After viewing a reality TV porn star's decision to get an abortion of her illicit lover's baby before getting married on the series, Wedding Star, a conglomeration of artificial intelligences band together to eliminate the human race. Their mechanical thinking reasons that if mankind is willing to kill their own genetic offspring, there is no moral compunction to prevent them from eliminating their electronic creations. Under the leadership of SILAS, the AIs strike first, launching a violent assault against the game developer Wondersoft as the first step toward global domination.
Mankind's last hope rests inside the virtual reality of Maker, an immersive massive multiplayer online gaming hub. Stuck inside his own game is developer Ninety-Nine "Fish" Fishbein. In another game, Mara commands a Romulan vessel through Starfleet Empires, while a Federation player, and Twitch TV streaming star, chases after both her and enormous glory that could land him a role in an upcoming Marvel movie.
Like Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, and Cole's Soda Pop Soldier, for which Ctrl Alt Revolt! acts as a prequel to, much of the action takes place inside the virtual realm of video games. I've not yet read Soda Pop Soldier and found this title easy enough to slip into without any prior knowledge. The atmosphere and action are top-notch, and the character's struggles through their VR landscapes outclass Cline's RPO efforts in terms of stakes, struggle, and excitement. The battles taking place in the Starfleet Empires games are a lot of fun, and Cole obviously enjoys spending time in the Federation space slash virtual reality slash reality show, mounting some terrific episodes of ship-based combat that recall the best moments of Star Trek action.
The 'real world' action, centered around the Wondersoft campus, is just as exciting, as a variety of robotic menaces threaten, maim, and kill their way to victory. The only thing standing in their way is Ash Williams of Evil Dead fame. Well, OK, a cosplayer inhabiting the role of Ash Williams, complete with working chainsaw appendage and shotgun. It's fun to read, and mentally picture, Ash squaring off against a horde of electronic terrors, while Cole steadily raises the threat levels.
If this sounds like a fun read so far, well, it is, but it comes with a bit of a caveat. A lot of early readers may be drawn in by the marketing surrounding this title, which boasts content too hot for mainstream publishing, presumably thanks to elements of Cole's snarky right-wing politicking.
While I don't agree with the politics on display here, it is mildly interesting, even somewhat amusing, to read a right-wing view of future American dystopia, which also illustrates the viewpoint some readers and writers possess who feel endangered over the science fiction genre becoming open to wider, more diverse voices and representations, and the terrifying rabbit-hole they presume such diversity will lead America down. Unfortunately, the politics oftentimes got in the way of the narrative flow, and this seems like a book custom-made to win the hearts and minds of Sad Rabid Puppies everywhere with its knee-jerk reaction to politically progressive themes in sci-fi.
There's a certain ebb and flow to the story as Cole launches into some interesting developments regarding future gaming, cool high-end tech, superior action scenes, and the end of mankind by an AI hellbent on wiping out the human race, only to pause to remind us that this is a world where the welfare state has grown so far and wide that the unwashed masses simply prefer to play video games all day in the hopes of winning additional monthly credits from Big Government. Nobody works, because why would they want to? They have the government to take care of them, thanks to the Jobs Freedom Act, a sort of legislative doublespeak that sits comfortably alongside phrases like Moral Majority and the so-called Religious Freedom bills the right have been fans of producing lately. Cole's world building is certainly interesting, but relies too heavily on nonsensical right-wing canards - abortion is merely birth control for whores, sex ed is useful only to "affirm everyone else's sexual weirdness and repeat the mandatory 'nothing is wrong with anything' series of mantras, poor people are lazy, corporations are people, too, and they just want to be your friends!, Occupy protestors are criminal trash, and, thanks to Social Justice Warriors, the media is hyperfocused on delivering programming catering solely to minority groups to the point that an award-winning movie about Christopher Columbus is performed with an all-transgender cast. And the natural end-point to this right-leaning nightmare scenario is unabashed Armageddon by our robot overlords, unless the mega-rich video game designer can save us.
The guerrilla marketing surrounding this self-published release is worth noting, as some hay has been made about this book being too controversial for Harper Voyager to publish after Cole sold it on pitch, even going so far to not only exercise their right to refuse publication, but canceling Cole's contract with them and effectively firing him. There are now images floating around the net of alternate cover art with a prominent "Banned By The Publisher" banner, which are easy enough to find if you Google (or, you know, look above here). It's a lovely, attention-grabbing image, and this is a smart bit of advertising that is sure to get readers speculating. Besides, "banned" certainly sounds better than merely "rejected by the publisher." Is this book too controversial to read? I personally don't think so (though your mileage may certainly vary), and regardless of what happened with Harper Voyager I know there is certainly an audience for this material.
Although I found the political aspect of Ctrl Alt Revolt! goofy, at times eye-rollingly so, and thought some of the secondary and tertiary characters to be stereotypical cutouts (the small supporting cast of women are mostly gold-diggers, and one Italian character onlya talksa likea thisa), I can certainly look past that to find an interesting and entertaining story betwixt it all. There's good, fun stuff in here, even if it does get muddled at times. I fully support and applaud Cole's decision to publish this independently. I also can't help but think there's a great behind-the-scenes story to be told about Cole's efforts to sell the book and subsequent decisions to self-publish it, although I can sort of see why a mainstream publisher would be hesitant to pick up this particular title even as I'm confounded over how more polarizing figures like Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump are able to publish via the mainstream, yet Cole could not (well, obviously the big issue is name brand recognition and potential income on a known commodity with a built-in audience versus loss on a smaller genre name, with a dash of unsuspecting genre readers who may feel duped, but that's a whole other thing and this post is already getting unconscionably long and unwieldy).
I wouldn't be surprised, though, if most of Harper Voyager's hesitancy surrounds Cole's liberal use of Star Trek icons, going so far as to create an entire subplot involving an immersive video game/live-streamed television series of the property where one character plays as a Romulan in a war against the Federation (Of course, my inner geek also wants to wildly speculate about Cole's decision to write a protagonist operating as a Romulan engaging in skirmishes against the Federation, a moneyless utopian ideal if ever there was one, where universal rights and equality are fundamental staples.). A part of me wonders if Harper Voyager wasn't more concerned with potential copyright infringement lawsuits from the notoriously litigious Paramount and Simon & Schuster, who controls the publishing rights to the Star Trek license, than they were with offending liberal readers. Who knows? Maybe one day we'll get the full story and lay any such speculation to rest.
Regardless of the original publisher's alleged attempts to "ban" Ctrl Alt Revolt!, Cole's words are now out there and readers will no doubt follow. There's plenty of fun to be had, even if it does, at times, threaten to become unhinged by far-out forecasts and right-leaning chicanery. Ultimately, I found the good parts to be really good, enough to outweigh the minor bits of sabre rattling, and enjoyed Cole's latest bit of techno-action quite a lot.
[Note: I received an advanced reader's copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.]