My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Going Clear by Lawrence Wright
There has been a spate of recent books about the Church of Scientology published recently, most of which have not been complimentary to say the least. Everyone who has any dirt to dish on the Church of L. Ron Hubbard seems to have a book on the shelves these days. Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief takes the reader all the way back to Hubbard’s childhood. Wright attempts to dig through the various contradictory accounts of Hubbard’s education and military career. He finds many instances in which the official church account conflicts with government records and other reports. Piecing together the disparate stories about Hubbard’s life could not have been easy for Wright as he acknowledges the contradictory nature of what has been said and written about. For example, Hubbard has, at various times, claimed to have been an engineer, a physicist, and a plant physiologist while in reality, he never finished college. Hubbard has also made claims at having been a war hero, though the official record indicates that his one command of a patrol boat resulted in him accidentally bombing Mexico after claiming to have spotted a German U-boat.
In Going Clear, Wright presents a picture of Hubbard of a colorful figure with a dark, even abusive side. During World War II, Hubbard appears at once to have been eager to show he could be a great leader, yet always finding some health reason to get out of assignments that might result in him having to prove himself worthy of that ambition. Wright then takes the reader through Hubbard’s post-war life, detailing various failed marriages and relationships, his health problems in the late forties and his supposed discovery of a self-cure for all of his ailments through Dianetics, the forerunner of Scientology. The reader is presented with details of drug use, spousal abuse, and financial shenanigans as Hubbard founded his religion, all of which, of course, the Church of Scientology denies.
Throughout the book, however, Hubbard remains something of an enigma. Wright doesn’t assert whether Hubbard is an inveterate liar or a con man who fell victim to his own hype. Instead, he presents what he could document, either through records or witness accounts, and lets the readers draw their own conclusions. As the book reaches Hubbard’s final, paranoid, and reclusive years, the narrative shifts to his successor, David Miscavige. As with Hubbard, Stewart traces Miscavige’s life to his early childhood and how he quickly rose to be one of the most powerful leaders in the church while still in his twenties. There have been numerous allegations of abuse made against Miscavige over the years, and Stewart appears to document them all. Miscavige comes across as a psychopathic megalomaniac who dishes out physical and emotional abuse to his staff on a regular basis. Stewart describes sadistic games of musical chairs designed to pit executives against one another under threat of firing if they lose. The conditions under which members of the Sea Org (Scientology’s version of a monastic class) allegedly live boarder on slavery.
As the subtitle implies, Wright spends a lot of time focusing on the strange relationship between Hollywood and the Church of Scientology. He discusses the recruiting of celebrity scientologists like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, but if the book can be said to have a main protagonist, it’s writer/director Paul Haggis. Wright begins the book with Haggis’ recruitment into scientology and ends when he leaves it.
Stewart brings many allegations of abuse and criminal activity to life and he carefully names his sources, mostly ex-members of the Church, many of which once held high ranks in the organization. He describes the Church’s actions and history and explains many of the Church’s arcane words, with often a strange mixture of naval terminology and corporate buzzwords. Often, Scientology appears more like a never ending corporate pep rally than a religious organization. His descriptions of the abuse becomes so commonplace that the sentence, “The Church denies all of these allegations” becomes almost a standard coda for every page.
Going Clear is a gripping, well-research exploration of one of the world’s most bizarre religions and the strange hold it has on people. It is not an easy read, but anyone with an interest in Scientology should definitely pick this up before they attend their first “auditing” session.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
They say that in the past, even the nostalgia is better. Ready Player One challenges that assumption and nearly turns 80s pop culture nostalgia into an art form in the process. In the near future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes, but only online.
Our hero, Wade Watts, is a standard issue geeky teenager. He lives with his aunt and her boyfriend of the moment in the “Stacks”, a series of trailers piled on top of each other in towers that are every bit as safe as that sounds. Life in the mid-twenty-first century has taken a serious dive. Oil has run out and the global economy has collapsed. Reality, as they say, bites. Wade in particular has a lot to contend with: Poverty, an aunt who took him just for the extra government assistance and his invisibility to the opposite sex. It’s no wonder he prefers retreating into the OASIS.
Years before, billionaire game designer James Halliday created the OASIS, a virtual reality where literally anything can be created. Picture everything Second Life has the potential to deliver. Entire planets based on movies like Star Wars and Dune as well as role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, exist in the OASIS. If you’ve got the credits, you can buy your own X-Wing fighter, flying DeLorean, or even a dragon. In no time, OASIS grew from a gaming platform to the place where people conduct business, hold meetings, and attend school by logging on the virtual world.
Upon his death, however, Halliday left a pre-recorded message in his will: He’s hidden a series of keys in the OASIS and whoever can find them all and makes it to the Gate, will inherit not only his entire
fortune, but control of the OASIS itself. To find the keys, one must solve a series of riddles which leads the player through challenges that include deciphering Devo lyrics, playing a virtual version of an old D&D module, and reenacting scenes from War Games.
Needless to say, with a prize that big, everyone is a player. This includes an evil corporation that cheats by using bots and hired guns to feed answers to their virtual avatars and have no problem killing people in the real world to get what they want.
At first blush, Wade doesn’t seem to have a chance. An impoverished, overweight high school student, Wade can’t even afford the teleportation fees to leave the virtual world containing his high school. But Wade has spent his entire life studying the history and preferences of his hero. There isn’t a game, movie, song, or TV show from the 80s that Wade hasn’t desiccated an analyzed in order to figure out the first clue. Then, against all odds, Wade does it and becomes the first person to find the bronze key.
After that, the race is on as Wade, with the sometime help of other top gamers, tries to get to the Gate before the bad guys do.
If you remember the 80s and have fond memories of leather ties, high tops, leg warmers, and the days when MTV actually stood for “Music Television”, you’ll love Ready Player One.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Richard Rogers had a life. Not a perfect life, but it was his. He had a marriage, a job, and even a side career as an up and coming standup comic. Oh, he lives in a world where superheroes and the major cities are being put under domes in order to protect them from threat like a giant robot baby with a gun for a head.
Then one day, he wakes up and finds his life never happened. No one remembers he ever existed, not his wife or his parents. A side effect is that he’s also invisible to most people and, unless no one is looking at him, completely intangible. One of the few people who can see him is Doctor Knowbokov, a genius scientist who recruits Richard to help him save the world. Richard becomes Nobody and becomes part of a trio of heroes. The other two are Knowbokov’s daughters: Rail Blade, who has the almost unlimited ability to control ferrous metals, and The Thrill, who can fly and make people do whatever she tells them. While much of their work involves defeating the plans of Knowbokov’s arch nemesis Rex Monday, Knowbokov has wider plans which include global peace, whether the people want his solution or not.
Of course, not everything is as it seems and Nobody soon finds himself questioning the ethics behind many of Knowbokov’s plans. Soon he realizes that the professor has a deep Machiavellian streak and willingness to use people in disturbing ways.
Written in a light, breezy style, Nobody Gets the Girl nonetheless tackles some pretty heavy issues about the ends justifying the means and whether great power comes with great responsibility. Nobody initially joins Knowbokov’s mission out of a feeling that, his old life forever lost to him, he has little other options in life. But as he learns more about what he’s signs onto, he begins to take more control of his destiny and re-assess his relationship with the people around him, including Knowbokov’s family and the “villain”, Rex Monday.
Most superhero stories tend to be told in a very black and white terms: You have a good guy and a bad guy. Nobody Gets the Girl, however, is painted in various shades of gray and Nobody is often not sure who is the hero and who is the villain. The book packs a number of surprises, not the least of which is the identity of the girl in the title. Recommended for fans of superheroes who are looking for a little ambiguity in their fiction.