Summer Reading Road Trip: Playing Tyler

Summer Reading Road Trip 2013Ahoy, summer readers! The folks at SparkPoint Studio are running a Summer Reading Road Trip. Each book on the list is set in a different city and state, so you can read your way across the country without gas-guzzling your way to a massive carbon footprint. Join in, and read your way from Massachusetts to Montana!

Today’s stop: New Haven, Connecticut for a Little Brother meets Ender’s Game adventure: Playing Tyler.

A Review of Playing Tyler by T.L. Costa

Strange Chemistry, 2013

Playing Tyler by T.L. Costa

By REBECCA, June 3, 2013

hook

Tyler’s dad is dead, his mom’s never around, his brother’s an addict, and his ADHD makes it hard for him to concentrate on anything but gaming. Ani designed a popular video game, was an internationally-ranked gamer, and started at Yale all by the time she turned sixteen, but she still feels like a kid. Someone wants Tyler and Ani for their skills, but what will they do when they realize they’re implicated in something that will have far greater fallout than a video game?

worldview

Ender's Game by Orson Scott CardTyler MacCandless just wants to fly. Maybe he can’t concentrate on anything at school, but in the flight simulation games, he’s a genius. After his dad’s death and his brother’s turn to drugs, Tyler’s mom can’t cope, so she buries herself in work. The only one Tyler can count on is Rick, who he’s known for years through a mentoring program. Rick sees Tyler’s potential and says that if he performs well while beta testing a new flight simulation training game then he’ll make sure he gets into flight school. Tyler is shocked when the new sim’s designer shows up at his house to set up the sim and it’s Slayergrrl (Ani), the creator of his favorite game, World of Fire!

At first the new sim seems boring—Tyler is just flying drones over miles and miles of road. But then, little by little, Tyler starts to think there’s more to the sim than just showing off his flying skills. Is it possible that the “sim” is actually linked to real drones in the Middle East? And why has Rick insisted that Ani can’t have any contact with Tyler? But Tyler and Ani can’t stay apart and as their relationship heats up, so do things in the sim. And soon they’ll have to confront Rick and put their lives on the line for their freedom.

Little Brother by Cory DoctorowT.L. Costa’s debut is a compelling read and, while the premise itself isn’t new, this is a comparatively realistic, circumspect take on the when-is-a-game-not-a-game phenomenon. It’s told in chapters that alternate between Tyler and Ani’s points of view, and Tyler’s voice is great. His ADHD causes him to think in short, declarative sentences and sometimes omits first person pronouns, kind of like Rorschach in Watchmen. Tyler’s a well-drawn character—his worry for his mother and brother, his difficulty expressing himself, and his love and awe of Ani make him sympathetic and likable. But he’s also naive, and his struggle between his general patriotism and the specifics of what he learns is happening in the sim provide enough contrast so that he doesn’t just seem like a stereotypical hero-caught-up-in-forces-beyond-his-control. He is also occasionally quite amusing. On his first date with Ani he realizes that he’s not as good at paying compliments as might have hoped:

“Her face looks like I stung her. Shit. My face heats up, burns. So many books. Can’t one just like fall on my head and put me out of my misery? Please?”

Ani’s voice is less compelling, less particular, but it’s really awesome to see a supersmart gamer and computer programmer whose character isn’t undercut by the author’s compulsion to frame her as either hypersexualized or terrifyingly sociopathic. Ani is just a sixteen-year-old with a talent for programming got involved in something shady, and she and Tyler balance each other well.

As for the plot, as I said, it’s not new, but Costa makes a good choice, I think, in making this a small-beans plot as opposed to a mega-conspiracy or an intergalactic fight to the death. The storyline of Tyler’s brother’s heroin addiction and Ani’s relationships (or lack thereof) with her roommate and the other Yalies turn what could be a dry, by-the-book execution of an interesting plot into a very enjoyable drama with some intrigue, some romance, and some well-done family drama. This is an understated book, but it doesn’t strike a false note. I’m looking forward to seeing what Costa writes next.

procured from: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Playing Tyler by T.L. Costa is available now.

Ready Player One is Sci-Fi Potato Chips

readyplayerone

Ready Player One

Ernest Cline

Random House, 2011

review by Tessa

Characters

Wade Watts / Parzival – our hero – a teenager living in a stack of mobile homes in future Oklahoma City who has nothing else to live for but figuring out the OASIS fortune scavenger hunt.

James Halliday – reclusive genius and co-coder of OASIS. He left the wiliest will ever – solve his puzzles and find the Easter Eggs embedded in OASIS and you’ll receive his forturne.

Aech – Wade’s best and only friend in OASIS and a fellow gunter (Easter Egg hunter)

Art3mis – Wade’s super crush who is also trying to beat him in the hunt.

The Sixers – Unethical employees of a corporation that wants to take over OASIS and use it for their greedy goals.

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Hook / Worldview

OASIS – a fully immersive online world – has, by 2044, pretty much become the world. The outside world sucks, and it’s free to join OASIS, so there’s no reason not to spend as much time as possible there.  It was invented by a sort of Steve Jobs-like dude named James Halliday. Being an extremely socially-averse person, he left no heirs when he died. What he did leave was a series of puzzles and tests inside of OASIS that, when solved and unlocked, would lead to the biggest Easter egg of all time – his fortune.  They are represented by 3 keys and 3 gates – copper, jade, and crystal.

And because Halliday was obsessed with the culture of his youth in the 1980s and wished everyone else would be, the keys and gates have everything to do with the 80s. So the egg hunters, or gunters, are basically experts in 80s pop culture.  Four years go by after Halliday’s death, and no one shows up on the scoreboard. Until one day, someone does. An avatar named Parzival, who is actually a teenager in Oklahoma City.

Once the first key is found and the first gate opened, Parzival is quickly followed in his feats by Aech, his best friend and a clever gunter, and Art3mis, a snarky girl gunter and blogger who Parzival has been crushing on hard for years.  Oh, and the evil Sixers who exploit the loopholes in the rules of the game so they can win and take over OASIS, turning it into billboardmoneyland.

WHO WILL WINNNN?

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Does this book achieve its intentions?

As you can probably tell from the description, Ready Player One is a book written by a geek, for geeks, with much love for geek culture. It concerns a quest, so that means built in suspense, and Cline’s chops as a screenwriter guarantee that the journey from copper to crystal key is smooth and hits all the tried-and-true suspense/tension points.

Accordingly, the response has been pretty huge. Enough so that Cline was able to buy himself a DeLorean and customize it, and get a seven-figure book deal for his sophomore novel (and also a seven-figure deal for the movie rights??). Wil Wheaton narrated the audiobook version of Ready Player One. Cline created his own Egg Hunt in real life (with the prize being another DeLorean). It’s brain candy for a certain audience.

And I guess that audience isn’t me. Sure, I devoured Ready Player One in a weekend and wanted to know what would happen to Parzival, Aech, and Art3mis (and two other players who were clearly created to be meaningfully killed), but I never stopped feeling like I was reading a series of tropes, and ones that weren’t very creatively put down on the page.

I can't stop seeing that door as being a sculpture of a leaping dolphin.

I can’t stop seeing that door as being a sculpture of a leaping dolphin.

Cline doesn’t stop to think that the reader might want to figure it out his or herself. Or that (s)he might already know some of the stuff he’s saying. He just explains it and goes on to make another reference to the 80s.  I couldn’t even enjoy the nice romance between Parzival and Art3mis, and the fact that Art3mis probably has my BMI so I could identify with her, because the romance was so unwavering and neatly wrapped up – even its rough spots were predictable.

Although OASIS is a giant universe, it lacks depth. After finishing Ready Player One I felt the same way I used to feel as a teenager after staying up too late drinking too many cans of Squirt and mechanically crunching on Bugles or Doritos or whatever–the kind of snacks that companies build mechanical mouths to test for the sweet spot of crunchiness so that they are wickedly addictive.  A temporary pleasure with no real substance.

I would read a fact put forth in the book, like the halls of Wade’s virtual school being no swearing zones, so kids were automatically muted when they used profanity, and immediately wonder – how did no kid hack that yet?  Or, why hadn’t the kids developed new insulting slang to work around the restrictions?  And the universe was so culturally homogenous – I’m not sure if it was because the book is written from Wade’s POV and he hangs out with other gunters and only thinks of the 80s, so all the book provides is planet after planet and person after person based on or obsessed by the 80s – and mostly video games and movies from the 80s. No art, very little music, and the usual suspects of fantasy books. Where were the other subcultures? The black-and-white planet where people dance like Fred Astaire?  And what about the outside world?  It seems less over the top than the world of Idiocracy but less realistically scary than Ship BreakerEveryone in it has just given up – no protesters, information about no neo-hippies forming hopeful communes.

I guess I expected something more complex than a movie pitch disguised as a novel.  So to answer my question, yes, the book achieved its intentions but did not satisfy my expectations.  But whose fault is that?

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