It took me a while (four months, to be exact), but I’m finally ready to write about the next round of books! And for this round, we’re going to the not-so-distant future.
What I love about this particular trio of books — aside from having a clear theme — is that they reminded me of something I really love about reading: the escapism it affords. Yep, real life can suck sometimes. It can suck so hard, you’ll find yourself looking for (healthy) breaks and distractions more often. Getting back to reading didn’t just give me those breaks and most of the oft-mentioned benefits; it also reignited my imagination by taking me to different versions of the future and presenting a trove of scenarios, possible and impossible.
These three books also have other things in common: the stories focus on tech developments meant to improve certain things, and all deal with personal identity in myriad ways. But they still have enough elements similar to the present time that they don’t become overwhelming, or make you feel as if you’re exploring completely different worlds.
Click on the links below or keep scrolling down:
- Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die, Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki
- Seroks: Iteration 1, David Hontiveros and Alan Navarra
- Ready Player One, Ernest Cline
Some would say that part of the thrill in being alive is not knowing how and when you’ll die. (No, don’t say YOLO. Oh, you said it. Damn you.)
Well then. What if you have a machine that will accurately tell you how you die, but not how you’ll get there? That’s the premise of Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die, published in 2010. The idea came from a 2005 Dinosaur Comics panel by Ryan North, and eventually turned into a compilation of 34 crowdsourced stories.
Also, all story writers whose stories were included in the book were appropriately compensated for their effort — another huge plus for me.
Anyway. Here’s the basic idea. You go to the nearest Machine, and put your finger into a slot. A needle pricks and draws blood from that finger, and the drawn blood is analyzed by the Machine. The verdict’s printed out on a white card and discharged like any other object in a vending machine, and off you go to celebrate or grieve or panic or cry or whatever.
The first thing you’ll notice is the variety of the deaths printed on those cards. The CODs can be relatively vanilla, or thoroughly absurd and hilarious. Death is never cut and dried, you know. We’d all love to die of old age, lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by loved ones, without any regrets, and a thorough and iron-clad Last Will and Testament, but in reality, few will have this privilege.
I think the different causes of death makes the whole compilation an interesting read. It gives the writers plenty of room to play with their characters and their fates, and mess with your mind as well. It has that whole Final Destination kind of vibe going on: it’s fun being with the characters on that fuzzy and crazy ride to the end. Obviously, I do love me some morbid literature.
The stories also go beyond the actual Machine of Death and the cards. They focus on the folks who made that contraption, how the Machine works and was marketed, and the policies enacted in response — one story stated that children of a certain age can be allowed to use the Machine, while some go for the in utero strategy. The tales also delve into the ways people react to the future deaths, how all types of relationships are affected by each card, how people often try to sidestep or cheat their fates, and how many will avoid the most obvious scenarios — only to be done in by completely unexpected factors and scenarios.
The human aspect is what’s most interesting to me, although the Machine itself comes at a very close second. Most characters are afraid and terrorized by the Machine and the cards they were literally dealt, and the 34 stories highlight how downright ugly humanity can be and how stupidly and dangerously we act as a whole. We’re all OK individually, but as a species… we’re definitely fucked.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There are good times within this alternate universe. The writers made sure to put a lot of witty one-liners and jokes in their stories, so you’ll still laugh or smile even if the whole topic can sometimes get heavy, dragging, and a tad emo-ish. One concept can only be pushed so far, you know.
Some stories look like they can also be connected to each other, and share characters and plots. It’s fun to imagine how one mini-world will react to another and vice versa.
Out of those 34 stories, I wound up liking these:
- HIV Infection from Machine of Death Needle
- Love Ad Nauseum
- Cocaine and Painkillers
- Loss of Blood
Machine of Death now has a sequel (This is How You Die), podcasts where individual chapters are read by the authors or voice actors, and even a card game. Hmmm. That last product will spice up drinking sessions and family reunions. 😜️
Copies of copies
Ahhh, cloning. We’ve seen it in numerous books and movies, with human cloning a favorite central theme. Let me name a few: Blade Runner. The 6th Day. Resident Evil. Orphan Black. Never Let Me Go. (Here, have some more.)
However, most popular media stop at having multiple clones of one person, or a group of people. What if the clones themselves have clones? In David Hontiveros’ mind, it’s entirely possible. So he created a fictional world where originals, clones and “dupes” (the clones of clones) live within and outside the global film industry, and are framed by a messy post-war state of global political affairs.
So: Cloning + Film Industry + Worldwide Decay of Society and Nations = Interesting Read.
Seroks: Iteration 1 is, like Machine of Death, a compilation of short stories. But unlike the latter, whose stories look like they can be connected but actually aren’t, the tales within Seroks are all set in one world, and written by one person. Characters are also mentioned in or cross over to multiple stories.
In this world, a global event called Iblis leads to the spread of a deadly virus and the demise of people, regions and nations — the entirety of Mindanao and the United States are just some of the casualties. The ability of males to procreate is also heavily hit: most men became sterile after Iblis, making human cloning go from taboo to legit.
(For those unfamiliar with Filipino slang: seroks means copy, and is derived from Xerox, a brand with a decades-long name recall in the country for its photocopying equipment.)
In short: the world has turned to shit; national borders are redrawn; and society takes cloning, piracy and human rights violations to new heights. Sounds great.
The book begins with the short story that won Hontiveros a Palanca in 2002, and serves as the basis of this alternate world: Kaming Mga Seroks. What follows is a non-linear narrative set in different countries and environments: the remains of the Philippines and the US, China, and all the way to Europe. I especially liked one story, Salbahe, for switching between past and present.
Again, like Machine of Death, Seroks tries to cover all aspects. That means talking about the many clones and dupes in the movie industry — particularly those connected to the fictional movie star and politician Federico Rubio (who brings to mind ex-Philippine President and current Manila mayor Erap) — as well as the cloners and dupe-makers, the immersive VR tech delivering movie remakes to the masses, and how the masses themselves react and relate to these movies. Other themes include the lack of rights for all (including Templates and Dupes), slavery, politics, redemption, profit-seeking, the fatal results of indirect involvement, the overall degradation of the human race, and even online addiction.
Also, some things never change, even if we’re talking about the freakin’ future. Here, Google remains King of the World, bloggers still have influence, people still have a tendency to take photos/videos of strangers on the sly (#instacreep), and some of the technologies we have today continue to be used decades onward.
Writers are often given this advice: write the book you want to read. Hontiveros has taken this to heart, creating a world revolving around his personal interests in film and comic books. The narratives remind readers of classic movie scenes and setups, and some stories can definitely be made into graphic novel panels.
This book ends with a cliffhanger, and sets things up for Iteration 2. As much as I liked Iteration 1, I’m looking forward to two things:
- The exploration of different worlds/environments — let’s go outside cinema and comics, shall we? It was fun, but I’d like to see originals, clones and dupes in other settings as well. Should be interesting.
- The absence of typos and grammatical errors — this book’s full of them! They’re distracting for people like me, not to mention disappointing. There’s also a part in MRT, Then wherein the character Dolores was referred to as Dorothy. So ano nga ba ang pangalan niya, ha? Please, please, please hire a copy editor for Iteration 2. (wink wink, nudge nudge)
A deadly game
A few years back, I saw a film called Fanboys. In a nutshell: it’s a valuable 90-minute lesson on lifelong bromance and extreme Star Wars nerdery. I had fun watching it, but like most of the movies I see (and the unwanted spoilers that come with them), I eventually forgot about it.
Last month, I saw a paperback copy of Ready Player One sitting on my bookshelf, still covered in bookstore plastic. I initially bought it a year or so ago because someone said it’s a good read. Since I had free time then and I needed something light, I started reading it.
It turns out that one of the screenwriters for Fanboys wrote Ready Player One, and that the book is actually set for a film adaptation. Nicely done, Mr. Ernest Cline.
Anyway. The gist: it’s the year 2044; and actual, willful human interaction isn’t in vogue anymore. Instead, everyone logs onto a full-body, immersive VR system called OASIS, invented by übergeeky game-maker and ’80s-obsessed James Halliday. Halliday dies of an illness and has a grand total of zero heirs for his OASIS-enabled fortune, so he gets all OASIS users to go on a massive virtual Easter egg hunt. The “gunter” who gets all the Easter eggs wins the contest, along with Halliday’s fortune.
Our teenage gunter hero, Wade Watts (alter-ego name: Parzival), lives in the Stacks (a.k.a. vertical trailer park for marginal-income citizens) with his aunt after his mother’s death. For both survival and escapism, he is inside the OASIS all day err’day, attending school at educational digi-planet Ludus and working his way up the virtual ladder for measly points and weapons. He has one close virtual friend, no real-world friends, and a supercrush on a gunter chick called Art3mis — a crush that can be described as “Awwwww, shucks. That’s cute, kid.”
Things escalate rather quickly in Cline’s alternate futuristic universe. Wade lucks out and finds the first egg, “meets” his crush and the enemies (the Sixers), Something Sinister ensues, and the entire OASIS world goes into overdrive, so to speak.
Like Fanboys, Ready Player One delves into extreme, long-term nerdery, but this time the focus is on ’80s games and culture. Yeah, the novel’s set in the 2040s, but turns out everyone celebrates Throwback Thursday every damn day here, thanks to Halliday’s extreme obsession with the era and the global hunt for Halliday’s virtual Easter eggs. As an ’80s kid, it was awesome for me to see numerous references to my childhood years — I lost count of how many references there are by the time I got to the third chapter. If you’re trying to keep track, well, good luck.
Cline also tends to expound on many of his references, for the benefit of those born after that bright neon-, Aquanet- and shoulder pads-heavy decade. All the references and explanations show that Cline’s very fond of classic games and machines, and while it’s fun to look back, sometimes he geeks out too much and it got weird for me. Not everyone shares that fondness, and they may get distracted from the overall story.
Here’s an example: in one chapter, Art3mis comments on GSS’ server load right before the biggest virtual war in OASIS’ history. Seriously. Who does that? Maybe you will, but I won’t. This non-gamer will just check everything (from life to weapons), then go ahead and start offing other players to keep on living.
Another thing I don’t really agree with: the stereotypes and clichés when it comes to geeks/nerds. They do obsess over people and things for long periods of time, and generally don’t give a shit about what others think of them and their obsessions. But not all are innocent, adorkable, abnormally anti-social, and visibly awkward when meeting and conversing with women. Some geeks and nerds are actually bigger dickheads and douchebags than “normal” folk.
Also, virtual reality isn’t always better than real reality. That ending is so cliché! And Novelist Nerds, please include more smart, capable and appealing female characters in your books, because two aren’t enough. #justsayin
The villains in IOI (a.k.a. the Sixers) are also stereotypical “big baddies”: they blackmail, cheat and murder, and all that’s lacking is the maniacal laugh. You know, something like this:
But even with my complaints, I really liked reading Ready Player One. It’s a fun, light and easy read; I actually finished the whole thing in a week. And even if it can get overly optimistic, stereotypical and sappy at times, it can still be endearing. It’s a book written by a geek for geeks, and they’re (we’re?) hard to please.
There were also some aspects of Cline’s OASIS that made me wish the future happens now. In the OASIS, kids who don’t want to put up with traditional, real-world education (e.g., for bullying or financial concerns) can go virtual; I wish I had that option when I was still a student. Some OASIS features — banning kids from doing anything except listen and pay attention during classes, disabling combat zones in planets, the use of diplomacy software, the installation of WarDoors in homes, and seamless integration of VR and real life for things like food deliveries — are just begging for real-life implementations.