the universe. The final space battle was also great with Captain Lorca showing himself not to be the evil Section 31 villain I expected him to be.

    I liked the fact the show backed away from fridging one of its more interesting characters as well. Admiral Cornwell could have been written off the show a couple of episodes ago and looks like she is in "Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum" but turns out to be alive in "Into the Forest I Go." She was an intriguing character with a preexisting but complicated relationship with Captain Lorca so I'll be interested to see where that goes. In fact, I'd argue a much better episode would have been dealing with said relationship than the war which never really went anywhere.

Not buying Burnham as a badass action girl. Sorry.
    I should note there's actually some Star Trek firsts in this episode. Episode 9 has the first male on male Star Trek kiss (which isn't played for 14 year old titillation like their first female kiss was). It also has the first female nudity in Star Trek history with a Klingon-human sex scene which may or may not be consensual depending on whether you think Ash Tyler=Voq. The fact Mary Weis is in full costume and makeup while also (partially) nude makes it an interesting scene artistically even as you have to wonder how that filming went.

    In conclusion, it was an okay finale to the first season (technically the first half of the season) but nothing special. I think they really overspent on this series and could have probably done a lot better with Star Trek: Discovery if they just focused on the characters as well as ideas versus special effects. It remains to be seen if I'll continue reviewing each individual episode given the series "okay but not great" writing. I'll watch it but, honestly, probably am looking forward to Season 3 of The Expanse more.

6/10

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

TOURNAMENT OF SUPERVILLAINY cover sketch

Hey folks,

Progress on my books is going well with the Tournament of Supervillainy almost done. I'm extra pleased to be able to share this sketch of its guest stars with you. The Tournament of Supervillainy is a "Crisis on Infinite Earths"-esque crossover of my worlds and here's pictures of Jane Doe (I was a Teenage Weredeer) and Cassius Mass (Lucifer's Star).


Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Nerd Book Review interviews C.T. Phipps

Hey folks,

The Nerd Book Review has done a podcast interview with me. We got to discuss everything from LUCIFER'S STAR to I WAS A TEENAGE WEREDEER to the trials and perils of indie publishing. I hope everyone will check it out.

https://nerdbooks.podbean.com/e/21-ct-phipps-author-interview/

Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Winter of 2017 Writing Update

Hey folks,

I've been working hard on numerous books and trying to decide what I'm going to do next. So, I decided I would share what is going to be coming out for the finale of Winter. These works are something I'm quite proud of and will be hopefully out soon and in your hands as readers. Note: These release dates are all subjective but should be pretty accurate.

November 2017

AGENT G: SABOTEUR (Agent G #2)


The sequel to Agent G picks up a year after the first novel with our antihero cybernetic assassin now working for the United States government. So much better than being a private contractor, right? Wrong. Hunting down his former associates only makes things worse and he soon finds himself discovering even more dirt about his convoluted past. What is an amnesiac cyborg to do?

LUCIFER'S NEBULA (Lucifer's Star #2)


Cassius Mass wants nothing more than to bury his past as the former best pilot of the fascist Crius Archduchy. Unfortunately, there's nowhere far enough he can run to reshape the Commonwealth's Watchers. Dragooned once more into their surface, he is given his most dangerous assignment yet: deliver a peace agreement to the Free Systems Alliance that has successfully driven the Spiral's government to its knees. Unfortunately, victory isn't enough for the organization and Cassius finds out some of his most trusted friends aren't on his side.

December 2017


WRAITH LORD (Wraith Lord #2)


The follow up to the 2016 book WRAITH KNIGHT (which has recently been updated and revised). Wraith Lord follows Jacob Riverson, the last Wraith Knight, as he adjusts to being the Dark Lord of the Northern Wasteland. Surrounded by wealth, splendor, and two loving but devious brides--he should have known it was too good to last. The Empire is preparing a war to unite its disparate factions by annihilating all the Shadownborn races as well as their leader.

ESOTERRORISM (Red Room 1# - re-release)


This, like Wraith Knight, is a re-edit and release of the one put out by Ragnarok Publications. The adventures of Derek Hawthorne and his partner Shannon shall be shared once more by Amber Cove Press. Derek Hawthorne is the best agent working for the House, a global conspiracy which protects the existence of the supernatural from the public, but he's about to find himself under suspicion for the greatest leak they've ever had. Is it a diversion for something far worse?

January 2018

THE TOURNAMENT OF SUPERVILLAINY (The Supervillainy Saga 5#)



The fifth Gary Karkofsky a.k.a Merciless: The Supervillain without MercyTM novel. Gary has successfully freed the world's supervillain population and overthrown the tyrannical regime of Merciful. Unfortunately, this means everyone hates him as he's too good for the bad guys and too bad for the good. Sick of his lack of respect, Gary decides it might be time to hang his cape up--only to be invited to a cross-dimensional fighting tournament for the fate of the Multiverse! The winner gets a wish that will allow Gary to rule the entire cosmos--or at least his solar system. Guest starring the protagonists of I was a Teenage Weredeer and Lucifer's Star!