When reality is overrated

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The year is 2044. Not much has changed, except maybe the world’s problems have gotten worse. There are no flying cars, no hoverboards, no self-tying shoes. None of the bright and shiny cities of sci-fi lore came to be, and unsurprisingly, we haven’t evolved much as a species either. Much of the population while their days away strapped on devices that allow them to live in a virtual world where their lives are exponentially more interesting. Known as the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation, or OASIS, this online utopia has become humanity’s only refuge from the harsh reality that is Planet Earth.

Behind this widely popular program is eccentric billionaire software developer James Halliday, a recluse who lived out his final years developing a game that would, as they say, break the internet. On the day of his death, it was announced that he had been busy designing the biggest Easter egg hunt in history. The reward: his assets, amounting to $240 billion, and control of the Gregarious Simulation Systems, the most lucrative company in the world and owner of the OASIS. But Halliday didn’t make it easy. All the clues were embedded in things he had liked as a child; things that were recreated and hidden across the vast universe that is the OASIS.

And just like that, the world had a new obsession.

Since Halliday grew up in the 1980s, everyone began binge-watching ‘80s films and TV shows, listening to old records, and of course, playing the most beloved 8-bit videogames. Everyone had a new hobby. But with that much on the line, you just can’t expect everyone to play fair, and some really vile elements prove that they are willing to do absolutely anything to get Halliday’s money and gain control of the OASIS.

The book follows protagonist Wade Watts, an exceedingly average boy whose barely livable circumstances make college dorm life seem luxurious, as he navigates his way through Halliday’s world on an epic egg hunt.

I almost wish I were born a decade earlier thanks to this book. Don’t get me wrong, I think the ‘90s was amazing, but the way the book talked about ‘80s pop culture sounded like so much fun. Every time the author referenced something I was not familiar with, I got the urge to Google it. I felt like I was part of the contest – like I wanted to know Halliday as much as the characters in the book did – and that’s part of what made this book so enjoyable for me.

Apart from being a fast-paced sci-fi adventure, this book also deals with some issues that are quite relevant in today’s tech-ridden virtual age. You’ll see the protagonist struggle to cope with real life problems while keeping up his rock star-esque persona online. You’ll see how it is so much easier for him to make virtual friends than to connect person-to-person. You’ll see his confidence falter at the idea of actually meeting his online amigos, even if he really wants to. The author explores the inner struggle that comes with living dualistic lives, and I think that is something that everyone can relate with on some level.

All in all, Ready Player One is both fun and serious, futuristic and nostalgic, real and virtual. You’ll stay up reading it the same way you stayed up playing Pac-Man.

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Life A.D.

Last week, Image Comics released book one of A.D.: After Death, a three-part sci-fi spectacular that could easily be the best comic book series released this year. This also happens to be the work of two of today’s top comic book talents, with multi-awarded Scott Snyder writing the script and the equally talented Jeff Lemire providing his signature style of art in full color. Both creators have separately done terrific work in the science fiction genre, so there was no way I was going to pass up this masterpiece.

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A.D. explores a world where the human race finally found a cure for death. The story follows Jonah Cooke, who seems just about as average as the next guy, except he has a habit of stealing things.

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It’s gotten so bad that he even stole a cow on his last day at work.

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Other than that, not much is known about the protagonist’s current situation, although the story does go back to his childhood several times. These flashback scenes are more text-heavy, allowing more room for storytelling.

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Snyder’s writing is thick with emotions, adding a lot of depth to the story.

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And as good as his prose is, you’ll equally enjoy Lemire’s art, which dominates the comic book’s future scenes.

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What makes the comic even more enjoyable is that it is presented in large format, so it is actually much bigger than your usual comic book – perfect for showcasing Lemire’s art. Overall, the first book is a solid opening issue, giving you a glimpse of what a deathless future is like, while allowing you to get to know the protagonist just enough to make you want to know more. I’m definitely looking forward to the next two issues.

A tale among stars

As a kid I never really found sci-fi appealing. I was raised on fairytales so fantasy was my natural first choice as far as genres go. When I was about eight years old I discovered I liked horror as well and to this day, those two genres are what I constantly look for regardless of medium. What they have in common is that there are elements of the fantastic in them – supernatural beings, magic, and everything that humans can’t create or become.

Sci-fi (or at least the common notion of it) is about technology, steel, everything artificial and fabricated. Even when it deals with distant worlds, it is nothing unreachable. No matter how out-of-this-world the stories are, they are still grounded on science. And science is what humans do so I never saw it as anything special. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I got to read this comic book series called Saga that I became more interested in the genre.

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Written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples, Saga is about as sci-fi as you can get. It is a true space adventure spanning an entire galaxy. It has all manner of life forms from people with horns and wings to biomechanical robots with TVs for heads to large cats that can tell when you’re lying. It is a reality where space bounty hunting is a lucrative career path and spaceships are a common form of transportation; so common that they literally grow on trees. There’s even an entire planet that deals in interplanetary sex trade and a giant flaming gorilla (because why not?).

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So what makes Saga any different from other sci-fi stories? Well, BKV wrote it, that’s what. Like Vaughan’s other works, his character development for Saga is top-notch. First he lets you fall in love with protagonists Alana and Marko, who got into a forbidden relationship in spite of being from rival races that are locked in an endless war with each other. Despite their biological differences, they actually end up having a baby and get chased throughout the galaxy for it (hence the space adventure).

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Then, Vaughan introduces you to their would-be captors: a bounty hunter named The Will and his trusty sidekick Lying Cat. You’ll end up liking them, too, just because they’re a cool pair. There will be parts where you want the protagonists to get away, but at the same time you also end up worrying about what happens to the bounty hunters. It feels like the good guys are good guys and the “bad” guys don’t seem so bad so part of you roots for them, too. And that’s one of the things I enjoy about this story – even the bad guys are likeable.

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Oh, and then there’s Prince Robot IV. He’s a bit of a douche but he does make the story that much more interesting. I guess you can say he’s the main bad guy of the story.

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Beyond all the weird elements of sci-fi, Saga is packed with humor, action, serious and heart-felt moments, great characters and so much more. This series made me realize that genres aren’t always what make stories enjoyable, and that the best stories are the ones that are able to transcend those delineations anyway. It’s no surprise that Saga is what many believe to be the best comic book on the shelves today. And if you know comic book fans, you know that that compliment isn’t something that gets thrown around lightly. This series really does live up to its hype.

Family affair

The genius behind Mind MGMT is back with an all new series that promises to be a murder mystery like no other. And this time, he isn’t working solo. Matt Kindt teams up with his wife Sharlene for a brand new series that takes its readers deep beneath the ocean’s surface.

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Dept. H follows the story of Mia, a special investigator, who travels to an underwater research facility to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding her father’s death. As the cover of the first issue suggests, her father just happens to be the most brilliant man on the planet.

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The series has a lot going for it. Matt’s signature style of art is as good on this book as it is with his other works, while Sharlene’s colors provide exactly the right atmosphere for a deep-sea adventure.

Story-wise, the first issue does a great job laying the groundwork by introducing a diverse cast of characters; some already known to the protagonist, others just recent acquaintances – all capable of murder. It feels like a classic whodunit mixed with sci-fi and drama.

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The second issue explores Mia’s relationship with her brother, who isn’t exempt from suspicion.What I like about Matt’s writing is that his stories are always multidimensional. Expect that he will explore every possible angle, every potential side-story to give depth to his work.  I look forward to seeing how he fleshes out each character in the series.

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If you’re looking to read something out of the mystery genre, you might want to pick up this comic book while it’s only two issues in. With the Kindts in charge, you simply can’t go wrong.

 

Issue number three arrives on June 22.

Sci-filosophy

I’m a hundred pages into my fifth novel for the year and it’s been an interesting ride thus far. We are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson is a sci-fi novel about a teenage boy named Henry Denton whose seemingly average life is disrupted by a series of alien abductions. He has no idea why he was chosen. All he knows is that the aliens have given him 144 days to decide whether or not he wishes to save mankind from an unknown catastrophe that will destroy the planet. All he has to do is press a shiny red button and everything will be okay.

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To most people, the choice seems to be an obvious one. But for sixteen year old Henry, it’s not exactly black and white. His boyfriend just recently committed suicide. His grandmother is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and is slipping further and further by the day. His relationship with his chain-smoking mom is going south. His dad left them a long time ago. His brother just got his girlfriend pregnant and dropped out of college. And the popular boy at school who makes fun of him when everyone’s looking and secretly makes out with him when they’re alone only complicates the equation. Beyond his personal life, world events haven’t been encouraging either, with rising tension between nations that are overly eager to jump-start a nuclear war.

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When everything’s falling apart, is the world really worth saving?

The book invites us to examine this question. And as you read along, you realize that the answer really isn’t as simple as you thought it would be – especially for Henry Denton.

I like how the book is both human and alien (literally and figuratively). One moment, Henry is struggling with every conceivable problem a high school kid can have. Next thing you know he’s immobilized on a slab inside a spacecraft for God knows what reason. The guy just can’t get a break.

What makes the book entertaining is its breadth. It gives you ample doses of genuine human struggle while having a compelling sci-fi spin. It challenges you to question the value of life and our existence as a species. It urges you to find meaning in our daily struggles. It makes you wonder what the point of living is, or if there is a point at all. It encourages you to ponder the infinite vastness of the universe and what role we’re supposed to play in it. The book gives you so many things to think about, and that’s always a good thing. I’m really looking forward to the remaining 350 pages.

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Those stories you won’t tell mommy

If you frequent comic book shops and bookstores then you’ve probably spotted this shamelessly pink graphic novel on the shelves. You’ve probably taken a closer look (or pretended to “accidentally” glance at it) and found that the gold font on the cover says BIG HARD SEX CRIMINALS. And maybe you got curious about it but you just can’t bring yourself to actually pick it up and bring it to the counter. I know. I’ve been there too.

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The thing with sex stories is that they have to be good. Otherwise, it’s just porn on print. What Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky did with Sex Criminals is pretty smart. Yes, the book has lots of nudity. Yes, the book is packed with silly sex jokes. Yes, there are pages that made me a little embarrassed to be reading it in public. But beyond all that, the characters are surprisingly relatable and the story does make enough sense for you to take it seriously.

What I liked the most is the way the characters break the fourth wall – that is, they literally speak to the reader in some panels – and it feels like they’re sharing their lives with you.

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You become their confidant and you find yourself deeply engaged in their lives. You know their problems and frustrations, their fantasies and fears, their childhood stories of curiosity and discovery, and then you realize how honest the book is. That, although it is a wild, dirty, sex sci-fi story, there is something very human to it.

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So you do the thing that humans do: you sympathize. And that’s when you realize you’re willing to tag along no matter where their sexed-up adventures take them. Sex Criminals is what you get when two very talented guys decide to get a little crazy – I really doubt you’ll read anything like it. So go ahead and pick up that pink book you’ve been eyeing. You might just find yourself quite satisfied once you finish it.

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