Fantastical Conmen: A Review of Scott Meyer’s Off to be the Wizard

The cover title for Scott Meyer's book

The cover title for Scott Meyer’s book “Off to be the Wizard”.

             Review by: Curtis Cole   

                In the overcrowded science fiction and fantasy market, it takes a special show of talent to be noticed. This is doubly important for new authors. For people like Scott Meyer who, after beginning his career as a radio personality, eventually began penning his, still continuing, comic strip Basic Instructions this means risking much in a budding career, and highly finicky market, to make an impact in an virtual ocean of competition. Luckily for Meyer, however, his attempt to branch out seems to have paid off: with the success of the first book of his “Magic 2.0” project, he has managed to negotiate the poorly defined ground of the young adult niche; with, as of writing, two additional entries in the series published, Meyer is quickly becoming a name in the genre.

With a plethora of positive reviews, a work ethic to rival that of Stephen King (once we consider that Meyer has written three books in a single year), and the possibility to rise indefatigably higher into the pantheon of new writers to watch, Meyer’s first book (“Off to be the Wizard”) is a an apt demonstration of postmodern culture: the hip, geeky vibe of U.S popular culture combines with history, humor, and authorial musings to make a decisive entrance into the cut-throat young adult circlet.

Meet Martin Banks: he is the protagonist of “Off to be the Wizard”. He is a hacker, an aficionado of computers, technology, and popular culture in general. More to the point, however, he is a computer program; a facet of his being which, as the reader may be surprised to discover, is unremarkable: for when you discover that the entire world is nothing but an electronic simulation, much in the same way Martin discovered one night upon hacking into a cell phone manufacture’s website, everything else becomes superfluous.

This kind of irrelevancy is what the book is banking on, however, as from beginning to end the text is a borderline existential journey. The premise of the world as a computer program enables a number of questions, such as the purpose of life, the motions of history, and the praxis of interaction between the base and the superstructure. Martin’s actions post-discovery of this truth is indicative of such an idealist subjectivity.

Following his discovery of the all-determining computer program which runs the world, Martin quickly cashes in on his ability to automatically generate money, shifts the laws of gravity and time, and surmount the spatial limitations of navigation as such: but between eliminating the need to work for a living, paradox-free time travel, and instantaneous travel to anywhere on the planet capable of being rendered mathematically, the ‘natural’ law’s disintegration eventually attract attention. Enter the U.S government who, in attempt to capture Martin once and for all, raid his home.

The moment of this raid forces Martin’s hand. Although ever since discovering the program Martin had an idea of the care-free life he wanted to lead, the raid forces him into committing to an early living possibility. Enter medieval Europe. A place where due to (romanticized) superstitious faith and a lack of scientific knowledge, the populace is easy for any contemporary wiz-kid to manipulate.

Martin’s plan of posing as a wizard, in order to extract free food and lodging from the locale, though, takes a turn for the worse when he meets another wizard. Initially believing this locale wizard to merely an odd-ball espousing mystical trickery, Martin originally disregards this other wizard. However, this attitude is short lived as this other wizard demolishes Martin’s cobbled together ‘magical performance’ with a tremendous display of wizardry. Coming to, after losing consciousness, Martin is shocked to discover that this other wizard, Philip, the man who incidentally ends up training Martin throughout the course of the book, is none other than a time traveler like Martin himself; an individual who also wanted to live simply and without labor. In fact, Phillip is part of a self-policing collective of wizards, all of whom were once in the same position as Martin prior to their settlement.

Branching out from this introduction, the plot’s dissemination is slow and paced. In fact, most of the pages are spent with Martin orienting himself to his new life, training his ‘powers’, mastering his ‘macro commands’, and acclimating his disposition with that of his new wizard compatriots. Truly, the concept of an antagonist barely exists, being introduced only in the book’s final chapters. While part of this is done to effectively build the universe, it is also done to establish interpersonal dynamics: with the antagonist being a fellow wizard gone rouge, the reader needed to be fully induced to the cast as a whole without the villain being obvious. Personally, it is not one of my preferred modes of writing, but that is not where the bulk of my complaint lies.

Rather, the concern of my criticism lies with the premise’s legitimation of anti-proletarian practices. From beginning to end the entire concern of the characters is to mislead people, to circumvent the natural laws of historical materialism, and maintain through, trickery and fear, a mythologized puppet state based off of their childhood fancies. It is both a reactionary and immature. While the narrative presents these backward conceptualizations through that of a moralizing lens, of trivializing the trickery because it I all only a computer program, of de-valuing the labor practices needed in order to force a qualitative shift into the next, properly capitalist, epoch, and of maintaining the villain’s fiefdom out of economic concern, the truth cannot be hid: although seemingly nice guys, the wizards story here is one of a ‘revenge of the nerds’ scenario disguised as existential agency. Riddled with bourgeois ideology the narrative as such is, although unremarkable in the long run, denotes an antiquated political conception realized through an assemblage of pop culture simulacra.

Overall, the book depends on this mindset because of the target audience: young adults and teenagers. Written simplistically with straightforward plot points and developments, the story is only singularly layer; there is no “B” story to go along with the “A”. The reading level, while not overly juvenile, so as to appeal to the young adult readers, does not strive for exceptionality. Its self-referential nature, of its multitude of pop culture references, mixes with the counterrevolutionary sub-text because the machinations of bourgeois discourse are, for the majority of the massed hordes of youth, the only, as Fredric Jameson might have said, ‘political unconscious’ available to the disenfranchised.

In conclusion, while the first installment of Scott Meyer’s “Magic 2.0” project is an enjoyable romp in the world of young adult sci-fi/fantasy, as it takes many tropes from pop culture and the nerd-geek substratum, and the premise holds narrative promise if handled correctly, Off to be the Wizard, while never truly becoming memorable in its own right; the obscuring of the more disconcerting sub-textual elements, and its simplistic method of dissemination, although likely appealing to anyone with a hankering for an easy comedic read, its ultimate value will only ever be as a noteworthy first step in a new author’s literary career.

Off to be the Wizard

Scott Meyer

373 pages. Published by 47 North. $14.95

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