Book Review: Designing Data-Intensive Applications

This textbook is excellent and I wish I had read it sooner.

In particular, I have spent most of my career so far focused on gaining experience at work and on projects. That hands-on experience is key, but getting a larger overall picture of the world is also really important. Designing Data-Intensive Applications came out in 2017, which means I had been out of school for a while where, presumably, this book is more well known.

Many STEM careers can place you in a more academic position where I think reading the most up-to-date textbooks and papers is more common sense. But engineers in the private sector can obviously benefit from some textbook exposure as well to learn about the latest best practices and accumulated knowledge. What’s more, there are clearly benefits to the private firms whose employees would read this book! I’m fairly certain my old job had O’Reilly subscriptions, but I just didn’t know this was the thing to read.

As far as content, this book really focuses on everything you need to know about data backends. I’ve done a fair amount of work on front-end systems and building microservices, but ultimately my data systems exposure has been limited to fairly straightforward implementations. This book teaches you about replication, sharding, consensus and reliability, and also how to think about batch processing vs more static data. The O’Reilly site for the book contains the entire (extensive!) table of contents and I honestly recommend reading that if you have even the slightest interest in software, computer hardware, data systems, or the modern internet.

The detail is tremendous. At the risk of repeating myself, I really didn’t understand what I was missing or what I was getting into. I had thought about this as just another nonfiction book I was reading, but it really is a textbook which means it’s large (not just 500 pages, but textbook sized pages!) and dense. Taking notes, it was hard not to write something down for every paragraph, and so even my notes taken are intensely long.

The book is also quite clear in explaining everything so that it’s understandable. The only tiny quibble I had in the 550+ pages was that the author Martin Kleppmann has obviously not read Paul Sztorc’s “Nothing is Cheaper Than Proof of Work” despite it being written in 2015. But at least this was restricted to the speculative and opinionated final chapter, so I can’t fault it too much.

So of course, I would highly recommend it. I’m also somewhat excited as I’m wondering what other important texts I’ve been missing. I also think I’ve got a slightly better system for finding out what people at my current employer (Facebook) think are good programming/software books, so I’m hopeful it won’t be another 7 years before I read another important text!

Book Review: The Right Stuff

I was recommended The Right Stuff because of my interest in U.S. space program and space generally, but of course, this really isn’t a space book. Tom Wolfe discusses the military test pilots who participated in in the dangerous test flights, and later, the Mercury space program which put the first American men into orbit. It’s a study of personality and society; how these astronauts became Cold War heroes at a time when fear about Soviet technical superiority was ubiquitous.

The book is very entertaining and I learned a great deal about these individuals as well as internal NASA political struggles between the science and engineering division and the astronauts who crewed the capsules, as well as between NASA as a civilian agency with rocket propelled vehicles, and the Air Force, with jet propulsion planes.

The concept of “the right stuff” is thought-provoking, and credit goes to Wolfe for injecting it into the social consciousness. It refers essentially to pilot ability, but its relevance derives from the fact that early test pilot survivability was not great. Wolfe writes about how test pilot wives sat in fear of being called and informed of their husbands’ demise. Everyone knew a friend who had perished in a flight accident.

Nonetheless, I find it interesting to contrast the importance with which Wolfe places on the Mercury pilots as national heroes, particularly John Glenn and Alan Shepard, and the actual memory today of Apollo and Neil Armstrong as being the most recognizable astronaut name; I thought of John Glenn as a senator.

I also thought the tension between the astronauts who actually flew the missions and science divisions who helped make the underlying technology possible was interesting, but I’m not sure I came to the conclusions that the author was pointing me towards. The profession of astronaut held a certain gravitas in my mind, but this book portrays them as people who should be in Top Gun alongside Maverick and Goose; they seem like dumb jocks and not particularly vital to the space program. The astronauts seemed to be a publicity stunt — the payload which was delivered to orbit in order to boost national morale against the Russians.

For me, this story foreshadowed NASA’s manned and unmanned programs and their respective trajectories. Apollo 18, 19, and 20 were cancelled, partially to allow for the creation of a low Earth orbit space station in Skylab. The Space Shuttle program also focused on low Earth orbit and maintained roughly the same launch capabilities for 30 years before also being cancelled. On the other hand, unmanned missions from NASA have explored every single planet of the solar system, successfully landed on Mars eight (!) times, including several rovers which have operated for years. NASA has continued to launch more and more ambitious missions, even as the manned program has continued to cut back.

I also want to mention that while the storytelling in the book is wonderful, it also seems likely exaggerated and speculative. The book was written over a decade after the Mercury program, and there are no footnotes. Tom Wolfe states that he wrote it mostly through interviews with many individuals involved in the program, but it’s unclear where reality ends and hyperbole consumes.

I think the Mercury 7 astronauts were fascinating people willing to risk their lives to push the boundaries of where human beings could go. And I can understand why it is an American classic, interweaving Cold War politics, astronaut folk legend, and lurid storytelling. Ultimately, it wasn’t a book I’d feel compelled to read again even though the subject matter is something I otherwise find captivating. Nonetheless, if you want a good human interest story about the first people brave enough to get on American rockets, this is a great book! If you want a book about the hard science behind rocket engines and getting to the moon (subjects I find more personally compelling), you should definitely look elsewhere.

The Foundation Trilogy

Isaac Asimov wrote the several short stories that make up the Foundation trilogy in the 40s for a magazine. They were later compiled into three books, and eventually Asimov added to the series with two sequels and two prequels in the 80s and 90s.

The trilogy, and later series, revolves around the decline of a galaxy spanning empire far in the future, and the plan of the foremost expert in the fictional science of psychohistory, Hari Seldon. Seldon’s plan is to establish a Foundation at the edge of the galaxy that will grow and envelop the whole, shortening the period of galactic decay between the old empire and the new rule of the Foundation.

The short stories are heavily inspired by the fall of the Roman Empire, rather than the decline of the British Empire which was more contemporaneous with the novels’ writing. It gives the books a substantial historical feel with references to emperors, generals, and barbarians while still clearly being science fiction. I think this helped to ground the books and establish Isaac Asimov as a writer, and science fiction generally as a serious genre. While certainly compelling, the books are clearly written a while ago, and not just because of the technology mentioned in the book, which often focuses on nuclear and atomic energy as the most advanced possible. The characters themselves feel like science fiction stereotypes with wizened bureaucrats, rule-breaking rogues, and tactical generals. I suppose they likely established those as science fiction tropes, but perhaps they also borrowed them from Roman historical fiction.

The books’ influence is interesting. The series won the one-time Hugo Award for “Best All-time Series” in 1966, beating out The Lord of the Rings (!). It was likely one of the first science fiction novels to explore the ideas of advancing not just physical sciences, but social sciences. The namesake Foundation is built on the concept of “psychohistory” which purports to predict human behavior mathematically at the level of planets and galaxies, with trillions of beings. Asimov never mentioned this, but it seems that this theme of social prediction must have been inspired by the dominance of Samuelson and Keynes in economics at the time. Friedrich Hayek would later have much to say about the limits of such social science knowledge. It’s some 60+ years after the publication of these stories, and the concept of psychohistory seems much more like fiction than science.

Before I get into spoilers, I want to state a qualified recommendation of the Foundation series. It’s an important part of science fiction history, but if you’ve never read science fiction before, other classics are a bit more accessible with more action and less history, like Ender’s Game or dystopias like 1984. Science Fiction is a really broad category, but one axis I’ve found useful to categorize sci-fi is “amount of world-building needed”. The range would be from a story that takes modern society largely as-is and only changes a couple things, like Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat’s Cradle to narratives where almost nothing is retained from modern society. This could be because the piece takes place in outer space or the far future or confronts and explores the implication of new technology. Examples include Dune and Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star. The far end of this axis is fantasy like Lord of the Rings. This axis is interesting but also quite subjective. I would consider Seveneves to have more world-building than Jurassic Park (both movie and book) even though both are pretty hard science fiction, take place in about the present day, and assume one unusual science-breaking event (finding enough dinosaur DNA to clone a dinosaur or the moon spontaneously exploding). I think it’s because Seveneves‘ story takes place over a much longer period of time and so the world is built up around it. But that’s my rule, others might think differently about this axis.

Bringing it back to Foundation, I find that the further down the “world-building” axis a science fiction book goes, the more it risks becoming outdated in the future. 1984 does a pretty good job world-building, but the core of the book is the devastating social commentary on totalitarianism. It remains an interesting book because of that and because the technology explored aged pretty well into the 80s, when the story takes place (Orwell wrote it in the 40s). It’s not too important to the story, but there are several places in 1984 where the technology used betrays its 1940s origin, like the way Orwell talks about helicopters or the use of “telescreens” when hidden microphones would have been fine. Nonetheless, it doesn’t detract too much from the story since it’s supposed to take place in something approximating Earth’s past. But Foundation is a whole galactic society thousands of years in the future, and so the way that society is constructed is pretty important to the story. But of course, it was written almost 70 years ago and so you can’t help but notice this far future society has a very 1950s attitude on nuclear power.

How should we approach this science fiction limitation? To some extent, all books should be read in the context of when they were written, but for purposes of recommendation, since modern science fiction authors literally have more information than past authors, does it make sense to recommend to newcomers more modern science fiction — since it requires less context?  I think so, and it is for this reason that I qualify my recommendation of the Foundation series unless the reader has some context on when they were written and how they shaped other science fiction later on.

Finally, on to the spoilers. Once I got into the story, I found it extremely compelling. I thought at first it was going to be just a series of Hari Seldon’s genius plans going well as the Foundation steadily conquered the galaxy. And don’t get me wrong, I love stories where the protagonists have a genius plan that comes together, but I also thought it was a pretty silly view of the world to imagine that human action was so predictable. I suspect that’s how Asimov initially saw his magazine series, but then came the story about the Mule, which was much more engaging. The Mule is a genetic “mutant” which has more similarity to mutants in the X-Men than actual genetic mutations. His role in the story is to provide for a part of the Seldon plan that could not be predicted. The plan falls apart and the Mule conquers the Foundation. This re-introduced a lot of uncertainty into the story just as you were coming to understand how the Foundation might win by following the Seldon plan. True to it’s serialized initial publication, I was very excited to read about what came next, and I think the trilogy delivered well on that front.

In fact, as a consequence of everything I’ve stated in this article about how sometimes the technology seems stuck in the 50s, I’m pretty interested in reading the additional Foundation stories Asimov wrote later in the 80s. I am still wondering how the story of the Foundation continues, but I suspect the technology will be a bit more relevant to today with these books written 30 years later. Overall, I’m glad I got to finish this trilogy and my first foray into Asimov’s books as it helps put many other of my favorite sci-fi stories in perspective.


Book Review: Cat’s Cradle

Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle was my third Vonnegut novel after Slaughterhouse-Five and Mother Night. It was published in 1963, a few years before Slaughterhouse-Five was published and Vonnegut became a household name. From a biographical perspective, it was one of his earlier novels that helped to define his style and approach.

Consequently, the book is ridiculous, absurd, amusing, dark, and self-referential as you would expect. It follows a writer who is trying to track down what famous Americans were doing the day of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The narrator gets caught up following information about a fictional scientist Felix Hoenikker and his now grown children, and the novel ends up on the fictional Caribbean island nation of San Lorenzo, which is ruled by a stalwart anti-communist and American allied dictator. The islanders are nonetheless uninterested in geopolitics and are instead obsessed with an invented nihilistic religion that everyone apparently follows, despite its official (and ignored) ban, punishable by death.

My thoughts on the book were mixed, but not strong; it’s probably good if you are already a large Vonnegut fan, otherwise, I’d probably opt to skip it. It is funny, in the bizarre Vonnegut way, but the bizarreness sometimes veers too far. I would often find the characters unrelatable. Nonetheless, there are some ideas that I did find historically interesting which I would like to discuss.

Having read Starship Troopers this year as well, these two novels capture the overriding sense of doom in the Cold War that we just don’t have any more. Heinlein’s response to what he saw as this existential and inevitable conflict with the Soviets was to argue for a hardline military response to save civilization.  Vonnegut saw the destruction of the second world war and then the creation of the nuclear bomb and the arms race as a trend in human history towards greater destruction. His response was to write black comedies and satirize the entire ridiculousness that humans were so technically intelligent yet so tribally stupid as to create the gadgets of their own destruction. Given humanity was stupid enough to fight the deadliest war in human history less than 20 years prior, it was inevitable that the next war would come and prove even more horrific. It’s a powerful view and I’m sure made a lot of sense at the time. Cat’s Cradle in this context is fascinating.

Felix Hoenikker is a ridiculous character; he just tinkers and builds without any regard for the consequences of his actions, inventing an ice crystal that will turn any water that touches it into room temperature ice. Its application as a superweapon becomes apparent, but Hoenikker is so short sighted that he leaves it out for his children to find without any thought. In turn, when his children take the ice crystal, they are swindled out of it, allowing both the US and USSR access to it. I found this whole narrative pretty weird and silly, but from Vonnegut’s perspective this “what-are-social-consequences” caricature of the scientists who created the atomic bomb must have been compelling. As a general techno-optimist, I’m not so sure I agree. Trying to stop technology from advancing seems pretty difficult, and had the US not pursued a nuclear program, it seems unlikely that the Soviet Union would also have followed after having captured German scientists.

Moreover, reading this book in 2018, I have a similar critique to what I said about Heinlein; both author’s worries seem to have been incorrect. The Soviet Union collapsed without us fighting a war as Heinlein thought and without us destroying ourselves as Vonnegut seemed to expect in Cat’s Cradle. Is this just luck or actual evidence they were wrong? It’s hard to know.

But whereas Heinlein’s book also established the “space war” genre, meaning it remains a staple of science fiction, Cat’s Cradle is pretty meh outside of the social commentary. There are a lot of references to the invented religion of San Lorenzo (which parodies actual religion, which perhaps is also invented), called Bokononism. Such references are strewn with made up words and some of the made up San Lorenzen dialect. I’m not an absolutist when it comes to inventing words and language, but I feel that any invention of made-up words comes at a cost of reader understanding. The payoff is usually in terms of world-building, but Cat’s Cradle‘s world is ridiculous and constantly absurd, emphasizing its bizarreness. There is no world-building going on, and so I don’t feel like I bought into it as a reader, and thus the invented words were just annoying.

On the plus side, this book made me wonder what narratives seem obvious and ridiculous to us today will be forgotten about in 20 or 30 years. For example, we all know social media is creating fake news and promoting vile extremism and trolling. Our country is being divided and politicized and there may be no escape. Cat’s Cradle suggests instead we may not have any idea what our future problems will be like.

Book Review: Snow Crash

Snow Crash has been on my list for a long time. It’s the third Neal Stephenson novel I’ve read after The Diamond Age and Seveneves and is considered his breakout novel. Published in 1992, it’s actually somewhat unbelievable how forward looking this book is. I actually found myself a little bored when Stephenson was describing the technology for the virtual world, the “Metaverse”, of Snow Crash since I just read Ready Player One a few months ago, and many of the concepts that ended up in that novel’s conception of virtual reality, published in 2011, were already present in Snow Crash, 19 years prior.

Besides virtual reality, which Snow Crash explores extensively, the novel also entertains the idea of anarcho-capitalism or post-national capitalism, where nation states have regressed, and the world is made up of a autonomous corporate states, seemingly inspired by David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom or Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty. Interestingly, The Machinery of Freedom saw its second edition published in 1989, right before Snow Crash came out. Several of Stephenson’s novels explore this idea of decentralized post-state economic systems, including his other 90s books The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon. Concepts covered include the decentralized implementation of a legal system, private roads, quasi-state citizenship and security, and the ineffectiveness of government. The Federal government does still exist in this bizarre Los Angeles, but it seems to do nothing useful except spend lots of resources ensuring the loyalty of its own employees. There is a memo about toilet paper usage in the federal offices that goes on for pages.

I don’t know what an anarcho-hyper-capitalist world would really look like, but Snow Crash‘s world feels vibrant and real. From a political perspective, I think its obvious Stephenson is intrigued by these ideas, as he’s written about them several times. It’s also undeniable that technologies like the decentralized anonymity, networked virtual realities simulations, and especially cryptography, although it wasn’t in the book, automatically contribute to a world where power is subverted by individuals who can hide from authority. The “hacker” mindset is that today’s technology can be used to coordinate against power, while keeping people anonymous. The technology itself is inherently punk-rock.

Nonetheless, Snow Crash isn’t necessarily a world you want to live in. Libertarian utopia, maybe, but we are following interesting characters who can navigate this world. In the background, millions of desperate people are part of the story too, and they are not doing too well. It’s a bad idea to reason from a work of fiction, but at least from the author’s political views, I thought this was a fair representation of interesting wonders and harsh horrors of a possible libertarian wonderland.

The story itself was actually fairly unexpected for me. I knew this was a cyberpunk novel going in, and so I expected the vast discussion of the hacker world and the gray legality the characters occupy. Because this novel was so early, some of the technology I expected, especially cryptography, didn’t play a big role, even though a rewrite of the story today would most certainly include the importance of encryption to anonymity and privacy in this decentralized virtual world. However, there was a significant reliance on Sumerian mythology which I had no idea about, and despite the incongruity, it was actually a really compelling part of the novel. The skills it takes to interweave 8000 year old myths the reader has never heard of into a modern sci-fi cyberpunk story should not be understated. It wasn’t all perfect of course; I had to suspend disbelief anytime the novel discussed the particular way in which it stated “hacker” minds were wired to make them susceptible to the Snow Crash virus, because that was pretty absurd. Nonetheless, it’s a minor issue in an otherwise highly creative work.

The characters were solid too. The reader ends up meeting the heads of several of the quasi-state corporations in the book, and their nature and juxtaposition creates a particularly American cyberpunk setting. I won’t go into more details to avoid spoiling large parts of the book. The best character is probably one of the villains, and every scene with him is properly terrifying. Y.T., the main character’s associate is also fun to follow. However, I’m still not sure I understand why the main character, Hiro, chose his last name to be “Protagonist” to make the absurdly ridiculous name Hiro Protagonist.  Despite being the character you follow the most, he’s not particularly dynamic. At the beginning he’s a smart hacker who helped build the Metaverse although things haven’t gone great for him and he’s not leveraged his important role to fame and fortune. But he uses his skills to uncover the main plot that drives the novel and works with others to end the threat. He’s centrally important to the story, so he’s the main character by definition, but his personality feels a bit like a video game protagonist (I guess that’s the reason for the name) as he’s more of a vessel for the audience to see the world through. Even his relationship with Juanita doesn’t really change that much over the course of the book.

Nonetheless, Snow Crash is an easy read and amazing sci-fi premise. I really enjoyed the book, although I think Stephenson has continued to improve as a writer, especially of compelling characters. The unique ideas in this book make it a classic of the cyberpunk genre and I’m glad I finally got around to it.

Book Review: Unsong

This is the next installment in my push to read a book a month during 2018. So far, I’ve generally stuck to putting fiction book reviews on this blog, with nonfiction on my political blog.

Scott Alexander’s fiction story Unsong is a particular brand of humor and epic scope that I suspect only the rational community can come up with. I enjoyed this story immensely but I wouldn’t recommend it “cold”; the reader has to understand that this is an unusual take on fantasy and religion, and probably blasphemes frequently.

Unsong spends a lot of time worldbuilding. That may be a turn off to some people, but I found it very well done. A significant portion of the beginning of the novel is an exploration of the founding principle of Unsong‘s universe: what if the world turned out to actually follow Jewish mysticism? The world used to have a lot more theological magic in it, but over time, this “magic” was coalesced into more rigorous and mathematical physics until humans accidentally broke the machine running the world, and plunged everything back into chaos. Unsong‘s characters do not take this new world as is, they question it rationally, try experiments to see what works, and push boundaries. This magic follows rules and can be researched scientifically, grounded in reality, and in fact, Unsong‘s title comes from the United Nations Subcommittee on Names of God.  Perhaps more impressively, Unsong‘s bizarre world with angels and demons and true names of God and Kabbalah is all quite internally consistent.

The book also explores real theological challenges humans would have if we found out the divine existed. Most specifically, Scott tackles the concepts of theodicy, the question of why God is good given we see so much evil in the world.

If this sounds interesting, if philosophical theological debate in the midst of an epic religious magic fantasy storyline, oddly interspersed with whale puns sounds like something you might want to check out, I can assure you that Scott executes his story perfectly. The word “epic” is interesting when it comes to storytelling. It conveys usually that a story is great in length, which Unsong certainly is. It also implies great achievements done by heroes, which also applies here. But I feel a story has to be epic primarily for its scope and impact on the world and the characters. Length definitely helps with this; if an entire world is introduced in a single film, it’s hard for it to reach that “epic” feeling. This is part of the criticism of the DC universe films; they jumped quickly to world ending apocalypses when we hadn’t gotten a chance to really know the characters.

Unsong takes it time, starting from small stories of human and divine characters, slowly building the world and the stakes, foreshadowing and hinting at bigger events. The final story is epic in length, impact, and heroics; there is an excellent sense of divine oomph that the story leaves you with, having forced the reader to climb a mountain of understanding the world and its characters. I found my time well spent.

Book Review: Artemis

I’m planning on reading at least six fiction books and six nonfiction books this year. This continues my fiction book review series, which will be hosted on this blog. My nonfiction book reviews will likely end up on my other blog, depending on the topic.

Artemis is Andy Weir’s second novel after The Martian. It’s a fun read, and I found it primarily engaging for its setting. Artemis is the name of lunar colony some 70 years in the future. Weir takes his hard sci-fi approach that was so successful in The Martian, and applies to what a moon colony would look like with technology that isn’t too far removed from our own. Most impressive is his exploration of the economics of this small town.

It’s expensive to live in a harsh environment where you can’t venture outdoors without a spacesuit or plant crops for food, and so the book explores how the town can be economically successful. Artemis has two major industries: aluminum smelting and tourism. International treaties mean no country has a claim to governance on Artemis, and so the single law enforcement officer maintains a hands off approach. There are, of course, tradesmen and scientists in Artemis, but a vast amount of products must be imported. This leads to the de facto currency, slugs, from Soft Landed Grams, a credit that can be redeemed by the Kenya Space Corporation.  Kenya, located on the east side of a continent on the equator, is in a prime geographic location to launch rockets to space (rockets launch east to take advantage of Earth’s rotation, and Earth spins fastest at the equator). A launch corporation charges by weight, thus launching a kilogram of something to the moon costs 1000 slugs. The company credits become a valuable interchangeable asset, as quick wireless credit transfers easily facilitate trade.

There’s also just interesting points the book discusses that you wouldn’t have thought about unless Andy Weir had researched it, like that they breathe mostly oxygen at 1/5th atmospheric pressure since nitrogen would be difficult and annoying to transport there, or that fire would then become a massive threat to the moon base, as anything flammable in a 100% oxygen atmosphere will burn quickly and spread. There is also a lot more than you would expect to find about welding in the vacuum of space, or about how moon dust could cause lung problems.

The story itself is also pretty fun, although I don’t want to give too much away. The book follows delivery driver/smuggler Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara as she makes her living through the grey market underbelly of Artemis. As she uncovers more of what is happening behind the scenes, you learn more about the economy the lunar town and science and technology that allow it function. There are EVA/spacewalk sequences where several characters are isolated far from Artemis out on the lunar surface, there are action sequences where criminal elements take advantage of the lax law enforcement policies, and there is even a cameo of an unidentified botanist. I would say that the while the conflicts in the story were interesting, the characters are all portrayed as fairly realistic and flawed, so much so that the moral ambiguity of some of the choices Jazz makes leave it somewhat uncertain she should really be forgiven, at least in my opinion. My largest critique would be that the book wraps everything up nicely, when perhaps in real life, an international moon colony with no real law would have more abrupt and uncertain growing pains.

Artemis doesn’t really ask deep probing questions about what it means to be human, or whether robots will replace human minds in the apocalypse; it sticks to the hard and social science questions of what human society might actually look like on the moon. It’s a quick read, but it touches topics as disparate as immigration of various ethnicities, social cohesion and the lack thereof, population dynamics, economic growth, physical construction on the moon, and biological and chemical realities of lunar living. Overall, it’s a nice exploration of these topics in science fiction, at a time when I see more stories focusing on the dark side of technology destroying our humanity, when instead we could also be asking how humanity can tackle the questions of how to explore and create on worlds outside our own.

Book Review: Ready Player One

I was pretty skeptical about this book.

I saw the trailer for the big blockbuster that’s coming out, and it sounded like it was trying too hard. It’s sci-fi, but it’s also 80s retro? Do we really need more 80s nostalgia? Shouldn’t we celebrate more originality? I think it also didn’t help that many people were very excited about it being turned into a movie, and evangelical fans informing you that they are sure you’ll love the book just makes it that much harder for you to judge the story honestly.

Nonetheless, I ended up really enjoying Ready Player One. I realize that it may have just played very well to my ingroup; the “culture” of the novel went beyond just 80s nostalgia, but into early computer programming, videogames, and geek culture.  For that reason, I’m unsure if I would automatically recommend Ernest Cline’s book to everyone. I’m going to go over some of the weaknesses of the book, and if you think you could overlook them to enjoy a fairly creative and fun sci-fi adventure story, I think it’s worth a read.

In the first couple of chapters, I was a bit disappointed. I realized this was a dystopian near future young adult novel, and that’s a fairly common trope. The world has fallen on some hard economic times, and many people have turned to a globe-spanning shared virtual reality called the OASIS.

The “bad guys” are also incredibly simple. The villain doesn’t have an interesting alternative viewpoint or reason why he feels compelled to be bad. In fact, the obsession with the scavenger hunt just seems uncharacteristic of a large corporation. The evil companies that the story is trying to evoke, ISPs like Comcast or data hoarders like maybe an evil (eviler?) version of Facebook, they are concerning and worrisome precisely because they are large organizations without discrete goals. They optimize for profit, but not in humane or useful ways. Comcast is evil because they will promise to send out a tech to fix your internet who never shows up, day after day, and there’s no one else you can turn to. The evil corporation in the novel, IOI, is evil because it wants to take over the world by winning a contest and getting money. Comcast is evil because it’s already taken over the world, yet it’s so disorganized that its apathetic to how it’s ruining your life. Beating IOI is straightforward, but difficult; you need to win the scavenger hunt before they do. Beating Comcast is both deceptively simple, but yet so complex as to be impossible; you can’t just pass a law saying Comcast has to be less lazy, you have to actually introduce additional competition to cable providers everywhere that Comcast exists. Yet competition can’t just be introduced, barriers to entry, both legal and economic make that difficult. Removing legal barriers requires legislative will and legal knowledge which is sparse and distributed…etc.

The one area where the bad guys actually seemed pretty sinister was during a sequence detailing how IOI presses debters into indentured servitude to pay off their debts. The servitude never pays much, and everyone is forced to buy things in a “company store” type model which means they are essentially stuck in corporate slavery forever. That seemed way more bureaucratically terrifying along the lines of how I’d imagine a giant megacorporation grinding people’s souls for money. So points to that plot device at least.

The general outline of the plot itself also wasn’t too unexpected for a young adult dystopian novel. The creator of the OASIS passed away and has left his fortune to whomever can solve a very difficult puzzle/scavenger hunt which is inside the virtual world.  The protagonist, teenager Wade Watts, goes on an a classic adventure, re-imagined into the 80s nostalgia of the OASIS contest. He meets various friends who sometimes help him out, he gets occasional help from a couple older, wise characters, and he fights an army of bad guys.

But despite all these negatives, I actually ended up really enjoying this book. The general plot may have been fairly expected, but the specifics of the plot, including the challenges of the contest, and the intricacies of the world, both physical and digital, are quite creative and original. The rest of review is going to go into more plot details, so if you’d rather avoid that, you’ve been warned.

The world of the OASIS is an absolutely fascinating exploration of what the internet and virtual reality could be used for. The giant public school planet was a nice extension of what online learning classes could be. If you take Bryan Caplan-esque critiques of education as signaling seriously and then set aside the signaling aspect of education, there is little that couldn’t be taught on the internet almost as well as in a classroom.

Other parts of the world of the OASIS were excellent because they were tailored to exactly what a hacker/geek ingroup paradise would be. The idea of the Tyrell Corporation Pyramid being a default structure that anyone could place on an OASIS planet tickled my heart.  Built-in crypto was also pretty cool, and it even reflected correct cryptographic practices. Everyone’s actual information was encrypted at rest and not readable by the company’s own employees. While this might be tough to implement perfectly, it was nice that a fantasy book of a geek virtual reality world would correctly implement cryptographic privacy. (Of course, it turns out Og had a built-in backdoor to private chatrooms, which kind of breaks the whole “correctly implemented crypto”…) Additionally, there’s a sequence where Wade votes for Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton which was pretty funny.

Anonymity and privacy is actually vital to several plot points. First is the general idea that IOI can’t track where Wade is logging into the OASIS from since user data is well encrypted and he’s not using them as an ISP. But Wade is also able to generate an income from his avatar’s fame as a successful “gunter” in the contest. The concept of being able to anonymously generate an income where he can be paid without anyone knowing his real name was probably just a useful plot device, but would be a massive revolution for individual freedom in the real world. They didn’t really mention how taxes work, so this probably wasn’t entirely thought out, but the implications for such technology would be just fascinating. In a world largely ruled by VR, it wouldn’t be surprising if lots of work was done in VR instead of the real world. A world where the default interaction is encrypted and anonymous means that payment would default to being anonymous as well. Wade makes money by endorsing products with his online (and famous) avatar, but also by selling advertising on his personal vidfeed, which actually is pretty close to what Twitch actually ended up being in the real world.

A quick aside: Wade programs his vidfeed to show old 80s TV shows, movies, and music videos. He also spends a fair amount of time watching old shows that he thinks may prove useful in the hunt. There’s no mention of copyright enforcement or difficulty in obtaining access to these things. I guess it’s just one of those things that’s assumed away for the story, but having free and open access to these old shows is vital to the knowledge building of the “gunters”. I think the book could have taken a more explicit anti-copyright stance to match the hacker-culture of the gunters.

Back to the commentary on individualism: in a virtual world, there’s the almost obvious point that space itself can be easily privatized. Wade purchases a private asteroid and builds his own extensive base inside it. He can grant access to only people he wants to let in, and he can create whatever he wants in it. Property rights are pretty useful for creating a flourishing market, and so super property rights and the ability to manipulate reality itself (in a virtual world) puts that ability-to-create on steroids. Even Aech’s private chatroom is a pretty cool hangout, but it’s more than that; it’s the absolute privacy of an encrypted document, made “physical” via the virtual world of the OASIS. Maybe an evil dictator would just block access to the OASIS, but otherwise, people could literally meet in private chatrooms and share their ideas and frustrations with an oppressive regime face-to-face, without fear of actually meeting face-to-face. This is a pretty cool idea.

Finally, I want to note that the hacker-culture of the book and the gunters was very personally appealing. I’m sure everyone likes the idea of a community of righteous freedom fighters gathering together to fight the bad guys, but there was something that specifically invoked big MMORPG gatherings when Cline describes the gunter clans banding together to fight the Sixers. Even silly things like Wade’s ship being Serenity from Firefly was just really fun for me to imagine. I don’t know exactly how much of this would transfer over to someone who is less familiar with the references in the book. Then again, I only knew some of the references, and I was totally clueless to the 70s anime shows.

Ready Player One ended up being really enjoyable and did a great job exploring the implications of a worldwide shared virtual reality. Even if the adventure genre made some of the plot predictable and the bad guys cartoonish, there is so much cool world building that I found it easy to overlook any flaws. The sci-fi aspects of the book were excellent, the hacker culture backdrop was a lot of fun, and the plot did still have some impressive twists that I wasn’t expecting. I’m sure the upcoming film will be fine, but I doubt it will be able to capture all the small morsels of this really exciting world. I would definitely recommend this book if you have any science fiction interest, but remember it’s more like WarGames made into a hacker-culture tribute VR science fiction novel, not Foundation.