Books, the dying frontier. Endless. Silent. Waiting. This is Adventures in Poor Taste’s reoccurring dueling review set to remind everyone books are still relevant.

Its mission: books fight to the death to see what is worth reading. To seek out and contact words that form sentences that form paragraphs that form chapters that form novels. To explore. To travel the vast published books, and make your search cut in half, and boldly go where no man has gone before. A dueling book review.

I’ve always been a fan of the post-apocalyptic story, mostly because it’s something of a fantasy to imagine how you’d survive with just your wit and the ability to swing a hatchet. Two books came out in 2011 that introduced despotic governments subjugating the masses limiting their resources due to global energy crises. Anna North’s first novel, America Pacifica, introduces a world divided between rich and poor, all living on a Pacific island after a new Ice Age has made all of America a frozen tundra. Ernest Cline’s first novel, Ready Player One, introduces a world where reality is hell and the only respite is inside a virtual reality. Both books introduce fascinating takes utilizing strong lead characters living in a rich unique future. Two books enter, only one may survive.

A lone referee stands on a tower at the center of a mile wide gladiator arena. On the left we see America Pacifica, a supercharged Dodge Charger, covered in machine guns and splashed with blood. On the right see Ready Player One, a DeLorean with an engine poking through the hood and the exhaust pipes flaming.

See the ref raise a flare gun.

Bang.


Challenger 1

America Pacifica
by Anna North
Hardcover, 294 pages
Published May 1st 2011 by Little Brown and Company


America Pacifica is a great first novel by Anna North, particularly because she has a keen sense of how a young girl should act, speak and cope with the crumbling world around her. Eighteen-year-old Darcy lives on the island with her mother and has never known what life was like in the United States we know of today. Because she only knows island life, things like “real fiber shirts” and the description of the taste of a strawberry allow North to explain the simplest things we take for granted as new and noteworthy. For a young girl living in such poverty that has always been the norm, things take on a sense of wonderment and it’s easy to imagine a world such as this.

America Pacifica revs its engines; clearly there is a lot under the hood that’s souped things up. It throws the throttle into first and peels out aiming straight for Ready Player One.

Life has been reduced to such squalor because a second Ice Age has hit the Earth. Every man, woman and child that could make the journey traveled to an unnamed Pacific island now known as America Pacifica, the only known place on Earth that is still habitable. People live off of seaweed sludge and do what they can to survive. Those who came to the island with wealth live in “Manhattanville” where buildings are made with real wood and brick. The rest are stuck in shantytowns called Hell City and Little Los Angeles made from what appears to be trash. North does a great job making the world vivid and real:

All the objects in Hell City seemed broken off or torn out of something: a movie poster was a baby’s swaddling, a hubcap was a frying pan, a shower curtain was a roof.

America Pacifica barrels down on Ready Player One, its machine gun turrets begin spinning as bullets belt the sand around Ready Player One. They blow off its mirrors as America Pacifica peels away, its paint job gleaming in the dusty scene.

A brutal caste system has been instilled to maintain order and divvy out available resources, but when Darcy loses her mother she soon realizes resources are a bit different for the upper class. In fact it’s only the rich that can get into college, live in areas with running water and eat actual food as opposed to the Jellyfish paste that’s produced for the masses.

When Darcy is given a bit of bacon, North writes:

She bit into a strip of bacon and let its meaty, greasy crunch—so unlike jelly bacon it almost made her laugh—reverberate in her head.

America Pacifica power-slides into Ready Player One kicking dirt into its radiator.

Constantly North is bombarding the reader with examples of the poverty and revolution that seems to be on everyones lips. In fact, the book is filled with many big ideas like ecology, feminism and social class which create a more vivid reality. The one downside to these ideas though, is that North doesn’t seem to take much of a stance on any of them. It’s as if the shantytown is proof enough of the requirement of revolution, but none of the characters are proven right or wrong as to what they should do. The book opens with many enthralling ideas brought up, but many of them are left unanswered.

After losing her mother, Darcy is thrust into a fast-paced adventure between finding out what happened when people started to migrate, what it was like in America before the move, and what was the cost of creating this new world.

While it’s an interesting place to visit, things start to wear on the reader, and with no true statement or meaning it gets a bit boring. Darcy encounters so many examples of big ideas, but not enough statements to make the reader care outside of her well being. It’s clear that the writer started the book formulating a person, but fell more in love with the characteristics of the island rather than the meaning of its big ideas.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book, just that it doesn’t feel like a complete one. Introducing so many riveting concepts and then to have them all continue to be unanswered is a bit frustrating. This is a nice place to visit, but by book’s end focuses too much on Darcy’s struggles to survive and not enough on this changed world.

With its bullets spent, America Pacifica uses its boosters to plow into Ready Player One. Dust kicks up and everything is invisible. It ricochets off and skids to a halt. Ready Player One‘s windows shatter echoing into the distance.

The audience holds its breath as the dust begins to clear.


Challenger 2

Ready Player One
by Ernest Cline
Hardcover, 374 pages
Published August 16th 2011 by Crown Publishing Group


Right out of the gate, Ready Player One sets up just how bad things have gotten in the world. And it does this by explaining a world wide event ala 9/11 or JFK’s assassination, only this time the event isn’t a tragedy, but rather hope incarnate, displayed in the form of a video made with a huge budget, special effects and high production value. This video is a challenge to find 3 keys inside the OASIS, a free virtual utopia every human being hooks up to everyday in order to experience what is known as living in the year 2044. This Earth-shattering event is the most important thing to happen to every single person, and it’s all inside a video game.

The challenge is simple. Solve a clue that will lead you to a key, and more clues to follow, all solved inside the thousands of worlds built inside the OASIS. The winner who solves the clues and acquires all the keys will win the recently deceased OASIS creator’s entire fortune.


A commercial for the book, but also a similar representation of the video described at the beginning of the book.

Beginning the book in this way, writer Ernest Cline creates heightened tension, shown how humanity shun reality and created breakneck page turning plot that doesn’t end until the final page.

We see the the Ready Player One DeLorean clearly as the dust settles. Two rockets swing out from underneath the vehicle.

Once inside the OASIS, Cline paints an incredibly vivid world. Think of the OASIS as an entire galaxy, filled with planets created for players to enjoy and experience with their personally created avatars. Everything inside the OASIS is photo-realistic; basically every gamer’s wet dream. Users simply put on some goggles and use gloves to interact with the world.


Conceptual art of the rig used to enter the OASIS for the Ready Player One movie.

Inside the OASIS planets are made up of typical dungeons straight out of World of Warcraft, or more probably an ode to pop culture phenomenona from the 80s since the creator of the OASIS was infatuated with this decade of culture. For instance, there is an entire planet devoted to The Goonies, where players can hang out in a photo realistic re-imagining from the movie. Essentially Cline has written a book where anything goes.

Smash cut to a targeting device inside the vehicle with American Pacifica in its cross hairs.

Playing in the world is free, but buying items similar to WoW today, and using transport teleporters cost real world dollars. The book doesn’t take place only inside the OASIS though, and these scenes are used masterfully to show just how bad the world has become and how important the OASIS is to humanity. These scenes are powerful, and contain the only real message concerning humanities future.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, the concept itself is so rewarding to read about I haven’t even gotten to the hero or his journey, that’s how good this book is. One criticism of this though is that the concept takes on more meaning focusing more on the characters than any commentary of our potential future. But, when readers are constantly propelled to turn the pages due to the challenges and the vivid world inside the OASIS, very little meaning is not such a bad thing.

The rockets release and directly hit the back tire of America Pacifica. Its tire hangs awkwardly at an angle. It pulls away, dragging its tire through the sand.

The hero is named Wade Watts, a boy still in high school, who has been trying to solve the clues to acquire this ultimate lottery ticket for years. Entering the OASIS is the only respite from the cruel reality the world has become. Limited resources, global warming and wars over those resources has created massive amounts of poverty and starvation. Wade lives in the Stacks, a futuristic trailer park where the trailers reach many stories high. Most everyone lives in the stacks due to overpopulation.


Conceptual art of the stacks for the Ready Player One movie.

Once Wade solves the first puzzle his name is entered on a worldwide ranking and he becomes famous for it. Why, though, can just a poor boy who doesn’t even have a dime to spend in the game solve the puzzle? Well it’s because he’s a super nerd. In fact he’s so infatuated with the creator of OASIS, Wade watches all of the TV shows, video games and content coming out of the 80s.

In essence Wade is every single one of us because he talks, acts and obsesses like a geek. As long as you’re between the ages of 23 and 40, you too probably obsess over something that came out of the 80s just as Wade does. This makes the book all the more addictive.

Cline’s knowledge of everything geek only increases the enjoyment of the countless references he makes to 80s geek culture. There are many references in this book I wasn’t fully aware of, such as Atari and the smattering of its games. The fact that his writing wasn’t lost on me though, with zero knowledge of Atari games, is a clear example of why his writing is clear and entertaining. When a book spends so much time referencing material like this does it has to be.


Even the concept art is filled with references.

If you don’t read this book and feel a sense of joy you’re not a geek. But does the story have meaning? Cline never presumes to instill too much purpose on the story and instead focuses on the action, the epic story and the interesting references.

That isn’t to say it doesn’t make statements as it does. For instance, corporations taking over and gaining too much power is something that pops up over and over. The government is now run by a despotic corporation who only cares to turn as many citizens into feudal slaves as possible, forever working to pay off debts incurred from living expenses. The book also doesn’t presume there’s any better future outside of the OASIS. Characters aren’t trying to figure out how to eat better or improve their lives outside the OASIS. Cline seems to be making the point that life in the future is only the OASIS and as far as the story goes nobody has begun to think about making reality a better place.

Its windows shattered and a door hanging from its hinges, Ready Player One hits a thruster, its speedometer slowly reaching 88 MPH. America Pacifica has slowed to a halt.

Two despotic futures, but only one book may survive. Both books are written very well and create vivid futures that are interesting in their own ways. America Pacifica brings up many big ideas, but by book’s end doesn’t seek to answer many of them. The filth the world has become is everywhere, and many characters have many different reasons why and no real answers to stop them. Ready Player One brings up only one big idea, but sinks itself so deeply in the plot and world that overthrowing the despotic corporation doesn’t seem to be the point at all.

Ready Player One reaches ramming speed, barreling down on America Pacifica.

One seeks to ask big questions and doesn’t have the answers, the other doesn’t want to ask them. A tough battle, but sheer enjoyment and page turning must count for something. Ready Player One was the most entertaining book I read all of last year. Out of 84 books read in 2011, Ready Player One was my favorite book of the year.

Just as America Pacifica bursts to flames, Ready Player One reaches 88 MPH, seemingly disappearing as it hits America Pacifica. It burns off into another time while the referee and audience are dumbfounded.


Ready Player One writer Ernest Cline enjoys his spoils.