This is the final roundup edition of 2020, although I’ll be in your inbox a couple of more time this week as I look back on the year.
I started 2020 with just over 450 subscribers, and we’re ending with nearly a thousand new additions — you all are the best, and I’ve been excited to write each post, respond to replies, and chat with each and every one of you. You’ve made a hard year bearable. I imagine that 2021 will bring its own share of issues, but you’ll make it easier.
What to expect in 2021: I’m not planning on changing up this newsletter too much: I think 2020 was a good start for what I want this to be: an ongoing look at how science fiction interacts with our real world, in all of its various forms. I’m still planning on the same mix of free posts (book reviews and roundups), as well as some in-depth commentaries, features, reports, and more.
If I have a Big Goal for 2021, it’s to write more short fiction, and to potentially acquire some short stories for this newsletter. I’ve got a couple of projects in the works that should be fun for y’all to read, of varying lengths.
For those of you who’ve joined the newsletter over the course of 2020, thank you so much for stopping by, and for sticking with it. For those of you who support this publication, thank you so much — you don’t know how much that means, and how much it’s helped in this terrible year. Thank you.
For this final roundup, I’ve got a final book review for the year, as well as some of the books that you readers told me you enjoyed.
Ready Player No
Let’s get this right out of the way: Ernie Cline’s Ready Player Two is not a good book.
But that’s not really something that matters for a book like this, is it? I’ve always been somewhat of an apologist for Cline’s debut novel, Ready Player One. When it hit stores back in 2011, it came at at time when “geek culture” was in its mainstream ascendancy. Game of Thrones had just hit HBO earlier that spring, but the larger Avengers/Marvel Cinematic Universe hadn’t quite hit the fervor that surrounded it. Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm was still a year away. Nerd culture was already here — it had been for decades — but it was a moment where folks were beginning to realize that those things that they might have loved as a kid, be it video games, action figures, Dungeons & Dragons, 1980s science fiction movies, and so forth, was something that they could still love.
Ready Player One perfectly encapsulated that moment. It’s not a good book either — it’s just Cline listing off the things that he loved, but it was a book that someone could crack open and go “hey, I love those things too!” It was a referential book about references and easter eggs, the hidden codes that fellow nerds could use to find their own kind. It’s a fun, earnest story about being a nerd and loving certain things.
But while the book captures that scene or mindset, it’s not the complete picture of what “geek culture” really is. It’s just a fragment, the easiest, espousing the lowest-hanging fruit for what people think about when they think about what geeky things they enjoy.
But in the eight years since it came out, the various, collective communities that make up the SF/F world have faced a sort of reckoning, one that puts issues of diversity and inclusion right in the front and center of fan’s attention. We’ve seen people from various, marginalized backgrounds speak up and make space for themselves, forcing fandom to realize how unequal, problematic, and exclusionary the scene could be. Movements like GamerGate and Sad / Rabid Puppies showed that people will go to great and extreme lengths to protect their remembered history of the SF/F world.
Looking back, Ready Player One hasn’t held up well. It might be a celebration of nerdy pursuits, but it also reads as a set of requirements that might as well say “if you don’t like these things, you aren’t a real nerd.”
A bullshit opinion.
Morever Cline hasn’t really shown a lot of depth with his novel Armada. (Related: Ernie Cline’s Armada Fucking Sucks) It showed that his tendency to just list off the things he love, following an obsessive nerdy character as he goes through adventures isn’t a trick that really works more than once. With Ready Player One, he could get away with it because of the premise of the book. With Armada, that formula didn’t work.
This year, Cline decided it was time to revisit the world of the OSASIS with Ready Player Two, and from all appearances, it’s done well — it debuted at the top of The New York Times’ bestseller list mid-December, where it’s currently still sitting.
It hasn’t been well received — my friend Laura Hudson’s review is probably my favorite, in which she describes the book as “instead of an underdog orphan trying desperately to escape his poverty, our protagonist is now a bored, vindictive tech billionaire who has learned nothing from his previous adventure.”
Reading Twitter the day the book was released was fun, as reviewers pulled out a seemingly endless stream of cringe-worthy quotes. Wade Watts and his fellow owners of the OASIS end up facing off against the technologically resurrected consciousness of the world’s creator, who hijacks the world to try and get them to resurrect (through another easter egg hunt) another artificial consciousness, a woman who he tried to woo.
And along the way, we’re treated to other endless lists of references to everything from Prince’s musical back catalog, the films of John Hughes, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. Rather than feeling like a “hey, I know that reference!” it’s an exhausting slog. The first book was one that was a fun one to read, so long as you didn’t slow down to think about the implications. Ready Player Two never captures that feeling.
What struck me the most about the book was at how Wade — really, Cline — doesn’t seem to have evolved his thinking about the value of pop culture. There are a couple of distinct passages in the book that caught my eye that seemed to highlight Cline’s thinking in some troubling ways:
“If someone talked shit about me, I found them and killed their avatar. If someone posted something hateful about Art3mis or her foundation, I found them and killed their avatar. If someone posted a racist meme about Aech or a video attacking Shoto’s work, I found them and killed their avatar.”
Attacking racists and bigots aside, Cline highlights the power that a single tech billionaire holds, and the complete and utter lack of accountability for his actions. While the story ostensibly is about the power of technology and how that can be abused, Wade and his companions don’t really learn anything from their adventures this time around. Cline gleefully talks about how they’re able to set up police bots to “help reestablish the rule of law in the rural areas where local infrastructure had collapsed along with the power grid” and shows distain for people sexually experimenting with a new OSASIS technology in safe and consenting ways.
The internet has changed drastically in the years since Ready Player One first came out. VR is actually a thing now, and we do spend an awful lot of time on a global internet platform. I would have hoped that any sequel to the book would ingest some of those ideas and experiences that we’ve collectively gone through, especially with how these platforms can be mismanaged, taken advantage of, or simply used for ill. Judging from what we ended up getting, Cline’s vision unfortunately hasn’t evolved with the times, and we’re stuck with a story that’s not nearly as interesting as the first one was — and certainly not as much fun.
What y'all enjoyed in 2020
I talk a lot about what books I’m reading, and wanted to hear from you. Here’s what you told me:
Jessamyn W. has been tracking her reading on Twitter, and pulled out a couple of favorites:
Snapdragon by Kat Leyh - graphic novel about family complexities and a person who is maybe a bit of a witch
The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas - one of the better time travel books I've read lately, right up there with Annalee's book
Elizabeth Bear's White Space series (ongoing, but Ancestral Night and Machine so far)
The Loneliness of the Deep Space Cargoist by JS Carter Gilson - this is a two-book novella series so far by a [New Hampshire] author. A little rough around the edges but it and the sequel are good reading
Version Control and The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer - the first is a weird time travel story and the second is a complicated tale of steampunkish obsession.
Favorite book of the year - released this year - has to Empire of Gold. It was a genuine pleasure to watch S.A. Chakraborty stick the landing after such a dense and ambitious debut trilogy.
Sarah J. Maas's House of Earth & Blood is a runner-up; though it was not nearly as technically proficient, it was just wildly enjoyable, as all her books are. Just compulsively readable, hits the precise sweet spot of what I want from my lighter/new adult fantasy.
My favorite book was Piranesi. Hit that sweet spot between building out a world that you want to know more about and spend more time in vs. overly long detail and explanation that bogs down. Left me wanting more, in a good way!
I unexpectedly LOVED The First Sister by Linden Lewis!
Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez came out back in January or February and had a lot of ambiance I enjoyed, too.
I’ve reached the point where I’m looking at my to-read list for 2020 with some regret: there are a bunch of books that I didn’t quite get to this year, or which I’m otherwise finishing up. Right now on the list:
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
Sourdough by Robin Sloan
There are others too, of course: books that’ll now slip onto the “need to read at some point”, a point which will hopefully happen sooner, rather than later.
Collectables for Adults. Over on Polygon, Jesse Hassenger has a great post about how Hasbro’s toys are increasingly being marketed towards adults.
Plague Cosplay. My former colleague Kaitlyn Tiffany wrote about how people began dressing up as Plague Doctors during the COVID-19 pandemic for The Atlantic.
Pod Rush. Deadline takes a look at how movie and television studios are mining podcasts for the next big hit.
Who J.K. Rowling Is. I wrote about Rowling’s stance towards trans people last summer, but this is probably the best examination of the author that I’ve read: a long read that explains quite a bit more about how she views the world.
As this is the final week of 2020, I’ve been in retrospective mode, and I’ll have a bunch of pieces for the rest of the week (please forgive the flood).
Yesterday, I put together a list of the posts I’m most proud of, including a bunch of subscriber-locked posts. If you didn’t happen to get those when they first came out, now’s a good time to check them out.
Tomorrow, I’ll have another retrospective on the year, looking at what 2020 was like for the wider SF/F world. Thursday, I’ll have a list of my most anticipated books of 2021, Friday, what books I read in 2020, and after that, I’ll have a regular January books roundup.
Thanks again for reading along this year. It means the world, and I look forward to what 2021 brings.