Awesome book cover Friday: The Mindwarpers

Happy Friday, everyone! Today’s pick is an Eric Frank Russell book you might not have known existed.

The Mindwarpers by Eric Frank Russell

At least, that was the case for writer Jo Walton, who discovered The Mindwarpers for the first time last month. And just look at that cover. I haven’t read any Russell, but that might have to change. And the best part is that you can find it for cheap on sites like Amazon.

Here’s an alternate cover that’s also pretty cool:

The Mindwarpers alt

Russell was a British author who lived from 1905 to 1978. Aside from The Mindwarpers (also called With a Strange Device), he wrote full-length sci-fi books such as Sentinels from Space and Wasp, along with many shorter works and essays.

What do you think of these covers? I think the first one is so weird, it’s awesome; and I love the colors and design in the second.

Feel free to email me with any tips on awesome book covers!

Extra lives and lovesick avatars: a review of Ready Player One

Okay, I know some of you are probably sick to death of hearing about this topic by now, but … tough. Video games are my thing!

Along with books, of course! So here’s one for you. Ready Player One!

All I had to do was to get to my new apartment, set up my rig, and log back into the OASIS. Then everything would be all right. I would be back in familiar surroundings. I would be safe.

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is an extremely niche book. I’ve seen a lot of advertisements for it popping up all over the web lately, revealing the new edition and cover (left). I wouldn’t at all call it “Willy Wonka meets The Matrix,” but I understand the connection. It’s a race to the ultimate prize, only everyone gets a golden ticket. And the competition unfolds in a virtual world. But there’s not really any singing or cute moral lessons about television and gluttony.

But anyway — niche. Ready Player One is not only marketed toward serious video game fans (although I suppose anyone with a passing interest could enjoy it), but also rife with ’80s references. This book is going to date itself like a bad hair style in about 10-20 years.

Fortunately, at the heart of the book is a well-written story about a group of friends and the most famous video game programmer in all history — fictionally, anyway. James Halliday invented the most widely used, authentically household game, an MMO called the OASIS. Creating an account and entering the game is free; traveling and purchasing in-game weapons, armor, and items is not. But what made the game even more popular was a video message that appeared upon Halliday’s death: an announcement that informed people across the world that whoever found his special Easter egg (a carefully hidden secret) would inherit his considerable fortunes. And so the Hunt began.

Wade Watts — or “Parzival,” as he calls himself when logged into the OASIS — is one of the “gunters” dedicated to spending almost every waking hour studying Halliday’s life and works in search of clues that will lead to the discovery of the egg. It’s that conviction and inherent talent for video games that allow Wade to find the first key — one of three needed to open three separate gates, the last of which protects the wildly sought after egg.

Cline takes video game fans on one of the greatest virtual (and textual) adventures ever conceived, with the most difficult trials of knowledge and raw skill awaiting them. Every passionate gamer can tell you with envy how impressive passing them would be.

Halliday’s tests focus more on classic games — like Joust — old movies — like Blade Runner — and the best of ’80s pop culture than they do on modern games, but Cline compresses a lot of meaning and hot button topics into one book without ever straying from his true focus: the Hunt. On one hand, gamers can consider Ready Player One a lesson in industry history, as it combines fact and fiction and draws a clear line between the two. The book also puts a heavy emphasis on MMOs and the costs of living almost completely in an imaginary world, which are purely contemporary concerns. It’s an extreme look at the future of video games that asks, “What happens when virtual reality is better than the real thing? When we can feel, smell, and touch environments while sitting in a chair, what use do we have for what’s outside of it?”

The answer is a bleak one. Wade might clock endless hours in the perfect game, a massive universe of planets and possibilities, but when he looks out the window (when he ever does), he reflects on the devolution of society and human interaction. The game has taken over. What was once today’s handful of eccentric news stories about one gamer ignoring his or her family has become the norm. People have forgotten how to communicate and connect offline.

The book also explores other issues, such as Internet dating (which made me think of web sensation Felicia Day’s “Do You Wanna Date My Avatar” mock music video) and the ongoing free-to-play debate — which is a rising trend in the industry right now. Cline accomplishes all this and an emotionally resonating narrative in under 400 pages, and he ends it with optimism.

And it’s an utterly absorbing read that only gets better as the pages turn.

The perfect pet: a review of The Caline Conspiracy

His arms were outflung and his mouth was a wide, lipless—no, his mouth was closed, it was his throat that gaped in a ragged, cheerless grin.

Last week Margaret Yang and Harry R. Campion, who write together as M. H. Mead, got in touch and offered me a review copy of their latest book. By the sounds of it, The Caline Conspiracy wasn’t something I’d normally pick up, and the cover screamed the nineties, but I agreed to give the book a shot. Sometimes we need to step out of our comfort zones.

As silly as the plot felt at times—it’s a murder mystery in which a genetically enhanced pet (a “caline”) is the only suspect—the writing was, well, good. Nothing ground-breaking, but better than a lot of the books I’m handed to read on assignment. I didn’t have to parse the prose to discover the kernel of worth within it. The Caline Conspiracy is written by two clearly talented people.

Of course, M. H. Mead might be writing about the perfect pets (and the not-so-perfect pets), but that doesn’t mean their book is flawless. The writers brush on a futuristic gloss at will, rather than building a believable sci-fi world from the ground up. You can’t have your character make tea or order pizza and then have her use some sort of holo-vid system without making readers wonder if maybe the science fiction part wasn’t a high priority after all. If you’re going to set your story in the future, you have to simulate the future down to the very last detail. Or at least have a robot ringing the doorbell with a steaming pie.

The story held my interest regardless of its slips, but I have to wonder about the scene with Aidra, Edo, and the perficats. The grand realization that occurs then doesn’t seem to have much purpose overall, other than to maybe foreshadow how crazy meddlesome scientists are with things that shouldn’t be meddled in.

I’m not sure I entirely believe a few other plot threads, either: Aidra’s totally lax, “cool mom” treatment of her son had me cringing; and the explanation for their new family member at the end was surprising but not entirely convincing.The backstory about their old dog Nutmeg gave the characters and story some valuable context, but it was never explored as much as I would have liked. A few minor characters could have used more attention after their biggest scenes—like Quinn’s unexpected trip to the hospital and Freddy and his wife. These characters deserve more than a passing role.

These failings in plot aren’t as extreme as they might sound—the only parts I was rolling my eyes at were the one near sex scene that didn’t belong and the aforementioned introduction of Aidra’s son Jon. I can’t recommend The Caline Conspiracy to everyone, but if you like the suspense of mysteries or you’re just a huge animal enthusiast, then you’ll likely find enjoyment in its story.

Thanks to the authors for reaching out and providing a review copy!