I know some were concerned that Unseen Academicals was Terry Pratchett straying away from the tried-and-true elements that make the Discworld books click (I was not one of them, mind you, but more than a few expressed misgivings). Well, Snuff is very much a return to form, as one would expect from a Vimes novel, and in more ways than one since, as opposed to the last few Vimes novels, the primary villain isn’t made clear within the first quarter of the book and then a continuing presence. Well, not unless you want to get all lit’ry and say that “racist society” is the villain, but as good a villain as racist society can be, it’s never the one in the knife fight with Vimes, except metaphorically.
Now, granted, this is not the first time that Pratchett has used his books to touch upon issues of race – really, they’ve been omnipresent throughout most of the Watch books (and I would suggest that, correspondingly, the Moist von Lipwig books thus far are about class, the second divisive social element of a modern society, while the Witches books are about gender; this is not to say that each series doesn’t touch on all of them, of course, because Pratchett doesn’t min-max out his themes, but some books emphasize things more than others), and I’ve seen a few reviewers complain to the effect of “how many times can Terry Pratchett explain to us that racism is bad?” Which is a relatively silly complaint, because the answer is “as many times as there are ways for racism to be bad,” whether it’s using dwarf/troll conflict to discuss interethnic strife in Thud! or exploring propaganda and stereotype-as-weapon in Jingo or the utilization of dehumanization of differing races and [something I won't spoil] in Snuff.
In terms of entertainment value, it’s pretty high. Putting Vimes out in a polite country setting lets Pratchett play with some new tropes, and fans of super-prepared butlers will be glad to see Willikins take a major role in this book. In terms of technique, the pacing is a bit uneven and the occasional aside flounders, but far more often than not Pratchett hits his beats. Snuff is a solid B+ on Pratchett’s grading curve, which is just fine, if a bit of a comedown from the last couple of Vimes books (Night Watch and Thud! are both generally considered among his best).
On the other hand, we have Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, which has been getting some good press from nerds. This is not shocking, because Ready Player One is the biggest nerd-pander I think I have ever read in my entire life. If you are wondering how big a nerd-pander we are talking about here: this is literally a novel about how a shut-in loser person becomes a megabillionaire superstar because he is good at video games and knows a lot of pop-culture trivia.
And I’m not even spoiling the ending for you because Cline (who writes the entire novel in the hero’s first-person) lets you know, at the very start of the book, that the hero wins and gets to be a megabillionaire superstar. I suppose there’s an argument to be made that the ending of this sort of book is more or less predetermined, but when I read that bit of the book not ten pages in I just put the book down and went “oh, fuck off” because it absolutely kills the suspense for me.
Not that there is a lot of suspense to be had, frankly. Cline’s narrative is engaging enough in a trash-fiction sort of way, but it’s for the most part very straightforward: hero does A, hero does B, hero does C, SETBACK, TRIUMPH, roll credits. The villain of the piece – an evil corporate person, because of course a near-future/cyberspace narrative will have an evil corporate person as the villain – is so ridiculously evil he does everything but twirl a moustache. The love interest turns out to be attractive in real life and just thinks she’s ugly because of an unusual birthmark. (Cline repeatedly does an exceptional job of teasing potential conflict and then dissolving it so quickly that the entire affair seems pointless: there’s actual story in a cyber-affair where one person genuinely has issues that prevent them from having a real-world relationship, but that would get in the way of the by-rote happy ending, I suppose. And he does this more than once.)
But ultimately, the silliness of the story – and the lack of artistry with which it’s written, or if you prefer “its workmanlike prose” – does it in for me. As exceptional a programmer as Programmer MacGuffin might be, I can’t believe that programming would get so easy that this guy would just go ahead and program literal lifetimes’ worth of cyber-quest material all by himself, or that some supa-mega-visionary would just create a decades-long-contest which was masturbating to all the things he liked about his hobbies and nobody would find this weird. And on top of that, said supa-mega-visionary’s hardon for 80′s culture would completely envelop the modern popular culture of the time, so that in 2045 or whatever people would still be talking about how awesome Thundercats was. (This is roughly equivalent to everybody right now deciding that zoot suits are the way to dress for the foreseeable future and excitedly collecting Glenn Miller albums like they were Lady Gaga singles.)
It’s a pity because there are some flourishes of real creativity right at the beginning: Cline’s description of the “stacks,” which are literally vertical towers of RVs and trailers surrounding cities because gas shortages led to people crowding around population centres, is evocative and more creative than most of the rest of his book, and the protagonist’s brief forays into the real world are honestly quite interesting – far moreso than the cyber-worlds he discusses, because all of the virtual realities where the book spends the bulk of its time are warmed-over genre-skinned rehashes of World of Warcraft or EVE Online or both at once. There’s no there there. When Cory Doctorow decided to write a novel about MMORPG gaming, he wrote For The Win, which is really a novel about collectivization of labour and class struggle – you may not like it or its message, but it’s a book with real heft. Ernest Cline, on the other hand, has written a novel with a plotline as thin as the old Atari 2600 Adventure games he references multiple times. It’s a book that decides that the future will entirely be about looking backwards from where we are right now, and isn’t that kind of sad?