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Terrible Reviews: Otherworld

Here’s a book with a concept you’ve heard before: *a video game that’s realer than real life.* Do Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller freshen it up or drag its corpse behind the jalopy for a few cheap miles? Let’s find out!

Otherworld (Otherworld, #1)


We’ve got this immersive VR world created by a shadowy company literally called “The Company” (which is an attempt at a joke every bit as disappointing as it seems) and piloted by this Elon Musk-ish figure. Owing to recent advances in technology, the game — which was failing monetarily — is rebranded and re-opened as a virtual reality world-substitute — an “other world,” GET IT? — for people suffering from disabilities who are otherwise unable to function in the real world. Of course, to open such a venture on the large stage requires lots of beta testing, and since living, breathing human test subjects are difficult to come by and legally problematic (the technology might-or-might-not kill people in the real world when their avatars die in the game world), The Company opts to make its own human subjects by staging accidents that send hapless victims into comas, and then administering chemical cocktails to keep them locked-in.

(If that sounds a bit mustache-twirling and far-fetched, well, just buckle in.)

The novel centers on Simon, a protagonist you’re going to hate, but not, I think, in that love-to-hate-them way. (More on that in a moment.) He’s enchanted with the idea of the Otherworld game but becomes obsessed with it when his kind-of-but-not-really girlfriend, Kat, becomes one of The Company’s victims and finds herself trapped in the game. His quest to save her and blow the lid off The Company’s secrets leads him through the immense and twisted Otherworld.

Critique (not exactly constructive):

I’ll keep my spoilers vague, since this book is fairly new, but much like my other recent read (Stephen and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties), the overwhelming feeling I’m left with is: meh. Otherworld is a softer take on The Matrix, a harder take on Tron, and it wants to be a gamer-geek’s take on The Hunger Games. The setup is fine, the premise is good; it just never seems to deliver in any satisfying way.

The biggest problem: the characters are a let down. The protagonist, Simon, is a jerk of the highest order. Not a jerk that you love to hate, a la House or Frank Underwood or Loki, but a jerk who you really wish would just go away. He’s rude to absolutely everybody he encounters in the real world with the exception of Kat, the girl who makes the mistake of giving him some attention (naturally, he’s completely in love with her). And there’s no good explanation for this ball of hate rolling around in his guts; he’s the child of fabulously wealthy parents whose only complaint is that his parents don’t pay attention to him. So he goes out sunbathing on his lawn in the nude to make his neighbors angry, knowing they’ll call his mother at work (…really?) to kick up a fuss. The authors want him to be an anti-hero, but he’s really just an a-hole.

His love interest, Kat, seems at first like this tough, troubled girl — you know, that elusive Strong Female Character type — but after the first third of the book, she’s relegated to the damsel in distress. Simon chases her into Otherworld, but there she’s just a mirage; always just out of reach, just out of sight. Further, upon reflection, I’m not sure we see a genuine interaction between her and another character in the book. She hangs around with some people Simon hates (yeah, I know, that narrows it down exactly zero) and seems like she might be dating some deadbeat (when she could have Simon, the … not deadbeat?), but don’t worry — she’s playing a long con, and they spend the final fifth of the book kissing every chance they get. Often when it’s totally inappropriate. (It’s gross.)

Their love story, by the way, is as ludicrous as you could hope. Never mind the ridiculous flippance and disdain Simon flings at everybody else he meets or the fact that Simon tells us, again and again, that he’d destroy all of Otherworld and everybody (real people, too!) living in it for her. They’re literally driven apart by an evil stepfather. I just … yeah. I’m moving on.

The continuity is suspect. Simon and his crew flit from one locale to another with no explanation of how they did it or how long it took. Sure, they’re in a video game so the rules could be bent, but there’s also very much the sense of — much like your average video game — okay, here’s the ice level, here’s the desert level, here’s the jungle level. At one point, Simon gets whipped away from his companions and beamed, Star Trek-style, to the other side of the world to die. But before long, one of his companions finds him. How? Don’t ask, she just does; and just in time to save him from certain death, besides. How fortuitous!

And of course, there’s the issue that most of the book takes place in the game world. Well, what about your body in the real world? To its credit, the book deals with this issue on the one hand — every time our hero wakes up in the real world, he finds he’s soiled himself and he’s starving. (Somebody in the real world even gives him diapers to help himself with this problem, which is actually pretty funny. But because he’s a class-A jerk, he doesn’t bother using them so that he can deliberately run around smelling of urine and feces.) But at the same time, he is somehow able to dip in and out of the game for days at a time, and his physical body is never found, never disturbed. This beggars belief.

Then, there’s the ending. Without spoiling it, the ending is a non-ending; a straight cliffhanger leading into the next book (as yet unreleased). Not a resolution to the conflicts opened by this book, but a continuation of them. Wholly unsatisfying.

Finally, I don’t know who the book is really aimed at. The premise and execution have a decidedly YA flair to them — Simon is of high school age, after all, going on a grand (virtual) adventure so save the (virtual) world. But the tone of the book is not at all YA. The main character’s thoughts and speech are littered with profanity, and it’s regularly intimated (and here and there outright stated) that Otherworld is a haven for orgies and all manner of devilish perversions. Not that I have a problem with that stuff, but I’m not sure a YA novel is the right place for it.


So — is the book any good? Well, despite my laundry list of complaints, I didn’t hate it. To be fair, I don’t think I liked it all that much, though it did tickle my geek-bone well enough to keep me turning the pages. And this concept alone is entertaining enough to me that I’m willing to dip my toes in just about any waters that explore the idea. The novel does try to explore some themes about the dark side of human nature. But it’s a bit like tossing frogs into boiling water rather than trying to cook them properly. There’s no wading in, there’s no gradual transition; we just find ourselves in the midst of cannibals and gladiators. The end result is less “oh, wow, that’s deep” and more “what the hell am I reading?”

Still, I can’t help feeling like *Otherworld* is trying to ride on the coattails of some other recent successes *cough Ready Player One cough* rather than trying to forge its own way. It’s a decent enough bit of escapist literature (and goodness knows we need that these days), but that’s about all it is.

The verdict: Two out of five smelly, peed-in pants legs.


Pareidolia, Foie Gras, and Guardians of the Galaxy 2: A (sort of) Terrible Review

Have you ever been in the midst of a dream, and then realized that you were dreaming? You’re there, and you’re standing naked in front of the class, or you’re taking the stage and you’ve forgotten your lines, or you’re soaring in the sky with psychedelic dolphins or whatever, and it clicks: this isn’t real. It can’t be real. The world doesn’t work this way.

Suddenly, the dream is a lot less convincing. Probably you wake up. Or maybe you turn into Neo and you’re able to change the dream to suit your whims or something. Either way, it’s like one of those pareidolia images of faces in everyday objects: once you see it, there’s no unseeing it. You can’t ignore it and go back to believing that the dream was real.


What’s all this about, then? Well, the wife and I saw Guardians of the Galaxy 2 last night. And about halfway through the film, like Neo in The Matrix, I woke up. Not that I had fallen asleep — no, as is Marvel’s wont, the action is cranked to eleven in this offering. Rather, I looked around. Noticed the seams on the walls, the jagged edges at the periphery, the hidden patterns in the carpet. And the spell was broken. I wasn’t just watching a movie anymore, I was in a world that I knew had been crafted deliberately, created to work surreptitiously on my subconscious.

(Spoiler note: This isn’t exactly a review, and there’s nothing explicitly spoiler-ific here. But if you’re planning on seeing it, and want to be able to immerse yourself fully, you might want to don your peril-sensitive sunglasses now.)

Now, sure, movies are designed to do this to you anyway. Hell, so are stories. Creators craft these things to manipulate your brain from top to bottom: telegraphing some story elements to invite you to make predictions. Playing to well-known tropes to help you find your footing in a strange world.

And GotG2 does that. But this isn’t that. I wasn’t discerning the hand of the creator in the brush strokes. Rather, I was discerning the hands of the studio execs molding the story externally as it was crafted. A whole new matrix within the matrix.

Here’s what I mean: Marvel’s using a pretty simple formula these days. Stories get bigger and bigger. Crazier, wilder villains (see: Doctor Strange doing battle with a god). Savvier, snarkier self-satirizing heroes (see: the entirety of Deadpool). And a sequel is always measured against the yardstick of the original.

And how do you make a sequel better than the original? Easy, you take the same characers, craft an entirely new storyline that plays to their developing relationships and strengths that tests them in all new ways, encouraging more growth, more development, more feels from the audience. Right? HA HA HA no. The way you make a sequel that plays as well as an original is you take everything the original does well and you do it more.

Don’t sweat the storyline so much: you’ve already got viewers baked-in. Just ratchet up the things they loved about the first movie. Give the funny characters more funny. Make the romantic tension a little more taut. Make the explosions even more explodey.

What made GotG1 so much fun — what audiences loved about it — were a few things. The old-school music soundtrack laid over a futuristic world. The irreverence. The niche-ifying of every character (there’s the snarky central guy, the badass no-nonsense chick, the brick-joke, doesn’t understand sarcasm or interactions in general dude, the jerk-store a-hole raccoon, the mute monster with a heart of gold. See also: Five-Man Band.)

And about halfway through the film, I realized that this film wasn’t actually doing what a sequel should do. There was very little new development. Not much added to the larger universe of which this story is a part. Instead, this movie was focus-grouped to make me want to watch it by giving me more of what I liked about the first one.

Let me not drive this into the ground: a few examples will prove the point.

Musclebound Drax, whose brick humor was the cornerstone of his character development (what, again, does he actually contribute to the team?) is tossing out even more deadpan sarcasm-proof jokes here, at what felt like a ratio of twelve-to-one over the original.

Angry little ball of sentient fur Rocket, in GotG1, made his place by throwing out sarcasm and lashing out when people called him a raccoon and just general dickery. His character development here: he’s a total a-hole to everybody, with at least two characters specifically pointing the fact out to him along the way.

And of course, the soundtrack is just as jarring in its strange setting, but there feels like even more of it, and it even becomes a focal point of the story itself: the central villain spins one of the songs into a metaphor for his own development. It’s well done, mind you. What at first seems like this big, romantic yen about wanderlust morphs into a twisted, sociopathic rejection of humanity (and all lifeforms in the galaxy, actually — readers of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will hear echoes of the denizens of Krikkit in the villain’s desire to wipe out everything in the universe that isn’t him).

There’s nothing wrong with any of the above. But once you hear the voice in your head — the voice that says “OH YOU ENJOYED THIS THING ABOUT THE ORIGINAL MOVIE? HERE HAVE MORE OF THAT THING” — you see it everywhere in this movie. Douglas Adams wrote brilliantly about humor that what makes it so lovely is its rarity. In the midst of a hot summer, you run out into a surprise thundershower for the joy of splashing around in the puddles, for the sprinkle of the rain on your face, because these things are rare and not happening every day. But when humor is everywhere — when it’s been raining for weeks and weeks, each day like the last, with no hint of the sun — the rain is a little less magical. GotG2 is like that: it’s a week-long deluge when what I really want is the surprise afternoon shower.

Put another way: they make foie gras by force-feeding geese until their stomachs explode. Having watched GotG2, it feels that I’ve been force-fed in the single aim of extracting more dollars from my wallet. And my stomach is near to bursting.

I say all that to say this: GotG2 is good fun. It’s perfect summer fare — lighthearted, action-packed. If you liked the first one, well, you’ll probably like the second one; not least of which for the reasons I’m talking about here. But if you miss the movie? Well, you’re not missing much.

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