Tuesday, December 23, 2014

I've Been Reading Too Much James Dashner

I've been reading too much James Dashner. (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD)

He's the author of the Maze Runner series, the three books of which I read all in one nine hour sitting. That was probably not good for my brain. After I finished all of them at 3am I sat around and cried for a bit because I didn't know what I was doing with my life. (Read my reaction here.)

To be honest, I don't really read these books for the writing. It's a bit elementary and bland at times, but there are phrases that are truly satisfying to read, where the words just flow and feeling is directly transmitted through the text. Most other times though, I read for the plot, and my brain fills in the rest. The ideas and plot, especially the endings in certain books, makes everything worth it.

It started after I watched the Maze Runner movie. There were quite a few differences from the book, but since I read it so long ago, it didn't bother me as much. I did really like how they illustrated the maze, as it looked very similar to the cover of the book, but wasn't a huge fan of the Griever redesign. Somehow, as I was searching related topics, I came across a fourth book in the series. "Yay, maybe this will clear up that weird abrupt ending to The Death Cure," I thought. Turns out, it was a prequel.

It's called The Kill Order. I was quite curious as to how the whole decision to unleash a zombie-fying (it's essentially a zombie story, even though they're never called zombies) virus upon a civilian population to save everyone potentially worked out, and even though the book explains it, it still doesn't make sense logically (or at least logically in hindsight, or whatever other observing force would call it).

The backstory is that catastrophic solar flares destroy most of the world, baking the land and causing shortages in resources. In an attempt to save half the population instead of everyone slowing starving out, resulting in the extinction of the human race, the world's governing body decides to release a fast acting, contagious, brain eating virus onto small pockets of survivors in and around the Appalachian mountains.

The virus works at first, but surprise surprise, it mutates (seriously, did not one person on that governing committee wonder, "Hmmm the sun has just released massive amounts of radiation everywhere, and radiation causes mutations in DNA. Are we sure these killer viruses haven't mutated to an uncontrollable level?" Like honestly, how did that never occur). The virus initially killed people quickly and quietly, but the mutated version becomes increasingly slow manifesting and slow acting, allowing it to permeate further populations, as carriers without symptoms travel to more civilized areas looking for help. Infected people die more slowly as well, becoming crazed animalistic cannibals, essentially, zombies.

The story follows a group of characters living in one of the mountain settlements, trying to survive, until they are shot by the darts containing the virus. Most die immediately, but some take longer. One of the group is an ex-soldier, so he and another guy take their weapons and board the aircraft that the people shooting things were on. They manage to bring it down and find a tablet device on board that shows GPS records of the aircraft's travels. The paths converge at a single location, which they go with the rest of the group to find.

Along the way, they find a small girl from another group. She was shot as well, but her settlement was attacked months ago, yet she isn't dead or sick, or have any other symptoms for that matter. They take her along because they think she's important. Along the journey, the other man who was with the ex-soldier starts having dreams or flashbacks of how it got to this point (this man is the narrator, and the story is told from a first person limited point of view). The main group is separated when they split up to investigate a fire from another group. The narrator screws up (I started to hate him because he was making so many stupid mistakes) and he and the ex-soldier must continue without the other three, including the child. When they finally reach the aircraft's origin, they find that the scientists and personnel inside are also infected. They manage to fight most of them off and steal the remaining aircraft in order to head for the nearby city, which is where they believe the other three have been taken.

They get to the city, fight more zombies, but the main characters are starting to show symptoms as well. They know they must get the girl to safety (in this case, Alaska, which was less affected by the solar flares and is the seat of the remaining government) or she will be eaten alive. Since this story is set in the future, teleportation basically exists, so with their last bits of strength, they send the girl through the teleportation device with a note saying to use the girl for research because she is immune, which brings us to the Maze Runner where they experiment on the children to find a cure for the virus. The last chapter narrates the scene right before a small child Thomas (protagonist of the Maze Runner series) is picked up by government officials because he is immune and his parents are infected.

And that's basically it. Most of the book is just the characters fighting off various groups of crazy infected people, whether other settlers or scientists.

Nevertheless, James Dashner books have a way of unnerving me, blurring the lines between fiction and reality. I sat in my bed terrified for a good five or ten minutes before trying to message my friends to make sure that everything was still reality, or something else. All was well, until I read the first book, The Eye of Minds, of his next series, The Mortality Doctrine. And wow, did this one really screw me up.

Here's where I reiterate my point of reading for the plot, not the writing. My brain glazes over most of the words in most books anyway, and constructs a vivid mental setting where I am directly observing the characters from behind. This makes it all the more terrifying because when I'm so concentrated on reading, it does seem like imagination is reality. This series is about a teen's experience in a world where virtual reality is the norm, and people use machines to put themselves into games to play. The skilled ones are able to manipulate the code of the digital world to do what they want.

Please for the love of everything that is good, do not read what comes next if you have not read The Eye of Minds yet. It's such a wonderful plot and I could not bear to spoil it for anyone.

The main character is one of those who are skilled with manipulating code. He is from a rich family, but his parents are always away, so he lives with his housekeeper and spends his time in the virtual world with his two good friends. All of a sudden, things start to go wrong. A mysterious hacker named Kaine is terrorizing players. Normally, when people die in the virtual world, they simply wake up in their machine and are fully functional. Yet somehow, Kaine has hacked into these player's digital systems and trapped them in the digital world. Several kill themselves, and with these compromised systems, they die in the real world as well. The main character is recruited by the agency that governs these virtual realities to find Kaine and stop him. He is allowed to take his two friends with him, and they journey through a path to find the place where Kaine is hiding.

Along the way, the three friends hack their way through challenges to reach Kaine's hiding place. One by one, the friends die, leaving main character to face Kaine by himself. He finds that Kaine isn't a master hacker like they thought he would be, but a form of artificial intelligence (AI) that has gained enough sentience to take over human bodies. He is testing other AI beings to see which are worthy to have a human body. This program is the Mortality Doctrine.


Plot twist! Main character find out that he himself is an AI! He is sent back to the real world, where he wakes up with another body. The body of a human that he has taken over. He had been living in another deeper level of the virtual world, and was playing in the regular virtual reality thinking that he was human. The agent from the governing body visits him again in his new body, and lets him know that they'll still be working together to stop Kaine. The book ends.

Since I finished this book around noon, there wasn't as much midnight drowsiness to affect my brain's ability to process reality, so I'm fairly sure that I'm not a computer simulation or other AI. Nevertheless it's weird to think about it, that everything one has ever been through could just possibly be a test, a way for some omniscient overlord to run trials on behavior and response to different situations. The main character was never aware that he was different in any way, that he wasn't human, until he really was. It's a strange thing to think about, and I've done enough thinking to make my brain explode. I really need to work on college apps. ◊

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