Minecraft: The Island – Max Brooks

Where a game is interactive, on the whole a novel cannot be, though there have been many “choose your own adventure” books down the years, of which Games Workshop’s Fighting Fantasy series were likely the best known. In recent years life inside a virtual reality environment from the point of view of different styles of games has been examined in Diane Duane’s Omnitopia Dawn, Christopher Brookmyre’s Bedlam and Ken MacLeod’s Corporation Wars, considering the practicalities and ethics of such situations.

With the gaming industry comparatively new, the father of all such stories, Tron, is within living memory for some, but launched in only 2011, Mojang’s “sandbox survival” game Minecraft has sold over 121 million copies, a relative newcomer whose audience demographic is decidedly young. Now comes the first novel set within that universe, Minecraft: The Island, by Max Brooks, best known as the creator of World War Z which spawned an inferior film, and here on the mysterious island upon which the narrator finds themselves trapped monsters spawn at dusk, zombies, skeletons and spiders in another derived work which bears the hallmarks of inferiority.

With Mojang knowing their target audience is young Brooks’ prose is by necessity uncomplicated, but no attempt is made to reach beyond that select group, to pause at any point in the breathless momentum and explain for those who aren’t aware of or don’t understand the purpose of the game, perhaps implying that there is none, that Minecraft is simply a pastime to waste time.

The narrator unnamed, undescribed and ungendered, while this should allow the reader to place themselves into the world instead it leaves the book without a pilot, the stream of consciousness of a glyph, a cyber cypher, and crucially Brooks is not attempting to tell a wider story in the style of Minecraft, a free-standing narrative which reflects the endless invention of that world so much as a direct translation of pixels to prose, a Minecraft session tediously described in text.

Supposedly aimed at ages “eight to eighty,” the frustration of a novice gamer learning the controls emphasises just how repetitive the chapters are, less guiding the reader through events as fulfilling requirements, the style unmodified as the book progresses in a formless torrent of words whose parsimonious vocabulary will soon exasperate all but the most unsophisticated reader.

The Island has no context other than itself, and absent of weight the frequent life lessons are painfully trite and obvious and with no progress beyond the incremental advancement of tools and rudimentary skills, no dialogue other than the one-sided exclamations and postulations of the narrator to inanimate objects and automated animals, Brooks may attempt to build a pyramid based on the basic needs of food, shelter and comfort but the blocks are too unwieldy to withstand close examination, their lack of detail unavoidable in a world which does not recede into the infinite fractal complexity of life.

Where The Martian relied on skill, ingenuity and determination to harness the frugal resources of the red planet in order to survive, here simply gathering the correct blocks and arranging them thusly grants tool building, farming, culinary skills, smelting and irrigation, each chapter offering a new and unearned bounty on this paradise island, the constant serendipity which heralds each new discovery wearing thin very fast.

In her Edgar Award winning Bimbos of the Death Sun Sharyn McCrumb disparaged those who would pass off a transcript of a Dungeons and Dragons session as a fantasy novel, yet this is a child’s description of a child’s game quite distinct from the media-hopping success of The Lego Movie which used those plastic blocks merely as a stepping stone with which to construct quirky character and clever narrative. Crudely rendered and based entirely upon an endlessly repeated iterative process, to attempt to build with Minecraft without substantially upgrading the operating system demonstrates a fundamental flaw in the design stage.

Minecraft: The Island is released on 18th July by Century

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