I’ve probably mentioned before how rare it is for me to read a straight-up mystery (and not some sort of science fiction noir type thing) but that’s exactly what Ben Winters’ The Last Policeman is. A man died in the bathroom of a McDonald’s. The newly-minted detective is the only person who doesn’t think it was a suicide. Investigation ensues.
The only complication is that in just over 6 months the world as we know it will end when Earth is hit by a huge asteroid.
So the book is a twisty little mystery involving insurance fraud and drugs and bad coffee in police briefing rooms, but also a look at why even do police-work when the world will soon be ending. Who really cares how one person ended up dead when six months from now everyone will be.
Now that little complication might, in your mind, vault the book into the science fiction category, but it really isn’t. The asteroid is affecting people because they’re all aware of their mortality, but it’s not causing tidal waves or changing the weather or making people flee to the Himalayas or shooting Bruce Willis off into space. It’s something that’s happening, just like war is something that happens in other stories.
I really liked the book even though it’s not my usual science fiction and in spite of the fact it’s the first in a trilogy. (SPOILER: The case is resolved and the book ends still many months before the asteroid hits, leaving room for the next books to remain pre-apocalyptic).
Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is an sf novel that was just released to a lot of hype (in my part of the internet at least). I got the Kindle edition because paper books in Australia are crazy expensive. It was a fine book, but I wonder if it panders just a bit too much to its target audience.
The story is set three decades into the Great Recession (you know, the one we’re living through the beginning of right now). A company designed an excellent immersive reality software environment in 2012 called the OASIS. It’s released for free (monetized through in-universe transportation costs, not through ads) and becomes a really excellent way for people to escape from the crushingly shitty existence of non-uber-wealthy life. (There are two-year waitlists for jobs at McDonalds in this Recession.)
Five years before the story begins the creator of OASIS died, and in his will, the company and all his wealth go to whoever could find the three keys hidden in OASIS. He was worth megabillions so this is a big deal. But unlike most corporate sweepstakes kinds of things this one was actually difficult and when the story begins for real most people have given up on the idea of winning those billions. Except for our protagonist, Parzival, a dirt-poor kid from the States, who’s part of the gunter (egg-hunter) subculture.
So the story is a classic quest novel, with all the stuff happening in OASIS, and dealing with the real world when he has to. What Cline’s done though is have Halliday (the dead billionaire who made the puzzle) obsessed with the 1980s. Knowing 1980s pop culture as well as Halliday is the key way to solve the puzzles. And while it’s kind of a clever way to include Star Wars (and Ferris Bueller and Dungeons and Dragons and Firefly and Back to the Future and all the other 80s stuff people like myself grew up on) references, it kind of lost its appeal a ways in. I think it was the reference to Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton being elected the presidents of OASIS year after year. It felt a little too much like fanservice to let me take the story seriously (or something).
As far as quest stories go, it’s good. Well structured, with clear bad guys who want to win the quest so they have control of the OASIS and can monetize it with ads and subscription fees and will kill (and more importantly cheat at the game) to get their way. I’d have no problem recommending it to YA readers or adults looking for something light. But it’s not “the best SF novel I’ve read in a decade” (as Mark Faruenfelder called it). There’s too much fanservice and not enough oomph (or beauty) to it in my opinion.