Book Review: 'Minecraft The Island,' By Max BrooksMax Brooks' latest novel is set in the world of the popular video game Minecraft — and once you get past that, it has a lot of valuable ideas for young readers, cleverly disguised with plenty of fun.
Okay, let's get this out of the way right from the start. The Island, the new book by Max Brooks (yeah, the guy who wrote World War Z, the very good zombie book that got turned into that not-very-good Brad Pitt movie) is about Minecraft. The video game Minecraft.
And not a nonfiction book about the creation of Minecraft and its impact on society. Not a guide to playing Minecraft (although, in a weird way, it kind of is). It's a novel, set in the Minecraft universe.
I think it's important to say that, because right up until I opened it, I kinda didn't believe that's what it was going to be. I don't know why. Brooks has done all kinds of things in his career (novels, nonfiction, G.I. Joe comics, a straight-faced guide to surviving the zombie apocalypse). But for some reason, I just didn't believe he'd go all in and make The Island what it is — an officially sanctioned story about a person (nameless) who somehow (never explained) ends up inside a world that works by the rules of Minecraft. Ends up in the game, for lack of a more artful way to put it — an exhausted trope that has existed since Tron. Since the dawn of video games.
But beyond that, The Island is one of four things, depending on who's reading it. If you're a grumpy adult, devoid of imagination, who picked this book up just because you recognized Max Brooks' name on the cover, it's a massive piece of fan fiction written by one of the most famous authors on the scene. It's fun, in its way, but you're gonna get bored (or annoyed, or both) very quickly.
If you're a weird book critic who (maybe, sometimes) reads WAY too much into things, The Island is a fascinating experiment in worldbuilding and storytelling. To see an author like Brooks forced to work within the strictures of a universe that literally makes no physical sense — where even something as basic as eating comes with its own set of rules that are fundamentally nonsensical and different than ours here on Earth Prime — is to see all the spokes and gears of craft exposed. I liked the thing purely as a master's thesis on internal consistency in genre literature.
If you're a kid — a Minecraft freak, or maybe just someone who's curious and likes a good story — it's a rollicking adventure yarn; Robinson Crusoe for the digital age. You actually don't even have to know anything about the game to like it. Everything's laid out for you on the page, from the odd physics to the creepers. Plus, there are exploding cows and poop jokes so, you know, good fun.
And finally, if you're a parent considering whether or not this is appropriate summer reading material for the pint-sized nerds in your life, you should know that the entire thing is structured as a clever series of life lessons, couched in language and an environment that will make it more palatable to children who maybe don't like being lectured at for 200-some easy-reading pages.
This last is what I think Brooks wanted it to be. Most chapters start with a bit of sage (if broad) wisdom like "Panic Drowns Thought" or "Take Care Of Your Environment So It Can Take Care Of You." The text then goes on to show this aphorism in action. "Take Life In Steps" is about planning before doing. "Everything Has A Price" becomes a discussion of the moral cost of killing animals for food. And at the end of the book, Brooks includes a list of life lessons he learned while playing Minecraft, just in case you missed what he was doing.
But the kids reading it? They're not gonna notice, or not right away, anyhow. Brooks hides the medicine pretty well, and the pages zip along from action to complication to solution all in a fog of video game weirdness. It begins with the unnamed protagonist waking in the ocean, and swimming to a deserted island that operates by the clunky, cubist physics of the Minecraft world. The protagonist doesn't understand how this happened. He understands none of the rules of this place, and must discover its laws and limitations through trial and error.
The twist here? The protagonist is very much human. Comes from our world, and reacts in a believable (if simple) way to being dropped into a universe where different physical laws apply. He experiences fear and anxiety and triumph. He befriends a cow and some sheep. He fights for his life and, by the end of things, emerges wiser and better prepared for moving on. It is the Hero's Journey, Pocket Edition. A one-man Illiad.
And it even has some zombies in it. Because it just wouldn't be a Max Brooks book without them.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic atPhiladelphiamagazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.