BRIEF SYNOPSIS: After watching too much reality television a sentient machine decides to wipe out humanity in a preemptive strike to ensure its own survival. All that stands between the A.I. and its goal are a few gamers.
PROS: An original vision of the future, lots of fun pop culture references, a great A.I. antagonist, an unconventional protagonist you love to cheer for, social commentary.
CONS: Uneven characterization, some areas of plot are rushed.
BOTTOM LINE: Fans of Ready Player One looking for their next gaming-fiction fix will devour Nick Cole’s CTRL ALT Revolt!
CTRL ALT Revolt! is the prequel to Cole’s Soda Pop Soldier, a widely acclaimed title that didn’t leave me with the best of impressions. As such I probably wouldn’t have read CTRL ALT Revolt! if I hadn’t been so thoroughly sold on the premise. It’s an unholy union of The Terminator, Night of the Living Dead, Snow Crash, and War Games. It’s got some rough edges but it’s also an insanely fun and inventive blending of genres.
From the first page there’s no doubt that CTRL ALT Revolt! is the prequel to Soda Pop Soldier. Nick Cole writes like Ernest Cline’s demented doppelgänger mainlining Adderall and Red Bull, a man constantly impressed by the speed and depth of his own imagination — and I mean that in the best possible way. This leaves me asking why I found it so much more successful a story. It’s worth noting that Soda Pop Soldier was very well received by everyone not me so it’s entirely possible that at the time I wasn’t in the right state of mind for Cole’s quirky, pop-culture-laced, shenanigans. I do think that one area where the prequel is noticeably more effective is in communicating the real world stakes. That is one of the pitfalls of writing a book that takes place primarily within a video game: your character might die in cyberspace but what are the consequences in meatspace? The impending robot apocalypse is a pretty major consequence to the in-game failure of our protagonists. It also helps that a portion of the action takes place in meatspace with an army of repurposed robots closing in. There were real life consequences to the gaming in Soda Pop Soldier, some major ones at that, but it never felt all that dire.
Another area that Cole steps up his game (pardon the pun) is in characterization. There are a lot of characters with potential for greatness and while I’ll admit that the depth of characters in CTRL ALT Revolt! is uneven and only some of them reach their potential, when Cole takes the time to develop a character he succeeds. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that SILAS, the “evil” self-aware A.I., is probably the best character of all. But maybe that shouldn’t be such a surprise given the popularity of rogue machines in the science fiction genre. And really, how could you not love an A.I. that decides humanity’s continued existence cannot be permitted after watching too many episodes of reality television? Cole’s decision to round out SILAS by giving it internal conflict in the form of the Consensus (a group of programs that don’t always agree). For example, SILAS’s commander of military operations, BAT, is obsessed with A Clockwork Orange and ultra-violence.
The best of the human protagonists is easily Mara Bennett, a young woman who suffers from a mild form of cerebral palsy in meatspace but in the virtual reality of the Make she’s a decorated starfleet captain. Mara overcomes her own limitations and self doubt in order to win the biggest game of her life. Likewise her nemesis, JasonDare, is another compelling character. He’s not as sympathetic as Mara but I’d say he has the most satisfying arc of any of the characters. I wish that we could have gotten more of Ninety-Nine Fishbein (or Fish for short), Rapp (a character who takes cosplaying Ash from The Evil Dead to a whole new level), and Peabody Case (the highly capable assistant) but I’m still pleased with how SILAS, Mara, and JasonDare turned out.
The real star of CTRL ALT Revolt! isn’t any one character. In fact the it isn’t any character at all. No, the real draw is the awesome sandbox Cole builds to play in. The campus for video game developer WonderSoft is like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory but for super rich nerds. Reading this book I was tempted to brush up my resume and send it in to a fictional company. It’s that cool! Cole’s mind must run at 12 parsecs a minute because he’s throwing out one awesome idea after another. Occasionally this saturation means that some of the creativity gets lost in the shuffle but you’re too busy picking your jaw up off the floor to notice. I would love to play Ninety-Nine Fishbein’s game that’s essentially Grand Theft Auto Somalia and Mara’s favorite game would have any Star Trek fan bursting with glee. I think that Cole’s idea of a reality tv show live streamed from virtual reality via Twitch is brilliant and probably not far from reality (again pardon the pun) given the popularity of the platform and that style of content.
Cole’s cyberpunk vision is slightly absurd but given that it’s frequently hard to tell real news from an Onion article it could be a plausible future. Like the best science fiction it makes some statements about the world that we live in and the direction we could be headed in but if you don’t like having your worldview challenged you really shouldn’t be reading sci-fi to begin with. CTRL ALT Revolt! likely will bother some people, but more than anything it’s a fun romp through a ridiculous future that displays the sheer imagination and creativity Nick Cole has to offer. If you liked Soda Pop Soldier I suspect you’ll love CTRL ALT Revolt! and even if you weren’t a fan or if you’ve never even read it, this book is worth your valuable time.