Archive for July 2012

Starship Troopers was one of my favorite movies as a child, so it’s only natural that I should read the book at some point in my life.  Robert Heinlein is revered as being a visionary speculative and science fiction author, and I was excited to finally dive into a piece of his work.  Stranger in a Strange Land was available from the library first.

The number of subjects Heinlein tried to tackle in his book is almost offensive.  He put his fictionalized ideals up against everything in the thinker’s club: philosophy, religion, economics, sociology, ethics, relationships, mores.  Anything that could represent a difficult subject in a college survey course was fair game for Heinlein, who used his characters to pitch his worn ideas of utopia through discussion and debate.  There are many chapters throughout the book that read as if you’re sitting in a lecture hall, being held to a moral standard that you don’t yet understand but are personally responsible for.  There are whole characters in the book whose sole purpose is to ask questions and receive answers on the reader’s behalf.  Heinlein was trying very hard to convert people to his new-age, back-brain philosophy.

The plot is simple (no spoilers): a man from Mars is brought to Earth.  He learns Earth’s customs, its ways of life, and discovers all the various things that are wrong with us in short order.  He develops a cult following that quickly evolves to large-scale religion.  It is clear that the story was written as a parallel to the biblical account of Christ’s life and death.  Christ was a radical thinker and espoused ideals that were not popular with or were in direct opposition to the thought of the day; the Man from Mars followed a similar path.

The book is 400 pages long and about half of it is preachy.  Here is what’s wrong with the system and why, followed by witty banter to back it up.  I will admit that there are a number of valid points in the arguments presented in the book – yeah, getting rid of all human suffering does sound like a good idea – but like many of the ideas in Sir Thomas Moore’s Utopia, they can’t exist outside of a sheet of paper.  This is the real world, thank you very much, and the box is only so big to think in.

Upton Sinclair wrote a book titled They Call Me Carpenter, which was his imagining of what the second coming of Christ would be like.  When I first read it, I thought he wrote it in jest, as if it was supposed to be dark humor.  I did a little bit of research after I read it and found that Sinclair was deadly serious when he wrote it – he was a devout Christian, and he sincerely believed that his book described the results of a possible Second Coming.  Heinlein was very much writing about what he believed in Stranger in a Strange Land, which may be why some of the lecturing is hard to swallow.  For example, through his characters and the actions they do, he argues for the dissolution of the institution of marriage and the adoption of free love.  Let me know how that chat goes with your wife, if you are still alive afterwards.

The parts that aren’t preaching are interesting and the story is a good one to follow.  Stripped of its religious parallels, it’s about an entity that observes a foreign way of life for the first time, and we get to see his thoughts and feelings develop towards the various things we do every day and don’t ever think deeply about.  Writing those observations must have been very difficult – just finding the objectivity needed to think about life as we know it – or very easy, if Heinlein was already disgruntled in the first place.  The beginning of the book was great, and was one of the more engaging starts in recent reading memory – it was full of suspense and set the pace for the first several chapters of the novel.

Read this book if you don’t mind long drags of philosophy, being lectured at, or speculative fiction.  The story is well thought and driven if you can get around the lectures.  Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. 4.0/5.  Listed as #16 on Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels Reader’s List; named by the Library of Congress as one of the “Books That Shaped America.”  This review was based on the unabridged text.

I have a Red Sox daily calendar on my desk at work, and a couple of times a week, it asks me trivia questions that I don’t know the answer to.  Here is today’s trivia question:

“Can you name the Red Sox player who was named Most Valuable Player of the 2008 MLB All-Star Game?”

That one’s easy!  It’s J.D. Drew, the man that all of metropolitan Boston hates.

Poor J.D. Drew – loathed by fans enthusiastic for everything that relates to Boston sports.  An underachiever, a bust, a lazy, good-for-nothing man costumed in cleats and a glove.  It’s sad to think that even with the the Red Sox injury bus full of players with broken bones, muscles, and egos, the Red Sox still won’t put him on the field.

Wait.  Where is J.D. Drew?  Google must know:

J.D. Drew, is that you?

I’m not the only one in the Boston area who is confused.  I somehow made it halfway through the season without hearing or seeing any news about how much J.D. is sucking lately.  It turns out that he very quietly retired, and even that news was snuffed out of the headlines – who cares?  It’s J.D. Drew.  I think this article was written by a very sour Sox fan.  Jon Heyman’s tweet caps it off nicely.

One of the oft-cited complaints about Drew was his tendency to collect minor injuries.  He never played hurt, but he was criticized as never playing hard enough to be hurt.  Despite being a player who could be described as a hypochondriac, he played for winning teams.  In 2006, he helped the Dodgers reach the playoffs after a 2005 campaign that ended with the team 20 games under .500.  Coincidentally, that was the year that Drew played in a career-high number of games – 146 – and set a career-high for RBIs.  The following year, he joined the Red Sox and promptly won a World Series ring.

J.D. Drew probably didn’t get the fairest shake in his career, but he didn’t do a lot to help his image.  Part of the responsibility of a player is to influence fan perception.  Jacoby Ellsbury is a fan favorite in Boston, but he had a stretch of injuries that quickly led to fan perception that he was made out of glass bones.  He wizened up to that and worked hard to earn back his reputation as a dirt dog and base thief, so much so that when he ripped a shoulder of out its socket, the fans largely gave him a pass and put up with Double A talent for half of the season.

Poor J.D. Drew.  Cooperstown will not call for him.  Not every reaction to his retirement was negative, but clearly no one will miss him.

James Holmes is a huge asshole.  The people who are trying to speculate whether he was mimicking violence in the movie are a bunch of assholes too.  But who is the biggest asshole?

All of these little parroting douchebags who think it’s funny to start hero-worship pages on Facebook.  Go ahead, click one.  You’ll be appalled.  Somewhere in the world, a sixth-grader thinks he’s King Shit.  The rest of us aren’t laughing.

Ted is a tough movie to summarize, but here’s my best effort: bongs, boobs, booze, and Boston.

Seth MacFarlane wrote some jokes and then wrote a movie around them, plugging in his favorite medium along the way: flawed but lovable cartoon characters.  The movie’s over-reliance on the skewering of popular culture and recent events washes out plot and character development; things happen, and more things happen, and characters arbitrarily respond to them, leading to over-acting and dry screen relationships.  As a result, the movie follows a cookie-cutter impression of buddy romcom.  Here’s a quick plot summary without any (major) spoilers: two boys become friends and stay friends forever; a girl gets in the way; the two friends part ways over the girl; the two friends become mortal enemies and beat the shit out of each other; the two friends find common ground to eliminate a mutual enemy and reunite for the greater good.  See also: The Green Hornet.

But – did I expect a deep, thought-provoking experience from the creator of Family Guy?  Not really.  My main concern going into Ted was that it would be a dirty reflection of a Family Guy marathon crowded with drugs, sex, alcohol, and snappy pop culture references.  It delivered on that.  But why create the ghost of something?  Why not create a movie about Family Guy, an established franchise, rather than disguise Peter Griffin as a teddy bear?  The Simpsons Movie pulled off the silver screen transition gracefully, and is a shining example of what a cartoon movie should be at the box office.

Of course, MacFarlane knew that the Family Guy comparisons were going to be lobbed in by the hundreds, so he dedicated a line to addressing it.  During a party scene, Ted looks at the camera during a fast cut that Family Guy sports so often and says, “I do not sound like Peter Griffin.”  Ah, touche; I’ve run out of peanuts.

The movie is funny; there’s no doubt about that.  It chugs along on humor alone and is a decent way to waste a Friday night.  If there’s any one reason to see this movie, see it for Mark Wahlberg’s award-winning performance of Boston trash.  Hilarious.  Don’t see it for the plot.  Questionable at best, and the city of Boston is used as a plot device to awkwardly move the story forward.  In The Town, Ben Affleck’s character shows up and shoots Fenway full of holes; in Ted, Wahlberg’s character chases a car through the streets of obviously-not-Fenway and Ted climbs a light stanchion on the Monster.  If it were only that easy to get a Monster seat on game day.

Suppose for a moment that the skies open up and legions of alien ships land in parking lots and city parks, completing their decades-long trip to planet Earth.  The assumed leader of this humanoid hoard steps out for an immediate audience.  As luck would have it, you have a front row seat, and he speaks flawless English.

“HUMANKIND!  WE HAIL FROM AN AREA IN SPACE THAT YOU DESIGNATE AS THE GLIESE 445 SYSTEM.”  The words are amplified without a source.  Most of whom he addresses run away, but you stand your ground, because I have written it so.

“WE HAVE RECEIVED YOUR INTERSTELLAR MIX-TAPE.”

While your interest is piqued at this marvelous revelation, you can’t help but notice armed brigades of aliens pouring out of the bellies of their featherless birds.

“AFTER LISTENING TO ‘JOHNNY B. GOODE,’ WE IMMEDIATELY SET OFF FOR YOUR PLANET TO PAY TRIBUTE TO YOUR HUMAN GOD, CHUCK BERRY.”

How nice, you think.  In the back of your mind, you question whether or not Chuck Berry is still alive; the answer is yes.

“AS WE NEARED YOUR PLANET, WE RECEIVED YOUR RADIO TRANSMISSIONS.  EVERY RADIO SIGNAL CARRIED THE SAME DATA.”

Beams of light shoot into the sky, projecting an image onto a passing cloud.  As the signal increases in clarity and substance, you recoil in horror.  It is too late.


“CHUCK BERRY WOULD BE DISPLEASED.”

You start running.  Anywhere.  But the sound is all around you and so are the Glieseians.  Your soul is lost and has been for some time; life is an unsatisfying series of ‘Call Me Maybe’ references and Internet memes.  The alien’s booming voice floats a step behind you.  You refocus to hear what he is saying.

“…BUT HERE’S MY BURN RAY, SO DIE NOW MAYBE.”

Just before you feel the lining of your lungs blister and peel away, an image floats through your mind.

Remember that time, a few weeks or months ago, when you had an obscure pop culture reference battle with a bunch of your friends, and it ended when someone whipped out a reference to the Nazis?  Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is a book about that epic battle.

But it’s far more than that!  Right?  This is a book, and books have plots.  Ready Player One is about a future where the world is crumbling to pieces, and to escape the dreariness of everyday life, people log on to Second Life the OASIS and be the change they want to see in the Internet.  Once logged in, they can do anything they desire.  It just so happens that they desire to worship the pop culture of the 1980’s, and the only true heroes are ordinary people who have mastered every text-based role-playing game ever released for the TRS-80.  I later learned that text-based role-playing games are referred to as “interactive fiction.”

I wish I could give you an example of the excessive parade of 80’s worship without giving away the story, but the obscure references are integral to driving the plot, and just mentioning them in context would give too much away.  Music, television, and film references stretch back into the 60’s, and the video game references reach all the way back into the 50’s by namedropping one of the first video games ever created, Tennis for Two.  It was played on an oscilloscope.

The book revolves around a man named James Halliday, the creator of the OASIS (Oh, Acronym Significant In Story… but the acronym was chosen first, so OASIS it is).  He dies and leaves his $240B fortune up for grabs.  To call it yours, you have to find what’s known as Halliday’s Egg, an Easter Egg that he placed somewhere in the OASIS simulation, which spans thousands of planets and dozens of sectors.  Thousands of other people are after it too, including your standard brigades of baddies and evil masterminds and such.  There’s an online love interest (surely, match.com is the present day predecessor to the OASIS), multiple Dungeons and Dragons references, a little bit of Treknobabble, and really, something for every technophile, nerd, geek, and hax0r 1337 out there.

That said – Ready Player One seemed like it was written as a justification for nerds everywhere to play DnD, RPGs, video games, etc., because one day you will save the real world with the knowledge attained by playing in a fake one.  Sorry, try again.  It would take a lot to convince me that the puzzles of Myst (a game not mentioned in the book) will someday be crucial to the continued existence of man as we know it.  That’s what this book is when boiled down to its bolts – it’s a story about man vs. evil.  In this case, evil is represented by an unscrupulous multinational company that wants to take control of the OASIS, and the only way to do so would be to capture Halliday’s Egg first (with some weak legalese explaining why they can’t just buy it with a truckload of cash).  While this story is a work of science fiction, its roots are too far grounded in the real world of today, and there isn’t enough substance to break it free by the end of the book.  It’s a story about the glory and bragging rights that you attained when you smoked everyone in Unreal Tournament that one time in college.

Read this book for its science fiction value, it’s sheer abundance of cultural references, and its interesting story design.  Do not think too critically about the fluffy action and the weave between the real world and its reality counterpart.  Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  3.5/5.