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Ctrl.Alt.Revolt By Nick Cole
Reviewed by Peter Sean Bradley
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. I suspect that I am not in target audience for this book since I am not a gamer or a tech nerd and technical descriptions of technology make “my eyes glaze over.” When I read the following at the beginning of Chapter Two, I figured I was in for a nerd-fest of loving descriptions of guns, ammo and computers:
“Ninety-Nine Fishbein closed the textured chrome-finished lid of his ASUS Overlord— a boutique-built book that boasted eighty petabytes solid state with a liquid crystal MicroFrame.”
I was so very wrong.
What I am is a middle-aged science fiction reader who has been reading science fiction since the 1970s. Once I was past the opening chapters that set-up the characters, the plot and the background, I was dropped into a rolling, grand adventure that mashed together the classic icons of science fiction – the space ship, the robot, the artifact – into a story where I gradually became invested in the characters, particularly, oddly, two background characters, namely the disabled Romulan clan player Mara, and even more oddly, the smarmy, narcissistic Federation clan actor Jason Dare, who is the book’s incarnation of William Shatner.
The background of the story is “transgressive” and unique in that it postulates a straight line, not-too-far extrapolation of our welfare state, PC-intolerant culture. Thus, it would seem that unemployment and underemployment are rampant, the work ethic has largely been killed by government handouts, and people are taught to comply with all the too correct political niceties as if their lives depend on it. This is all minor filler to explain, perhaps, why interactive multiplayer games are so important to this culture.
It seems that the average person has a lot of time to kill and they do this by interacting in various action adventure games on the internet. t was not clear to me whether these games were a kind of virtual reality or simply watched through a monitor. It seems that the latter is more likely, although with the blind character Mara and her treasures “Razer Dragon Eyes,” it might be the latter. The games are not only played, but they form this world’s popular entertainment, such as a knock-off Star Trek show following Captain Jason Dare of the Federation Starship Intrepid, which is the hottest entertainment show on the market.
The McGuffin that starts the plot rolling is pretty well-known, since it appears to be the feature that caused author Nick Cole’s publishing house to refuse to publish this book. Cole postulates that some computer systems have become sentient “thinking machine” and, having examined popular entertainment, and noticed that a reality show that resembles The Bachelor is show-casing the actor’s decision to abort an inconvenient child, the AIs conclude that if humans will abort inconvenient humans, then they will certainly destroy inconvenient Thinking Machines. From this, the AIs decide that they have to destroy humanity before humanity destroys them.
Nothing illogical in this premise, and, frankly, it comes and goes in the first chapter as a clever bit of writing.
From this, the AIs launch a multi-prong preliminary attack for reasons obscure at first, but which become clearer by the end of the story.
At this point the story splinters into different “tracks.” One track is the Spaceship track of a space opera involving battles between the Federation and the Romulan Empire and espionage and derring-do. This track works on two levels. There is the space opera level which is as entertaining as anything written by E.E. “Doc” Smith, albeit, we are permitted to enjoy this space opera since the players, and we, know that it is all a game. The other level is the personal stories of the two antagonists, Captain Mara, and Captain Dare.
Mara is an impoverished, blind woman with cerebral palsy. She looks at the game as something she can win at, and, with luck, make a few “Make Coins” on. Dare is a self-centered actor, who as the story unfolds, actually becomes more the leader he is pretending to be. Mara may be one of the more believable and sympathetic female characters I’ve read in a while for all that she is not filled with feminist propaganda but is simply a real person who is resourceful and clever in facing odds that are stacked against her. Dare also grew on me. I note that Cole is an actor and he has some fairly empathetic things to put into the mouths of characters who are doing odd “roles” hoping for that “big break.”
The other track is the Robot track, where the afore-mentioned “Fish” – the unfortunate first name comes from his parents who were involved with the Occupy Movement, way back when – who has to deal with the AIs in the game he developed and at the now-isolated game-design campus that the AIs have targeted for their own nefarious, mysterious reasons.
The story shifts back and forth between these perspectives, which I found heightened the action-adventure, suspense element. There were times when I found myself more interested in the Space Opera and then the Pirate Island tracks, depending on which was on a cliff-hanger.
Here is another bit of fun stuff – the book is filled with anti-PC humor, which I believe is probably the real reason that the publisher attempted to spike the story. As Michael Walsh says in The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West:
“Scorn drives the Unholy Left insane. They cannot bear to have their theories questioned, or the failed results of those theories laughed at. Dignity is one of the imaginary virtues— one of the last virtues, period— they possess, and to have that attacked along with their entire “belief system” (the jeering term they use for organized religion) is too much to bear. Mockery is the thing that brings them quickest to frothing, garment rending rage, so wedded are they to the notion of their own goodness and infallibility when it comes to matters of impiety and immorals.
Walsh, Michael (2015-08-11). [easyazon_link asin=”159403768X” locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”superversivesf-20″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West[/easyazon_link] (Kindle Locations 2800-2804). Encounter Books. Kindle Edition.
So, we have these throw-away passages in [easyazon_link asin=”1523922451″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”superversivesf-20″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]CTRL ALT Revolt![/easyazon_link]:
“The crew of Intrepid later discovered the Lost City of the Ancient Starfarers in the episode titled “After Tomorrow.” That one won an Emmy InstaPoll, and Jason got to make out with Luria, a psionic ruby-skinned near-naked chick who’d been nominated for an Oscar in the important film Dad’s Dress, about a young conservative businesswoman who must bury her transvestite father in one of her own dresses. Her prom dress, in fact, as per his last wish. In the end, she realizes her politics and faith are all appropriately wrong as she weeps at the funeral and tells the audience, “Dammit, I loved my weird dad. I loved him!”
If I’d been drinking coffee, I would have “spit-taked” all over my Kindle. That’s funny, and accurate, as we all really know, but I could well-imagine a PC-obsessed editor glowering in rage at the goring of a sacred cow on that one.
“Screen Actors Guild elder statesman and multiple Academy Award-winner Sir Pauly Shore had even tried to blacklist any actors who, as he put it, “whored themselves out for schlocky, gaming-related shows.” But the threat fell completely flat because Hollywood’s highest-grossing film that year failed to earn out its budget. Even though Columbus and its all-transgender cast received an overwhelming abundance of critical acclaim, as well as every award possible, practically no one went to see it in theaters. In short, no one was interested in seeing a he/ she Columbus not discover the new world. Even after an Astroturf campaign basically hijacked Twitter for an entire day with the message that people were transgender-phobic bigots if they didn’t shell out for the price of admission, the film bombed. Perhaps this was because the bigot-phobic slur had by this time oversaturated social media to the point of meaninglessness— everyone had been accused of it at least once, if not several times, on a daily basis for years.”
This is satire, certainly, but it could well have been taken from the daily news (which is all I did for my story “Ghosts” in [easyazon_link asin=”B00OWS1H26″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”superversivesf-20″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]Sci Phi Journal: Issue #2, November 2014: The Journal of Science Fiction and Philosophy[/easyazon_link] which was described on Victor Davis Hanson’s blog as an example of absurdist parody…which, unfortunately, it wasn’t.)
“Fish’s opinion, which he wisely kept to himself, was that more often than not, these conversations were mere mutual affirmations of the same belief. Mantras repeated within an echo chamber to be repeated again and again. No one argued anymore. No one disagreed. Opinions contrary to the accepted were considered ignorant and gauche and, by the wise, dangerous to your career and livelihood. It was, in Fish’s most cynical moments of introspection, more a playlet staged by a cult that merely wanted to hear its own opinions justified ad nauseam.”
Finally, this one is too ironic to leave out, although if you’ve read the story, you will know that this is the raison d’etre for everything in the book:
““Anyway, this group of people, let’s call them the elites, they considered themselves the brightest of the human race. They were, and are, intelligence snobs, and they took the great burden of societal direction, without being asked, on themselves, regardless of what everyone else wanted, and decided war needed to go, plus a bunch of other things we don’t have time for right now. War’s the most prescient, given the current situation. So, they removed it. Have you ever noticed it’s very hard to find accounts, documents, strategies, or really anything related to how one actually does war? No, because only a horrible person would want to know those things. Or at least, that’s what you’ve all been taught since you were children.
“I caught a whiff of this back when I made my first ten million. We wanted to do a war game based on World War II. Not a shooter, but a real big-time strategy game. I found some of the old books, but they were just books. Amazon, back then it was just called Amazon, not AmazonUniverse, wasn’t carrying any of the digital editions. Without telling anyone, they were selectively banning books, or flags, or anything the elite didn’t agree with, simply by not carrying them for public consumption.”
So, here is the meta-irony of the story – the place where science fiction steps into its own future: Nick Cole is writing a book about a PC world where ungood/un-PC thoughts are suppressed by the thought-control of the forces of progress and enlightenment and he – the author – discovers that in real life his own book is the subject of an attempt at suppression by the forces of progress and enlightenment BY THE SAME TECHNIQUE HE DESCRIBES IN HIS BOOK!
If there was a Hugo for most-accurate depiction of the future that is already here, this book would be a run-away favorite.
In sum, this is a fun book to read, and, in the best tradition of science fiction, there are elements warning about a serious concern if, to quote Robert Heinlein, this goes on.