Otherworld

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Review #38 Fiction

Blogging for Books #12

Otherworld by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller

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This book caught my eye based on so many connections people were making to Ready Player One, which I adore, so I couldn’t pass this one up when the chance to read and review came my way. I’ll say that if you also find yourself reading this book based on your interest in RPO, there are many similarities, so you’ll probably like this one.

My main interest in RPO was the 80s pop culture and nostalgia, which is something that Otherworld lacks. This is not a love letter to the videogames or movies or music of the 80s, but it is a really interesting look into the future of videogames, and virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. Segel and Miller create a not-too-distant future where VR is taking over the real world, creating a world that people never want to leave – which becomes part of the problem.

Segel and Miller pull in other virtual reality troupes we’ve seen before – dying in the game could kill you in real life, an evil corporation (creatively* called “The Company”) putting profits over people’s lives, parallels made to a “Quest” or “The One” coming to save the world. The Company is a semi-faceless organization, we are given a few of the higher ups and some of the low level pawns in the overall scheme, but essentially, it’s a large, overarching nemesis that feels impossible to beat. Some of these low level people believe they are doing the right thing, they believe the Company will use its technology to help people, to make progress in quality of life, but are in the end naïve to the desire for power and money.

Otherworld begins a unique conversation about artificial intelligence, and what it could be someday. Segel and Miller create VR filled with AI that is so advanced, it’s nearly human. These entities exist only in Otherworld, but they have their own wants, and needs, and experience their own pain. This brings up so many questions about AI and what is ethical, concepts of God-like creation, and what existing truly means. Are these entities “alive,” does Otherworld belong to them? They live and breathe and breed in this world – does that not make Otherworld their own reality? And who decides? This concept, and these questions, is really what make Otherworld different from other videogame stories. Segel and Miller take VR to a new level and spark some deep and difficult ideas.

Throughout there is some really good action. The story builds and ends with a few realizations, gun fights and fleeing, and ends on enough of a cliffhanger to set up sequels. A few loose ends are left dangling – who runs the Company? How can they be stopped? After some of the breakthroughs with the technology, are they not just more invested in their goal now? And how far are they willing to go to reach them? Segel and Miller definitely pique an interest in reading further.

With any VR story, the world building is extremely important. Segel and Miller do a decent job of creating and describing Otherworld. We have to understand various aspects of the VR in order to follow our main characters through the world and understand all the creatures they come in contact with. Unfortunately, they do a lot of bouncing around in Otherworld; it becomes a bit hard to keep up. At times it’s difficult to understand where the characters are, who is in charge of the territory they are in (these are entities that naturally exist in Otherworld – the Children and the Elementals), what vice the territory provides (each seems to speak to a vice that people cannot partake in in reality – sex, drugs, gluttony, murder, etc.), and how they got there/how they move on. Though many things within Otherworld are fleshed out, many more questions exist. Some of the stops in each territory are long and detailed – we understand why our characters are here and what they will get out of the journey – others are short and feel thrown in without much thought which really hurts the flow of the story.

Overall, I think the time and attention to detail in a VR universe was successful, the characters were interesting and had a report that kept the story moving through dialogue and action, and the concepts surrounding AI were fascinating and left me asking even bigger and deeper questions. Otherworld is a strong start to this series.

*Please note the sarcasm.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Cover art from Amazon.com

**I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

 

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Armada

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Review #29: Fiction

Blogging for Books #10

Armada by Ernest Cline

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I am a HUGE fan of Ready Player One and could not wait to get my hands on a copy of Armada when it came out. Now, Ready Player One is much more focused on ‘80s pop culture as a whole: the music, the movies, the games, the style, etc — which is why I dug it so much. I was born right at the end of the era and sometimes feel I was born a little too late. ‘80s pop culture runs through my veins. I knew Armada is set in the current day, and that it is much heavier on video game knowledge and interest rather than strictly ‘80s culture, but nonetheless, it did not disappoint.

The story revolves around Zack Lightman and his friends who are high school-aged kids that are obsessed with two online multiplayer games; ARMADA and TERRA FIRMA. Both games focus on the human race defending itself against an alien invasion — ARMADA focuses on air defense and TERRA FIRMA on ground defense. Players remote-pilot unmanned drones in ARMADA and unmanned ATHIDS in TERRA FIRMA. Because I’m not a heavy gamer, there are definitely some aspects of Armada that went over my head a little. Some of the gamer language and slang was unfamiliar to me, and some of the descriptions of the games themselves as well as technology and materials used in the games were harder for me to visualize. However, Cline does a pretty good job of making this world and the concept accessible to everyone, and definitely to those who are already gaming nerds.

At the beginning of the book, Lightman notices a spaceship that looks a lot like the alien crafts in ARMADA flying over his school. Chalking this up to too much playing time, as well as some inherited insanity (his father was convinced of a video game/government training program to defeat real alien invasion using civilians — a lot like the idea behind Ender’s Game which Cline touches on several times throughout the book). Zack’s father was killed on the job when Zack was only an infant.

Eventually things happen that Lightman cannot easily explain away, and he and his friends (some of the best ARMADA and TERRA FIRMA players in the world) have to come together to figure out if Zack’s father’s theory holds any water…and if it does, what that means for them and the survival of the planet. If aliens were attacking, would a world full of gamers be enough to stop them? Would civilians trained to fight with nothing more than video games step up to the challenge? And if a government cover up were true, what actually happened to Zack’s father all those years ago?

There are a ton of ‘80s (and ‘90s) references thrown into this book, from old-school video games, to movies and music, and books. Cline once again uses this pop culture to drive his plot, giving us glimpses into his inspiration for the book, his characters, and also just throwing us a big nostalgia party. He references great hair metal bands; movies and TV shows like The Karate Kid, Star Trek,  E.T., Star Wars, and The X-Files (and on and on); and movies like Men in Black, Contact, and The Last Starfighter. This book brings back some great decades of pop culture and ties it to current-day gaming and the continued idea (and question) of whether or not the truth is out there…

Armada is action packed, fun from beginning to end, and a true first-person like book that turns the reader into Zack Lightman. Cline makes you feel like not only are you along for the ride, but you just might be the one driving the ship.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.