- Robopocalypse, Daniel H. Wilson
- Ready Player One, Ernest Cline
- Lost in the Meritocracy, Walter Kirn
- A Drink Before the War, Dennis Lehane
- Darkness, Take My Hand, Dennis Lehane
- Sacred, Dennis Lehane
- Gone, Baby, Gone, Dennis Lehane
- Prayers for Rain, Dennis Lehane
- Moonlight Mile, Dennis Lehane
tl;dr – Read Kirn for scathing truth about education and class in America, skip the bad sci-fi, and try Lehane for well-crafted mysteries with a bit of action and romance.
I like robots. I like horror. I like disaster novels and post-apocalyptic movies and near-future sci-fi. I liked World War Z – no, loved it, as much for its grotesque imagination as for its witty metaphor. Global pandemic as zombie infection, anyone? So you’d expect that I’d enjoy Robopocalypse, Wilson’s World War Z take-off, in which robots go horribly wrong and destroy the world as we know it. Sadly, Wilson seems to have no idea what made Brooks’ novel so good. He plays out the tropes (first person accounts! slice-of-life horror!) but doesn’t manage to produce more than a workmanlike robot-disaster story. The book has no soul.
It’s not entirely Wilson’s fault. In order to create a plausible robopocalypse, he had to set his novel in a near-future full of robot cars, robot servants, robot soldiers, etcetera. This allows him to create one of the book’s most horrifying effects: a highway full of people trapped inside their cars, trying frantically to escape, as the auto-pilots drive them off a cliff and into the sea. But it also means his world operates at a distance from ours. Brooks’ novel works so well because it draws on plausible human and institutional responses to disaster – from homeopathic remedies for zombification to the institution of martial law. Wilson’s novel never quite connects to a recognizable reality, so it can’t subvert it or comment on it effectively. Worse – and this one’s entirely Wilson’s fault – he structures the novel as a heroic narrative, in which a small band of misfits take down the robot overlord. This just … doesn’t work. Maybe another novelist could have pulled it off, but he only manages to kill the drama and suspense of his story. Oh, wait? The good guys are going to scrape out a victory against all odds? Really?
Like I said before, no soul.
Ready Player One was pretty bad too. Cline imagines a dystopian future, the primary feature of which is a globally popular online game (think World of Warcraft meets the Metaverse) whose future is in doubt. The person who finds the Easter Egg the game’s creator hid before his death inherits the whole thing. Unfortunately, Cline posits that the game’s creator was obsessed with eighties trivia, which makes the whole book feel like an excuse to, well, obsess about eighties trivia. If you’re a geeky dude who likes Family Ties in a post-ironic way, this is totally the book for you. If you aren’t, there are a few good moments (the relationship between the main character and his best friend is pure gold) and a lot of crap to wade through (nerd cred-building, the entire love-interest plot). My favorite parts of this book were set in the actual future world that Cline built – including a very entertaining indentured-worker-spy-caper chapter. I’d love to see more stories set there, assuming Cline can leave his rather dull game out of it. Bonus points if he writes some female characters who don’t suck.
If you are interested in education, or if you have ever been praised for your intelligence, or if you are a survivor of the American school system, then you should probably read Kirn’s memoir of his school years. It’s a story of learning to adapt oneself to institutional rules, to produce regurgitated knowledge for the praise of others, to play the game. It’s also a powerful story of class consciousness, and how education provides social mobility without providing a corresponding moral education in dealing with such differences. Kirn’s stories of Princeton show him trying, and failing, to pass; he is treated terribly by his upper-class roommates, and he himself behaves badly in his efforts to fit in. Social mobility is critical to a healthy society, but Kirn’s book shows the perils of defining it as “giving everyone an equal chance to conform to upper-middle-class norms.” The book has a redemptive ending, in which Kirn learns to love literature for its own sake, instead of as a tool to achieve his ends. I can imagine assigning this book in any class relating to education or social design, but until I’m teaching such a class I’ll have to settle for recommending you read it. You should.
Lehane’s series of Boston-based mysteries are generally quite good. Lehane is a good craftsman and does a nice job of evoking Boston in all its idiosyncrasy. I especially liked Gone, Baby, Gone, in which the protagonists hunt down a missing child and return her to her family, and Moonlight Mile, in which they learn about the consequences of their actions a decade later. Really, though, all of these will scratch your mystery itch, especially if you like your stories with a little action, a little romance, and a whole lot of wisecracking. Expect one major moral quandary per novel, which are believably painful and definitely worth the occasionally labored setup.