I love nostalgic 80’s fiction, particularly when it’s geeky. Jason Rekulak’s The Impossible Fortress is more a coming-of-age love story than a full on nostalgic geek-fest like, say, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, but it has a sweet, nostalgic tinge nonetheless.
Rekulak is a hilarious writer, and Incredible Fortress was such a delight to read. Take for example the character descriptions: Billy Marvin is a gawky, gangly teenager (“I wobbled around school like a baby giraffe”) who does computer programming, and his best friends are Alf who looked like the TV alien Alf (“both Alfs were built like trolls, with big noses, beady eyes, and messy brown hair”), and Clark who “rolled out of bed looking like a heartthrob in TigerBeat magazine” but whose left hand had fingers that were fused “into a pink, crab-like pincer.” (p. 4) How fantastically descriptive are these? And how awesome is it to see 80s icons Alf and TigerBeat mentioned?
The story begins when Vanna White appears on the cover of Playboy. At fourteen, the boys are too young to purchase their own copy, so they concoct an elaborate scheme to obtain copies. The plan involved Billy seducing the daughter of a convenience store owner to obtain the alarm code so they could steal the magazines. The complication was that Billy found himself falling in love with her.
To be honest, I was worried at first about how this was going to be handled, especially since Alf in particular was such a sexist jerk about the girl’s weight, and while it’s realistic dialogue for teenage boys, my inner fourteen year old self wanted to slap them for thinking a girl would be easy to seduce simply because she’s fat. Fortunately, Mary Zelinsky actually turned out to be the most awesome character in the novel, and Billy wholeheartedly acknowledges her awesomeness. She’s a brilliant, kick ass computer programmer who ran rings around Billy in technical knowhow but wasn’t a totally perfect manic pixie dream girl. Billy is clearly attracted to her from their first meeting, when he admits he didn’t think girls liked to program and she responds “Girls practically invented programming” and proceeds to list prominent women programmers (p. 27). I love that Billy is so immediately impressed by her computer knowhow, and that while he pretends that he’s meeting her to help his friends steal the Playboy, he very obviously enjoys her company.
The plot thread about Alf and Clark’s continuing plans to steal the Playboy, and constant following up with Billy for the alarm code, became annoying fairly quickly, but that’s only because I was so invested in Billy and Mary’s developing relationship that I disliked anything that put that at risk. The scheme becomes ever more elaborate as the story goes on, and when some rather shady teenagers come on board, all I wanted was an adult to just buy them a copy of the magazine so that Billy and Mary could continue getting to know each other in peace.
There was something that disappointed me a bit, but it involves a spoiler, so be warned: SPOILER (click to view)
Finally, I love the super nostalgic glimpse into 80s computers. It reminded me of a time before MS Word was ubiquitous and Clip Art wasn’t even thought possible by the everyday user. I especially love how Billy and Mary work through a programming problem using an obscure type of computer language. (At least it’s obscure to me, since I always thought computers worked with binary code, or lines of 1’s and 0’s. The bits of computer programming in this story were fascinating.)
The best part? Rekulak worked with game designers to develop an actual playable version of The Impossible Fortress, the game Billy and Mary collaborate to create for a competition. It’s done with 8-bit graphics, and you play using the arrows on your keyboard. It feels very much like some of the video games I played as a kid, not the fancy ones like Donkey Kong or Ice Climber, but more basic keyboard type games like Pac-Man. I got a score of 6,994 on The Impossible Fortress. Can you beat my score?
1. What was the inspiration behind the story?
I wanted to write about my experiences growing up in the 1980s, at the dawn of the home computer revoultion. I grew up in a working class family and I wanted to write about how it feels to have big, lofty ambitions that you’re too embarrased to share with anyone. And I wanted to write something funny that felt like reminiscent of all those great teen movies from the 1980s – Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, all of the John Hughes classics.
2. How much of Billy’s story was based on your own experiences as a teen? Were you also a computer whiz / video gamer?
Like Billy, I was a self-taught computer programmer, working in BASIC (and struggling to learn machine language) on a Commodore 64. My dream at age 13 was to make video games for a living, and to eventually run my own software company. But all along I was always more interested in storytelling and “world-building” than actual coding and de-bugging. I came to this realization about halfway through college, after taking a few writing classes. I entered college as a Computer Science major, then after two years I switched to English, so I could stop wasting time with computer languages and just concentrate 100% on storytelling and fiction.
3. Billy falls in love with Mary because of her computer coding badassery. Can you tell us a bit about your first love, and what it was about her that attracted you?
This question could land me in serious hot water with my wife! I’ll just say that Mary is a composite of a few different girls that I chased after as a teenager, with lots of imagined attributes as well. I was always drawn to girls who were way out of my league, and I think that is reflected in Mary’s relationship with Billy. She’s a better programmer, she’s more mature, she already has a very clear sense of personal style, and I think he’s attracted to all of these things without even realizing it.
4. There’s a lot of computer coding referenced in this story, and even something called “machine language,” all of which appears very complex and specific to the technology of the 80s, which I presume means that this language and type of coding are no longer being used today. How did you research this?
I did very little research. I remembered nearly everything from experience. We all have vivid memories of middle school and high school, and I spent a lot of those years school geeking out in front of a computer monitor, trying to figure out how to communicate with a machine. Nobody really works in machine language anymore because it’s incredibly difficult. But back in the days when computers only had 64 kilobytes of RAM, it was the only option for people who were serious about making games. You had to suffer through it!
5. What was your favourite video game as a teen, and how would you improve upon it if you had the chance?
Not many people remember it, but my favorite video game as a kid was a game called Realm of Impossibility by Mike Edwards, an arcade game set in a sort of MC-Escher-ish landscape. I wanted the imaginary video game in my novel to look and feel a lot like Realm of Impossibility….so I landed on the title The Impossible Fortress…which lo and behold ended up becoming the actual title of my book. So I definitely I owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Edwards, wherever he is!
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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Also, how awesome is the promo package that arrived with the book? I loved the 80s candy, and the awesome ARC cover.