Things About Stuff: Food, Sounds, Comics and Waffle

Braindrops from the Clouds of Earth-X  

Ready Player One

Posted on June 21, 2012 by     Leave a comment

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (read by Wil Wheaton)


Well, that was fun! I can’t think of anyone more apt than Wil Wheaton to have read this and he does an excellent job of capturing the character and the drama, even dealing with the odd situation of referencing himself in the narrative.

The story itself has me in two minds: is it too geeky or is it a comment on geekery?

It’s not wondrous literature in writing style and there are moments where the writing jars with its awkwardness; there are also some plot moments that make little sense – e.g. everything is thumb prints and retina scans until an escape is required, whereupon security is managed by scanning an ID card; our hero is worried that passwords he has acquired on the black market might leave him trapped in indentured servitude forever, if they don’t work – but a chapter later he has to change his plans because the automatic transfer of funds that will free him is going happen later than needed (so not trapped, then!).

There are plenty of other examples but that’s not really the point here: this story is about 80s nostalgia and, above all, REFERENCES!

I’ve never really been a gamer, so the central theme of old video games and consoles is not one I can relate to well. I played Pac-Man, Space Invaders and Defender on a BBC Micro, when school needed someone to help code and data entry a basic database, so leant me the machine over summer. But that’s about it. Ernest Cline manages, however, to keep all the references whizzing above my head from being too dull (except when he’s getting carried away with lists) and even manages to make a Pac-Man game almost sound dramatic. That’s no mean feat for describing a video game in prose.

I would say, though, that if you are not interested in either video games, anime, dungeons and dragons, 80s music or 80s films, then steer clear. There is no way interest will be held without some equating of values with these media; the tale depends upon them. If neither John Hughes movies, Neo-Genesis Evangelion, World of Greyhawk nor a Commodore 64 elicit a smile or ping of nostalgia, then it’s probably best to step away now.

Fortunately for me, D&D, films, a little anime, and some of the music (notably an actually 70s album by Rush) are part of my background and loves, so there was plenty to take joy in spotting (the double reference of the password “reindeer flotilla setec astronomy” from Tron and Sneakers, respectively, a particular highpoint that even had me editing the Ready Player One wikipedia entry: bonus geek points!).

To some degree, this was a surprise as I will happily describe the 80s, generally, as the worst decade in history. But that’s mainly the fashions, crap music and, above all, the politics and subsequent decline of civilisation into a subservient muscle to the all-powerful gods of Capitalism and Greed above the value of humanity and social justice that has led, in a direct line, to the situation the world now finds itself in…[/rant]

Er, where was I?

The plot: in a dystopian future, with fossil fuels exhausted and the planet in deep, continual recession, the creator of a vast virtual reality, the Oasis, has died and left his entire fortune to be found in the form of a game. Hidden in the Oasis are three “Easter Eggs” – keys that will lead to the vast fortune. Wade Watts is a Gunter (easter egg hunter) who, like so many others, spends most of his time in the Oasis and it’s his story as he searches for the keys, pitted against the mega-corporation that wants it for themslelves so they can, *shudder*, monetise it (even though, actually, it already is)…

The real world is only lightly realised but it’s enough to make the reader understand the preference for the online world, even if it feels light and, frankly, a bit silly (it’s too near-future, so that the 80s references work in the timeframe, to be convincing). The Oasis itself is more fleshed out with all sorts of worlds described and the rules and interactions given more substance than the real world. There is a point in the final third of the story that is the only lengthy tract taking place in the real world; it’s more tech-thriller than scifi/fantasy at this point but the set-up is horribly simplistic.

And there’s the problem. Everything in the Oasis reads as a “then I did this, then I did this, then I did this and it was brilliant!!” wish fulfilment. The bad guys – a corporation of Unstoppable Evil – are far too clichéd and obvious, resting the entirety of their Evil upon one focussed bad guy who does everything but laugh maniacally. It’s geeks versus corporate. The savvy, courageous hacker versus Microsoft.

The thing I can’t decide, therefore, is whether this is Cline indulging his loves in a naive narrative where he gets to describe and have his character play with all the best toys – swords, blasters, spaceships, giant Japanese robots, virtualised versions of dungeons and so on – kick the corporation’s ass and get the girl. Or whether he’s commenting on the sort of people who would want to do this.

In the end, the message is, surprisingly, possibly, that real life is better because that’s the only place that love lives. But it’s not that clear. The love in question is based upon two people getting to know each other’s minds, rather than any sexual attraction, because they meet as avatars (which can look however the player wishes) in the Oasis. Most of the readers, I think, would prefer the Oasis and I tend to feel that this IRL aspect is a comment – or warning – on the growth of social media and the sorts of people who live by it, rather than a specifically relevant plot point.

I suppose a resolution of my dilemma matters little – in the end, it boils down to whether this is Cline’s style and capability or whether he’s writing like this purposefully because of the subject matter, neither of which affects the quality of the experience, just the academic merit. The most relevant bit is, given the caveat of caring about at least some of the trivia, that this is a fun ride. Even if the D&D reference in one of the riddles was too obvious (surely?*) to anyone who’s played D&D, the main character is simply too gifted and too lucky (the coin too obvious), the bad guys too evil and stoopid, the real world too one-dimensional and the demographic of the High Five painfully PC.

Because none of that matters. After all, what’s not to like about Mechagodzilla vs Ultraman;  a spacecraft called Vonnegut; a virtual world where the Discworld exists (sadly untravelled); where you can use magic or tech or both; where Gygax is also a world and Benatar an asteroid; where the Great and Powerful Og uses the finest forked-lightning spell ever; where you can world hop by spaceship, teleportation or stargates; where Monty Python’s the Holy Grail (fittingly) is crucial to a quest and where Temples of Syrinx is important I ask?

I’ll probably listen to it again, with reference detectors turned up to 11,  and see what I missed…

One mild annoyance, given my love of the medium: other than Wade’s alliterative name, there is barely any comic reference, even though the notion of them is mentioned often and heaps of them – unnamed – abound. A hole in Cline’s knowledge, perhaps?

And one last thing: did I miss a detail, because a demilich doesn’t have a body..?   [/nerdoff]

From the Any Excuse Department:

*Don’t call me Shirley.



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The Planer Pratchett

Posted on May 15, 2012 by     Leave a comment

Finished listening to Carpe Jugulum and moved straight on to Maskerade. Both are read by Nigel Planer whom, it astonished me to notice, seems to be partially channelling Oliver Postage in his reading voice. This is high praise.

Both books are witch-based, Maskerade set in Ankhmorpork for the most part and working around the Phantom of the Opera in that particular style that Pratchett has – parodying something whilst giving a genuine story, fine characters, humour and some tidbits of information that one sometimes doesn’t notice are real due to the Discworld setting (Walter Plinge, for example).

With the witches reduced to two in number, Magrat Garlick now to be queen, Nanny Ogg is concerned for Granny Weatherwax succumbing to her darkness and boredom and knows there really needs to be three witches for a coven. But Agnes Nitt doesn’t want to be a witch, natural fit that she is, and has taken her marvellous singing voice (and inner Perdita, the “her” that doesn’t have a wonderful personality, great hair and, well, largeness) to the big city.

Manipulations and mishaps later, due in large part to an unusual cook book that Nanny Ogg has written (“The Joy of Snacks”), Granny and Nanny are also city-bound, where they may accidentally run in to Agnes, and to solve the situation at the opera, without interfering of course, where a once harmless ghost appears to have begun murdering folk…


The centre point of Carpe Jugulum (“sieze the throat”) is vampirism and it’s set after Maskerade. But Granny Weatherwax’s dark side is still a problem and this time, its sway and pull will be tested to breaking point.

King Verence has made the mistake of inviting vampires to Lancre in an attempt to be more modern and outreaching. The vampires are happy to come – but these aren’t the vampires with whom you know where you stand (behind a religious symbol, in daylight, with a mouthful of garlic, if you’re wise). These vampires are modern. The usual tricks won’t work on them but they still have all theirs. In abundance. It will take no time and little blood to assume rule, turn Lancre into a human farm and, worst of all, most of the populace’s minds will be so easily influenced out of shape, they’ll barely care. Even Nanny Ogg isn’t immune and Granny Weatherwax knows that her considerable great gifts are no match for the vampires.

But maybe her guile is…



Great tales, wonderfully read: Planer really “gets” the witches and is adept at giving distinct voices to each as well as all and sundry other characters – aided by Pratchett’s language and characterisation. The books are read with an understanding of the humour but without treating it as evertly humorous; the words and scenarios, evoked clearly, do that.

I’ve long thought that Terry Pratchett has become a better writer as he has gotten older, whilst at the same time becoming less funny. That is, less laugh-out-loud funny. The humour is drier, knowing, sometimes quite ascerbic in its parody but is always wrapped around a tight narrative. I wasn’t even a fan of the first two books but since the Discworld really gained a solid identity, better described and more consistent and coherent than in those two books, there’s been no looking back.

Fine stuff. And excellent narration by Mr. Planer (though don’t be put off by Stephen Briggs who is also excellent!)






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Nerd Did Well

Posted on March 20, 2012 by     Leave a comment

I wasn’t sure at first about the decision to add a story within the autobiography but I was quickly convinced of the value, the story having an almost trademark endearing and infuriatingly likeable Pegg wit as well as fitting neatly into the biographical narrative. Thus, reminiscences are scaffolded around a tale of Simon Pegg, billionaire philanthropist/adventurer/superhero and his trusty, sometimes maligned, robot sidekick, Canterbury.

It also gives him room to breathe, I think. As he himself describes, he is uncomfortable about divulging personal details and unsure of the value of the undoubted “fame” that would sell the book. It’s a neat trick to make it fun and, perhaps unusually, push away (therefore potentially selling less) those who are genuinely only interested in the fame shtick, instead of the reasons Pegg wants to talk to the rest of us and hopes we might find it interesting: the moments and people that made him; the geek obsessions and choices that mattered within that.

This is another audiobook, especially being autobiographical, that is lent greater value of enjoyment by being narrated by the author. To add to his rippling pecks and rugged, manly appeal, not in a gay way, he has a lovely voice.

In the end, the real value of this, which must be the test of any autobiography – and is elucidated with particular strength in the final chapter regarding Sean of the Dead – is its honesty. Pegg’s notion of “quantum attraction”, an easy use of modern sci-fi buzzword and generally accepted concept of (mostly misunderstood) chaos theory, is deftly handled and well argued; the central point of his honesty and appreciation for what he has achieved, the muses that brought him on this path, and whom he has come to love. He never really hammers home either how hard he works or how good he is at what he does, but it comes through because it’s well written and entertaining. What else would you really expect?

I’m only mildly miffed that the audiobook is abridged, so I’m not sure what I missed. Oh, and that he and Edgar Wright went to the first screening in Bristol of Akira that I missed, fan that I was of the comic, because I couldn’t get away from University that day. Still, I did meet the guy who voiced Morph. If I ever meet Mr. Pegg, I’ll buy him a pint, though it will be mildly bitter…


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Posted on September 22, 2011 by     2 Comments

I’ve become a huge fan of audiobooks. I should be listening to music more, really, considering I still haven’t listened to the newest Radiohead album after purchasing and downloading it when it came out. Shocking, I know.

But audiobooks seem to take up all my earspace and there is little chance to listen to music whilst at home. An evening bath, cycling to and from work: it’s the spoken novel that is my companion. Maybe it’s a regression to childhood, wanting to have someone read me a story. Or maybe it’s just that I’m a slow reader, so it’s easier to let someone else do the work.  After all, I do have a lot of comics, Wired and a large backlog of novels to read, too. No sense adding more that require my actual effort.

The “slow reader” aspect is quite relevant as it puts me off long books – I’ve had a copy of “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” for what seems like forever without getting past the first 50 pages.  Length can be off-putting, without euphemism or double entendre intended.

And that’s where an audiobook can come in. I listened* to Peter F Hamilton’s “Pandora’s Star” a while back and I can say for definite that this is not a book I would have approached in its solid form. Way, way too large. But I have a latter-day, burgeoning love of Sci-Fi, so thought listening might give me a way in. It did – but I also know for sure I wouldn’t have finished this if I was reading it. Some sections are extraordinarily slow with detail that is utterly superfluous…but overall it’s a compelling, galaxy-spanning space opera with some well-defined characters and massive scale of intent.

I enjoyed its 37.5 hours (that would be about 3 months reading for me, I fear) enough to get “Judas Unchained“, the sequel – actually, more than a sequel as the first book is really all set up. This is the one that was worthwhile and all that set up finally pays off. Two books I would have never gone near without this format.

The same is possibly true, though less likely, of Iain M. Banks books. I’m three down on them now and it is these, in particular, that highlight a crucial aspect of audiobooks: the narrator. If the voice isn’t recorded well and performed well, it’s really not worth it. Neil Gaiman reading his own “Graveyard Book” is terrific – he has a mellifluous voice and, of course, understands the characters and narrative so well, that it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it better.  Similarly Stehen Fry.

But the pick of the crop, so far, is Peter Kenny on Banks’ Culture novels. A wide range of accents, never missing a beat between characters, and a knack for characterisation that is simply superb make him more than just a narrator but a component of the book itself. The voice of your imagination. By comparison, the narrator of the Hamilton books, John Lee, whilst good, has a tendency, even through different accents, to make most of the characters sound as if they have the same attitude in delivery.

Kenny’s realisation of the antihero ship Demeisen (as avatar, or Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints as its full name) is a new favourite character, in strong part due Kenny’s his reading. I find myself likely to read other books based on his narration rather than any knowledge of the writers, which I didn’t expect.

At some point, reviews to follow…


[*I’m still looking for a better word than “listened” as specific to books and having the same intent as “reading”; you do need to engage more than with a tune, I think, so it’s not quite the same as music.]



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Bill Doth Rock!

Posted on August 19, 2011 by     Leave a comment

Half asleep at some point last week, I e-mailed myself to watch this again. Done as a special “message to metallica” during rehearals at Sonisphere, 2011, this is marvellous. Great build up and the visual reveal as hysterical as the musical gag.

Ah, Bill, quite the finest thing you’ve done in a dog’s age (and I don’t say that lightly).

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Hot Hot Heat

Posted on August 2, 2011 by     2 Comments

It’s too hot and I therefore begin to shut down. The opposite of supercooling materials to allow faster processing. I become sloth.

Still, other people are made happy whilst I wilt away. And it does give me an excuse to post this*, of course:

*Notably better to sing along if you replace “Bandages” with “Sandwiches” (like “Park Life” and “Pork Chops”).

This is the Town and these are the People…

Posted on July 15, 2011 by     Leave a comment

I saw The Point around Christmas time many years ago, a Boxing Day, think – I guess I must have been 6 or 7. I’m old enough to forget exactly. The number of people I’ve met since who have seen it are countable on one hand. Maybe it was the Christmas spirit or something but we loved it in my house! It’s a (fairly obvious) fable and a sweet kids story with sing-a-long tunes. The animation is weak, but kooky enough to work – a little like the animation in Yellow Submarine to some extent.

The thing that’s odd about the movie, though, is that the songs are only partially featured even though it originates as a Harry Nilsson album of the same name. The album landed in our house soon after seeing the animation and it became a firm favourite with me to this day.

But I still hankered after seeing the animation again – never repeated on BBC to my knowledge – and after an age of trying, I finally found a copy. Watched it last night after transferring it over to the PS3. Still fun but not as good as I’d remembered (is anything ever?). And I’d forgotten it was Ringo Starr doing the narration – although it’s possible he wasn’t in the original version I saw as Dustin Hoffman, among others, also recorded a voice-over.

It might just be that years of listening to the album have built that into my system but the voices on the movie just don’t cut it. Compare the return of Oblio, successfully having navigated the Pointless Forest with his dog, Arrow, after being banished by the Evil Count…

…with the dulcet tones of Nilsson himself on the same scene from the album:

1. ObliosReturn.mp3     


“Nonsense, you’re in trouble” was a catchphrase for myself and mate Craig for years (I believe he’s mildly infected his kids with Pointism). And “Not so fast. Count” – “hold it, hold it Count” just doesn’t work! And Nilsson’s “He’s got a point there” cracks me up to this day.

Ah well, it’s ears not eyes for me then.

And this still remains a very fine tune and lyric (especially good to sing in empty tube stations at night):

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8 x 8

Posted on July 5, 2011 by     1 Comment

This is a lot better than it has any right to be, considering how long most bands take to make an album. But, then perhaps they’re not as talented as this lot!

8×8 is comprised of Amanda Palmer, Ben Folds, Damien Kulash and Neil Gaiman.

The intent (and therefore band name) was to make 8 songs in 8 hours. In the end, it was 6 songs in a little more, but heck – feel the quality! Gaiman is better known for his stories, rather than his lyrics but that shows through here in exactly that manner. He even sings one, the almost Neil Innes-like “The Trouble With Saints”.

And any song called “Nikola Tesla” was bound to get my interest!

Favourite at this point, though, is the quietly heart-breaking “Because the Origami”.

The album is available to buy here. Recommended.

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