Friday, June 26, 2020

"Off to Be the Wizard," by Scott Meyer--Fiction Review

So for this Friday, I thought I’d reign it in a bit and talk about some lighter fare. Today’s review will be of Scott Meyer’s “Off to Be the Wizard.” Every time I re-read this quirky science fiction novel, it never fails to put me in a good mood. 

Scott Meyer

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

It takes an existential concept, i.e., that reality is an illusion—like the matrix—and further points out that all of human existence is equally fictional, we’re not trapped in a simulation, but products of that simulation. All of which would be normally weighty and frightening and turns the concept on its head, and makes it funny. That idea is the very soul of comedy, taking an idea that is tragic and creating laughter.

Finding the computer file that controls all of reality inevitably leads to Martin trying to use it to make himself rich. This, of course, doesn’t go exactly as planned because you can’t just suddenly create millions of dollars in your checking account without someone, namely someone in law enforcement, from noticing. What I love about all of this is his back up plan is to use the file to time travel back in time to the dark ages in England and set himself up as a wizard. I’d do that—that would be me too.

Without spoiling too much—I love that the governing principles of the wizards in “Off to Be the Wizard” are as follows: be cool, don’t be a dick, let’s eat all the junk food we want because there are no consequences so long as you observe the first two principles. After all, we’re freaking wizards!

What I don’t love about this book:

Nerdy characters who are pathologically bad with women, to an unbelievable scale, is my chief dislike with this book. Martin himself is only moderately bad with women. Still, the other wizards with the possible exceptions of Phillip and Jimmy, are stock character terrible with them—and that’s a bit lazy characterization.  

The urgency of the pacing of this novel becomes sedentary once Martin starts his training to become a wizard. Mainly this part of the story is to immerse you in the world and give you the time to meet the other wizards, and this is all fine, assuming you like those things, but if you don’t, then the middle of the book is going to be a slog. I was unbothered by it, because other than the women thing above, I found myself liking most of the characters in this novel, so mentally “hanging” out with them for a while was good enough for me. But this means the whole book has that sandwich quality I’ve talked about before—all the vital action bits happen at the beginning and end of the novel. 

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

Martin Banks, our protagonist, discovers that reality, himself, and all of human history is one big computer simulation. He does this by finding and accessing the file within the simulation that controls the entirety of creation. So what does Martin do with that power? He makes himself a bit taller at first to experiment with it, and then he makes himself inexplicably wealthy by moving the decimal point of the balance in his checking account. Is that an original concept? No—but it is very believable and what most of us would do given a chance.

So nearly immediately, Martin runs afoul of the law because while they don’t know how he did it, law enforcement is confident that he didn’t earn that money. When they do figure out what laws he broke or what new laws will have to be created to say so—ex post facto he’s a counterfeiter. 

So Martin goes on the run as only a man with control over the file governing all of reality could—by time-traveling back to the dark ages in England. Why? To set himself up as a wizard, who will have actual powers, and if you read the above part of this review, which I’d assume you have because to do otherwise would be weird, you know that I’m entirely on board with that premise. 

Soon after arriving back in ye old England, Martin is picked up by a pretty girl driving a cart, who gives him a ride into town. He reveals to her that he is a wizard. Then he is shocked to find out that the town already has got a wizard. Martin, with no sense of irony, is offended that some charlatan is claiming to have magical powers in town. When he gets to the village, he plans to show this Phillip character what for with his abilities that actually change reality. 

When Martin meets Phillip, Phillip kicks the ever-living shit out of him with seemingly immense magical talents. Then when Martin wakes up the next day, he finds out from Phillip that Martin wasn’t the only one who found the file and went back in time to set himself up as a wizard. There are a lot of so-called wizards inhabiting England.

Phillip takes Martin in as his apprentice and begins showing him the ropes of how he and all the other wizards in England have used the file to create a shell program that gives them access to a host of “magical” abilities. But Phillip warns Martin that there will be a final test, the trials, that Martin will have to pass in front of all the other wizards including Merlin himself—who is just a wise talking guy named Jimmy—before he is to be accepted into their ranks.

During his training, Martin is introduced to several other wizards and finds out that a wizard’s life is really whatever he feels like on any given day. So what do most wizards do with limitless potential? Not much, mainly hang out dorm room style with other wizards and waste time. When Martin is finally taken to a grand gathering at Camelot—just a renamed London to better fit Jimmy’s Merlin persona—the night before his trials, the wizards throw a party.  At the party, they ask Martin to show them his macro a sort of wizard calling card. Martin shows them a trick creating a titanic illusory version of himself as a robot and then breakdances. 

The next day at “the trials,” the other wizards reveal to Martin that the real trials were last night and that he was in. The whole thing was to see if Martin could be trusted, and since Phillip vouched for him, they figured he was cool. 

Afterward, Martin sets himself up as a new wizard in Camelot, but soon he and his friends are confronted by the mysterious death of an entire village. They quickly realize “magic” must have been involved and that someone was manipulating the bodies of the villagers to make them shorter, and something went fatally wrong. Body manipulation is a type of magic the wizards all agreed was forbidden since It was too dangerous to experiment with for this very reason.

At first, Martin and his friends are horrified to contemplate that maybe it was Martin’s teacher, Phillip, who broke with this cardinal rule. However, after offending Phillip and discovering more information, they realize that the culprit is none other than Merlin himself—aka. Jimmy. There is a tremendous battle of magic and wits where Jimmy holds all the advantages, but eventually, the other wizards win out and defeat him. In the end, they decide to exile Jimmy and cut his access to the file that controls reality.            


Books like this live and die on the idea that you can at least share part of the same sense of humor as the author. If your sense of humor is incompatible, well, then nothing about this book is going to work for you.

To give you an idea of the kind of humor to expect in this book, think a combination of Terry Pratchett and Monty Python, sprinkled with a bit of Ernest Cline. The characters face real stakes and dangers, but everything is played off as more of a lark than a harrowing situation. A lot of the book is spent vicariously living through the fantasy of going back in time and playing wizard, having immense power, but really just hanging out with a bunch of similar people who also figured out the big secret to everything.  

Parting thoughts:

Despite being a book that is light and fun, “Off to Be the Wizard,” does tackle some big ideas—like “Mogworld,” the chief dilemma of the plot is all about perspective and where on the slide rule between moral relativism and idealism is truth. Jimmy’s argument in the end for why he experimented on people with his magic is simply because it doesn’t matter. After all, the people who he experimented on are simulations, which so is he and everyone else—so, therefore, nothing matters. You can tell that the author has at least heard of Friedrich Nietzsche and his philosophies.

Jimmy, at the end of the story, is a textbook nihilist. He asserts that nothing matters because, in his case, and all the other wizards, they know objectively nothing exists for them other than the simulation of which they are apart of, so he feels he shouldn’t be constrained by morality. This philosophy, if earnestly held, isn’t viable in society, in my opinion.

Let’s make a few assumptions, one that everything is just a simulation, and universally there is objectively no meaning or point to anything. Starting from there, why is universal scale objective meaning the gold standard argument for why the rest of us should accept your anti-social behavior? Just because our lives are dictated and enriched, by purely subjective meanings doesn’t make them any less meaningful to us. What level of arrogance are you operating on just because something as big and grand as the universe fails to notice you grants you license to be an asshole? I’m with Martin on this one, fuck that, you can piss off and not play wizard with us anymore and be miserable somewhere alone.

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