Review: Armada

I confess I’ve struggled to articulate my thoughts on Ernest Cline’s Armada. As the tricky second book following a blockbuster like Ready Player One, the temptation for this reviewer is to throw down comparisons in an endless series of bullets: Ready Player One was like this, but Armada‘s like this, which means XYZ.

That’s unfair. But not entirely. Armada isn’t related story-wise to RPO, and yet the two books overlap in many ways. Both have a teen male protagonist whose expertise in video games is the spine of the story. Both are rich with pop-culture references anchoring the story firmly in our world. It almost feels as if both books have a common ancestor, an ur-plot in Cline’s head. More likely Cline’s simply projecting his own experiences, as all authors do to some extent, and these two lenses have much the same prescription.

If I try to forget RPO exists, how do I feel about Armada?

The plot is captivating and straightforward: on page one our hero, Zack, looks out of his classroom window to see a UFO darting across the sky. What’s more, it’s a craft identical to the ones he sees and battles in a video game – called Armada. How is that possible? Is it real, or is he hallucinating? Either answer signals trouble, which subsequently arrives at a pace speedy enough to keep me turning the 350 pages. It’s exciting, thrilling and eventful. It feels almost like the novelisation of a screenplay (which is handy, as the movie rights were sold for seven figures).

It also feels aimed at a specific audience: teenage boys who might see themselves in Zack’s place. It’s a classic coming-of-age story, complete with absent father and a school bully.

In that sense it’s a disappointment. I have nothing against these sorts of stories at all. I suppose I was hoping for something a little different, in the way that Ready Player One felt different. But ignoring RPO, as I claimed I was: it’s a great story and it’ll make a watchable brain-off blockbuster movie. It has its faults, though: not least the massive implausibility of <spoiler>.

Aside from that, some lesser but important characters lack any depth: you can’t make an emotional connection to someone who’s little more than a checkbox. “Oh, we need one of them, and one of them…”

Also, the pop-culture references tend on occasion towards the gratuitous. The bickering is real enough: characters bitch and joke about real-world fictional characters just as we would. Sometimes it feels shoe-horned in, possibly disguising the lack of character depth. I have fewer reservations about the unlikeliness of the characters having sufficient composure under extreme stress to wisecrack quite as coherently as they do: hey, that’s fiction for you. Gibbering and damp trousers would not be the average teen boy’s idea of wish fulfilment.

There is one particular scene late in the book in which certain real-world people “guest star” as characters. I am not a huge fan in general and in this case I was overwhelmed by the aroma of cheese. For me, this device bumps up against a line: I understand it, and it makes sense in context, but… just no. I sincerely hope it doesn’t appear in the film, as all tension in that scene will evaporate in laughter (at least in UK cinemas).

These criticisms are niggles rather than chuck-the-book-across-the-room-isms, and possibly amplified by my own expectations after Ready Player One. This was always going to be Cline’s problem: follow that. People of a certain age (hello!) who enjoyed revisiting the minutiae of 80s video games and films in Ready Player One, who can nod sagely at discussions of Pac-Man tactics and mullets, might have anticipated and wanted another spin around the Pole Position track.

Armada is not that, and yet it’s too similar to Ready Player One to escape comparison, and that might ultimately be its biggest problem. JK Rowling wisely keeps well away from magic with her non-Hogwarts books, and in Armada Ernest Cline perhaps drifts too close to Ready Player One for safety.

Still, I’m sure he’s worrying all the way to the bank.

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Review: Whispers Under Ground

And so to book three of Ben Aaronovitch‘s Peter Grant series: see my reviews of book one and book two to catch up with the meta-story so far.

Whispers Under Ground is not the book I was expecting. I’m not sure what my expectations were, precisely: perhaps something focusing more on what seems to be the arc of the series. I should have known better. To reach the end-of-level baddie you must fight several skirmishes, and this is merely book three of n where n ≥ 6 (I’m three books behind the curve).

The arc features in Whispers, of course, as a subplot. Our protagonist Peter makes progress on the hunt for the big bad, with his mentor Nightingale and colleague Lesley.

The main plot is a murder-mystery, with a suitably magical twist. The son of an American senator is killed in a manner curious enough for the Met to call in their experts on the peculiar: Grant and chums. This is one of the things I love about the series. Magic and its attending weirdness is known within the Met, to those in the higher echelons at least. It’s not something they especially want civilians to catch on to, and Peter Grant’s adventures in previous books have become a little too high profile for those with the peakiest of caps.

Nevertheless they need him. And he needs them, for they can bring the corporeal might of the force into play when some old-fashioned coppering is required. In this case, some below-ground sniffing around in the sewers and amongst the tube mice after the middle rail has been unplugged for the night.

The looming question for me – and whether this is tackled by later books I have yet to learn – is for how long the public can remain unaware of the Met’s mini-Hogwarts. Given the number of goings on, and the constabular tonnage that must surely by now be starting to twig, it’s becoming ever more implausible that the secret remains a secret. But then, in Grant’s universe, the secret has already been successfully kept for several generations, and deployed in two world wars. (I’d like to learn more about this back story. I suspect I won’t: clunking out a full chronology causes all mystery to waft up the chimney. Plus it commits the writer, leaving no room for manoeuvre should better ideas spring to mind. Tolkien is the exception, mainly because he knew what everyone in Middle Earth had for breakfast every day of their lives and wrote it all down in elvish poetry.)

I didn’t feel as much tension in Whispers as in previous: the climax is not as jangly. Not a bad thing – too many TV shows, for example, believe that each season’s finale must outdo last season’s by a factor of 2.718, proceeding rapidly to exploding universes resolved by honking red reset buttons, hand-waving, love, dreams, etc. Here it’s a calmer outcome, and I wonder if book four in the series, already on my pile, will include a major revelation or two to make up for it.

The last few pages of Whispers Under Ground indicate Aaronovitch knows where he’s going, back in the past present when this book came out. Pieces on the board shuffling into position. Characters I’m sure we’ll see again In my case, in a couple of months, I expect.

In summary: I’m still amazed this isn’t on TV yet.

Review: More Happy Than Not

More Happy Than Not – cover image
Please excuse the colour cast and the delicately distributed muck on top of my fridge.

It’s been a while since I’ve read an LGBT-themed book. Having finished Exo I saw the next few on my official to-read pile weren’t going to change that, so as a Christmas treat I decided to sneak in something new. Amazon opened its unwashed mac to show me a barely distinguishable selection of beefcake covers, and if you’ve read any of my books you’ll understand that’s not the sort of thing I write and it’s not my preferred reading material either.

I scrolled down, and saw a cover lacking both beef and cake. More Happy Than Not, by Adam Silvera. One blurb-skim later it plonked into my basket. It proved a fine choice.

I don’t remember reading anything like it before. A Bronx teen, Aaron Soto, struggles to figure himself out, torn between his girlfriend and a new, male best buddy, Thomas. Aaron’s father killed himself; his mother barely manages; his other friends run hot and cold, often violently. To Aaron, Thomas represents hope – and more? And threaded through the story, talk of a near-miraculous process offered by the Leteo Institute: the selective rewriting and deletion of memories.

A coming-of-age story, then, lifted by the generous peppering of a gritty setting and a dollop of SF mustard. In More Happy Than Not, no holds are barred, and teenage activities occur. This is not the (perfectly reasonable but) pastel, idealised world of some books. There are choices, and there are consequences. And the genre-mashing keeps you guessing, and keeps you reading, all the way.

Aaron is utterly believable: his thoughts, his feelings, his worries, all resonated to various degrees. The first-person present-tense style, not to everyone’s taste, brings an immediacy to a story focusing often on Aaron’s past and his future. I genuinely muttered “oh, god, don’t do that,” on at least one occasion, though I can neither confirm nor deny I was in a public place at the time and anyway it was noisy and nobody looked at me apart from that one lady.

I suppose if I were forced at knifepoint to find fault, I’d say I’d have liked the story to continue a little longer. That’s the reviewing equivalent to “my biggest weakness is that I’m a perfectionist,” I know. I guess some of the supporting characters feel a little interchangeable (not a great sin here). I can’t say whether the Bronx scenes are truthful in any way – my reality involves regular sightings of students in three-piece tweed, and consequently I’m an unreliable judge. It feels real enough, as does Aaron’s family and its fractured lives.

This is a book I rattled quickly through (always a good sign) and I wish I’d been able to read it as a teenager. The SF angle would’ve given me the excuse I’d have been looking for and it would have helped me, I’m sure. Oh, to be a teenager again (modulo school, acne, exams, climate change, Brexit, Trump… hmm, on second thoughts).

More Happy Than Not is Adam Silvera’s debut novel, which makes me both happy and envious. I look forward to his next dropping onto my pile soon.

Review: Scatter, Adapt, and Remember

I do love a good popular science book. I spent many a teenage year devouring books about the bizarro world of quantum physics and the magical future of nanotechnology, always fifteen years away with its promises of wondrous microscopic self-replicating devices and a planet eaten by grey goo. Annalee Newitz’s Scatter, Adapt, and Remember reminds me very much of those books.

The premise is simple: what should we learn from past mass extinctions to help prepare us for the next? What do we need to know, as a species, to ensure the descendants of humans are still around (in some sense) in a million years?

To editorialise for a moment, it seems to me the status quo won’t get us further than another century or two. For as long as economics trumps all — growth at all cost, drill, dig, mine, chop — the planet suffers, grey goo or not. And as someone said, there is no planet B. We need to change our ways, sooner or later, or we’ll perish as a species and leave our world to whichever organism is adaptable enough to fill the niche. Life finds a way, as someone else said mumbled while gesticulating.

Traditionally cockroaches are next in line, but I’d put my money on birds making a bid for a return to the good old days — crows are a lot more intelligent than they look. Perhaps birds and cats will settle their differences and divide the planet between them, waging war on the fish. The insects will adopt a neutral position, like a segmented Switzerland making decisions through emergent behaviour/referenda. The plants will just sit there and tut, as ever, and the bacteria will still be the ones actually in charge.

Anyway.

If you’re unfamiliar with the many hilariously close calls Earth has had with sterility since the solar system was formed about 4.5 billion years ago, Newitz’s book will be an eye-opener. She gives us a great potted history, starting with the oxygen apocalypse early life brought upon the planet. About 2.5 billion years ago, mats of algae — cyanobacteria, the first life to photosynthesise — farted out oxygen in such quantities they converted the planet to an oxygen-rich atmosphere, killing off all life that couldn’t adapt quickly enough. (They remind me of someone.) Moving on through snowball earth and other ice ages, meteorite impacts, megavolcanoes, and of course the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs — if it was an asteroid — you get a real and unnerving sense that we’re incredibly lucky to have made it this far, and the luck is certainly going to run out. We just don’t know when.

Then Newitz comes closer to home: migrations out of Africa by our recent ancestors. Seemingly successful, since there are now over seven billion of us. But these billions descend from a group of a few tens of thousands. Our “effective population size”, as geneticists call it, is tiny, and hints at a bottleneck we don’t yet fully understand. From there it’s a dash through Neanderthals to the medieval Black Death and modern disasters such as the Potato Famine in Ireland and the Spanish Flu outbreak at the end of World War One. Plus present-day humanity’s amazing ability to stomp on itself, every living thing it encounters, and the climate — the book talks about whether or not we’re currently undergoing a mass extinction, one caused by ourselves.

The rest of the book — over half — shows us what we can learn from those near-death experiences and how we can apply that knowledge. Unsurprisingly there’s a lot about scattering, adapting and remembering, and as in the first sections much history is mixed in with the science. For example, the chapter Using Math to Stop a Pandemic touches on how John Snow (not that one, or that one) found the source of an epidemic of cholera in 1850s London, and also talks about modern vaccination programmes. This section also discusses how we might defend ourselves from extreme radiation events such as gamma ray bursts — rare but catastrophic — one of which might have caused an ancient extinction.

The final part looks forward — a long way forward. For example, at some point we will have to get off this planet. Our luck will run out eventually. And what might we be like after another million years of evolution, combined with the inevitable technological advances?

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember has made me want to read more about many of the areas it covers — such as human migration out of Africa — which is undoubtedly a good thing. It’s engaging and readable even with the not usually cheerful subject of mass extinction, and ultimately, like human survival against all the odds, it’s a hopeful, optimistic book.

Review: Comedy Rules

comedy-rules-coverPart-autobiography, part-tutorial, part-ramble, Comedy Rules: From the Cambridge Footlights to Yes, Prime Minister is Jonathan Lynn’s look back at his career in acting and directing and in particular in comedy writing, and it’s full of excellent advice for those aiming to succeed him. The rules of the title pepper the book — there are 150 in all, over 200 pages — and range from the relatively obvious to the insightful.

For example, rule 35: It is hazardous to your career to make sexist jokes about women. Not a surprise, though somehow it still needs repeating. And then by contrast a few pages later, rule 39: If a band — or film crew — laugh loudly at a joke, you should probably cut it. Because, he says, “the band will only laugh at any new line which is a variation of the original.” And then there’s rule 98: Beware a phone call from the Inland Revenue, even if it’s an invitation to lunch.

Despite the title, these aren’t so much rules as lightly educational anecdotes: lessons he’s learned over the years through sometimes bitter experience. We skip between the decades, from his student days to more recent times as a film director and screenwriter, and back. Every story is funny, enlightening and well told, and occasionally guest-starring comedy gods such as John Cleese or Steve Martin.

Quite possibly my favourite story follows rule 117: Try to resist if the Prime Minister wants to join your writing team. If you remember the cringeworthy “sketch” Margaret Thatcher wrote while PM featuring the two main characters from Yes, Prime Minister, you’ll know what this anecdote is about.

There’s poignancy too. Lynn describes working on the play Loot with Leonard Rossiter, a masterful comic actor but a perfectionist who could be difficult to deal with. The play was a huge success and they became friends, and then Rossiter died suddenly: in his dressing room, from an aneurism, during a performance. Lynn includes the eulogy he gave at the funeral.

Lynn’s one of the greats behind the camera of post-war British comedy, up there with Galton and Simpson, John Sullivan, Eric Sykes, Muir and Norden, and so on, and Comedy Rules is a fantastic memoir. Recommended.