Greetings to my fellow coach-class passengers aboard the StarShipSofa. This is Adam, welcoming you to Cheapskates.
Well, my Kindle has gotten its first battle scar. Thanks to a drop out of my coat pocket into the space between the car seat and the center console, it now boasts several short but deep scratches in the upper corner, revealing the shiny metal beneath.
Ah, well, just makes me look tough, right? Like a nerd… with a nosering. Hm… maybe not.
Anyway the… injury… has put me in mind of battles and fighting, so I’ll use that to inform this month’s review on Cheapskates.
Two months ago, I reviewed Edgar Rice Burrough’s “A Princess of Mars” for you, which inspired the colossal flop film “John Carter.” So much of a flop, in fact, that it lost Disney $200 million, is quite probably the reason Disney Studio’s head, Rich Ross, resigned. The Economist termed it the “Worst Flop Ever.” As the public radio program “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” suggested, at least part of the problem was the name change from “A Princess of Mars” – which Disney thought would only appeal to girls – to “John Carter” – which appeals to no one.
So given that my last review keyed off of an undisputed loser film, I thought with this one I’d take inspiration from a movie hit – “The Hunger Games”, based on the young adult novel by Suzanne Collins. This movie, in contrast to John Carter, is expected to earn $300 million before it leaves theatres.
For the uninitiated, “The Hunger Games” takes place in a North America of the future – now called “Panem” – with clear haves and have-nots. Most of the nation is divided into 12 “districts” with each district specializing in a different service or commodity. For the most part, these districts live on a subsistence level – nearly medieval in their level of technology. In contrast is the much smaller, but technologically far superior “Capital”, located in approximately Colorado. These fop-like people are the “haves”, and most of them live a sheltered life of luxury.
As the book opens, nearly three quarters of a century have passed since a 13th district tried to lead a rebellion upon the Capital. The result was the devastating nuclear bombing of District 13 and the establishment of the Hunger Games. These are a demoralizing annual contest that throws a teenage boy and girl from each district (for a total of 24) into a fight to the death that’s part gladiator arena, part reality television show.
Into this scene we meet Katniss Everdeen – a de-facto master archer from her illicit hunting trips into the woods for food. Everdeen lives in District 12 – old Appalacia and home to Panem’s coal mining industry. As the book opens, Katniss must face the annual ceremony, where the so-called “Tributes” are chosen by the drawing of names. The poorest are at the worst disadvantage here, as subsistence food and water can be obtained by eligible teenagers if they elect to put in their name more than once.
I won’t ruin how it happens for you, but I’m sure it’s obvious by now that Katniss gets sucked into the games and finds herself fighting for survival.
It’s a story concept that’s chilling, and all the more compelling for that reason. Certainly worth your time to read.
But wait a minute, some of you might be saying by now, isn’t this Cheapskates, Mr. Adam? The last time I checked Amazon was selling the Kindle edition of “The Hunger Games” for $5. I mean… a whole… five… dollars.
Ah, you are correct, Mr. Strawman questioner, but have no fear, for now I shall let you know three ways that you can… legally… read an ebook copy of “The Hunger Games” for free.
Your first option is to become a proud, albeit temporary member of Amazon Prime. This is Amazon’s premium service that gets you two day shipping for free, free streaming of movies and TV shows, and – for our purposes – one free eBook from the “Kindle Owner’s Lending Library.” This last one basically lets you borrow one ebook from selected titles once a month, and “Hunger Games” is one of the most popular titles on the list. Everyone can get a free one-month trial and then cancel, meaning that you can at least snag Hunger Games to read for free. Don’t forget to cancel, though, unless you actually like and use the service, because you’ll be shelling out $79 per year for the service after the free month.
And sorry to everyone across the pond. From what I can see at the moment, it looks like you can only get this one to work in the states right now. There’s Prime for Amazon.uk, but all you get is free delivery. Maybe if you raise a bit of a ruckus about it? Worth a shot.
If you’re into something a little more socially based, take a look at Lendle. It’s at l-e-n-d-l-e dot m-e – No dot com at the end, no w w w at the front.
This site takes advantage of an option available through Amazon that allows you lend any book you own on your Kindle for up to two weeks. Hence, Lendle – Lend plus Kindle.
This option was originally meant for friends and family, I think, but Lendle lets you lend and request to borrow books from anyone signed up for the service. With the popularity of The Hunger Games out there, there are a lot of copies available to borrow, more than 1300 as of this recording.
Some drawbacks… The site lists books of all, and I mean all, kinds. It’s best to know what you’re looking for and search for it specifically if you want to avoid an inadvertent eyeful.
Also, not all books are lendable. Pretty much the entire catalog of Isaac Asimov, for instance, as well as the two sequels to “The Hunger Games.” The full trilogy, however, is lendable… who knows…
Another bummer: you only get the book for two weeks and the lender can’t read it during that time.
Also, each book can only be lent once. Also, in order to borrow on Lendle you have to have credits. You get two credits just for signing up, but to get more than that, you have to actually list some paid ebooks as available to lend.
So, here’s a trick to accomplish that but still not spend any money. Keep a close eye on the top free Kindle ebook lists on Amazon. It’s pretty common for a book that normally costs a dollar or two – sometimes even more – to go on sale for free. Download enough of these when they’re free and list them on Lendle, and it doesn’t take too long to accumulate more credits.
The site obviously involves a little effort and some patience – you’re waiting on another user to lend you the book after all. You can decide whether it’s worth saving the money.
Another pointer: Make sure your email address on Lendle matches your email on amazon or the lend will go nowhere.
The fact that I know this of course has nothing to do with any past experience I may or may not have had. Um… yes.
Again to those listening in the uk… this is still just an option in the United States. Sorry, blokes.
Finally, and this is my personal favorite, you can sign up for your local library’s elibrary service. Yes, this does involve getting out of your chair and making a trip to your local library, but I promise after that you’ll rarely have to see the light of day. Good news Brits. From what I can see, there’s a good shot this is an option for you, too, just check at your library.
Basically, here’s how it works: local libraries will sign up with a lending service for ebooks, digital audiobooks or both – among these are Overdrive, OneClickDigital and 3M Cloud Library. Once you’re signed up through your local library’s process for these services you can log into the site from the comfort of your own computer terminal, select one of the digital audiobooks or ebooks that you would like to read and borrow it from the library.
The drawback is that it acts just like a regular library book. There’s only as many copies available as a particular library has purchased, so if the one you want is already checked out, you have to place a hold and wait for it to come available. In other words, while free, this is not the best option for the impatient. However, it’s been my experience that there’s almost always something worthwhile available instantly to enjoy while you wait for your turn on the holds list.
Because of their popularity, “The Hunger Games” and the sequels “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay” are nearly always available for borrowing from the library. This is, in fact, how I made my own way though the series in audiobook format.
But let’s say it’s not worth the hassle or the wait to get Suzanne Collins’ book in your hands for free. Or that maybe you have already read through “The Hunger Games” series. What then and what next?
If I may, I’d like to modestly propose “For The Win” by Cory Doctorow as the next free ebook you should tackle. The thick-bespectacled Doctorow is based out of the UK, has written New York Times bestsellers, been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Sunburst and Locus and won the Prometheus award for libertarian sci fi. He’s also truly one of the greatest friends for the cheapskate, as nearly the entire corpus of his work is available for free download from his site, www.craphound.com. That’s c-r-a-p hound. He goes into more detail about why he provides his hard work for free there, as well as in his introduction to the book. I’ll provide direct links on my new blog site at Cheapskatesreview.wordpress.com. (spell it).
Given his location in the UK and his friendliness to the free, not to mention the quality of his writing, you’ve likely heard his work here before right here on the sofa.
All right now, I’ve always found reviews that draw comparisons between two works to often be a bit of a stretch – existing more in the mind of the reviewer than from any real connection. So let me briefly describe where I see the similarities between Hunger Games and For the Win, then I’ll jump in and review Doctorow’s book on its own merits.
1) Both have strong teenager protagonists with a story told from their perspective.
2) A theme of games that are far more than games.
3) A struggle against a larger power by oppressed underdogs – The Capital, in the case of the Hunger Games; Game companies, oppressive governments and Gold Farmer bosses in “For the Win.”
4) Violence… So much violence.
The first obvious difference is that “For the Win” has an ensemble cast of protagonists, whereas “Hunger Games” is all from the perspective of Katniss.
“For the Win” follows a dozen or so young people working around the globe – primarily China, India, Singapore and the United States – in the virtual worlds of massively multiplayer online games. We’re slightly into the future, but you really have to be paying attention to notice it. Apart from the online games that don’t exist yet, you have little hints – a thumbprint lock on a case, an iris scan to start a car, and a referral to World of Warcraft as existing – a bit tongue in cheek – as “in the dawn of time”.
The ways that the characters make money in the games as varied as the people themselves – as straight-up gold farmers, so called “expedition guides” for rich clients, and mechanical turks working for the game companies to add human intelligence to the interactive experience. There are even hired hunters tasked with taking out rival farming organizations in-game – at least at first.
These were intriguing insights for me. I’ve heard of gold farming, of course, but the depth and complexity of this “game under the game” was fascinating.
Doctorow himself becomes a character of sorts, as the action of the story is regularly interspersed with essays. The topics include musings on “fun” as backing the value of virtual money, speculation on how equations might be able to predict the real-world value of digital items within a game and the single most entertaining explanation of inflation I’ve ever read. It includes a bedpan.
To a certain extent, the jumping from one character to another and the insertion of the essays can get confusing and distract from the rising action of the book. But Doctorow is such a skilled craftsman of language, you’ll hardly notice. Take, for example, this early passage describing life in big-city India:
“In the village, there’d been the birdcalls, the silence, and peace, times when everyone wasn’t always watching. In Mumbai, there was nothing but the people, the people everywhere, so that every breath you breathed tasted of the mouth that had exhaled it before you got it.”
Or this early description of a character’s independent gold farming venture getting shook down:
“One by one, the man dispassionately smashed all eight screens, letting out little smoker’s grunts as he worked. Then, with a much bigger, guttier grunt, he took hold of one end of the shelf and tipped it on its edge, sending the smashed monitors on it sliding onto the floor, taking the comics, the clamshell, the ashtray, all of it sliding to the narrow bed that was jammed up against the desk, then onto the floor in a crash as loud as a basketball match in a glass factory.”
As this last passage might suggest to you, playing games for a living is not all, well, fun and games. It’s surprisingly gritty, hot, exhausting, thankless work. And, from time to time, violent, bloody and even deadly. Because of this, the characters in the book are open to the message of Big Sister Nor, a former factory worker and union organizer who sees potential in unionizing the online workers – providing the incalculable benefit of organizing workers of all kinds across national borders. Bit by bit, they lay the groundwork for a game worker’s strike, struggling for fair wages and benefits both in game and out.
Labor unions and international finance might not sound like the most gripping read, but Doctorow draws you in with his vivid writing of the game worlds as if the people playing them are actually inhabiting their avatars in the game worlds. Anyone who has played these games can tell you – that’s what it actually feels like. In fact, at times the world of games seems to shape how book’s characters view the real world, describing events and environments within the frame of computer games. And for those who might question the importance of games as being worthy of unionization, Doctorow reminds us through a character that huge sectors of the economy are little more than pressing buttons and everyone agreeing to make believe that value has changed hands.
There are chilling moments of bloodshed and poignant moments of deep grief. Like this one, describing a pirate radio host in China, broadcasting after a personal loss related to the gamer strikes:
“After some futzing with the computer she signaled to him that they were live and commenced to howl like a wounded thing. “Sisters! My sisters!” she said, and tears coursed down her face. “They killed him tonight. Poor Tank, my Tank. His name, his real name was Zha Yue Lu, and I loved him and he never harmed another human being and the only thing he was guilty of was demanding decent pay, decent working conditions, vacation time, job security — the things we all want from our jobs. The things our bosses take for granted. “They raided us last night, the vicious jingcha, working for the bosses as they always have and always will. They beat down the door and the boys ran like the wind, but they caught them and they caught them and they caught them. Lu and I tried to escape through the back way and they –” She broke then, tears coursing down her face, a sob bigger than the room itself escaping her chest.”
Doctorow is well-researched and creative in his descriptions of the protests in the games. My personal favorite was protestors avoiding police retribution against loud demonstrations by instead buying ice cream and moving in a slow, organized circle as they ate it. It’s just brilliant and I’m surprised there hasn’t been a real-world parallel.
Compared to The Hunger Games, I think “For The Win” hits closer to home. It’s more contemporary and relatable. You realize how closely what’s described parallels the situation of real workers in the world today, in video game work or not.
As for weaknesses of the book, well, for me the ending just sort of… ended. I was hoping for more resolution on a number of the plot points Doctorow had set up. With any luck this just means that he’s planning on a sequel at some point in the future.
There were a few more copy editing and formatting issues than my hardwired copy-editor brain would care for, but I can’t truly complain. I am wondering if some of these were as a result of the fan-initiated conversion over to the Kindle file format.
Finally, a small oddity to note. Doctorow has chosen in the first half of the book to insert dedications to his favorite bookstores between chapters. I was trying to come up with an appropriate comparison to describe these, and was thinking of public radio sponsorship messages, but it’s not quite right. After all, there’s no monetary gain to him for doing it. He just wanted to.
In the end, I think it’s more like the dedication plaques you might see on park benches and statues – easy enough for the eyes to pass over, maybe sweet and heartwarming if you notice them, but ultimately I think they mean the most to the one who put them there rather than the one looking at them.
If you enjoy “For the Win” Doctorow asks that you actually not contribute directly to him. Basically, he doesn’t want to cut out the editors for all the work and contribution they made to the book. Instead, he asks those who want to support the work to make a purchase of a physical book with the purpose of it going to a school library. He also asks for libraries wanting one of these books to send in their interest as well. I have to respect this concept, that I haven’t seen anywhere else.
If audiobooks are how you roll, there’s also a free fancast available for download at audio.colbyjack.net, produced with Doctorow’s permission. The reading is professional and expressive, but there’s a music undercurrent throughout, and it becomes so complicated as to be distracting at times. I’ll link to it and the ebook from my site as well.
Well, that’s all for Cheapskates for today. Thanks for sticking with it, I know this one was longer than usual.
Tune in next time, when I’ll let you know how to get Star Wars novellas for free. Yep, Star Wars. Until then, this is Adam, reminding you that free doesn’t have to mean cheap.