Book Review: Ctrl Alt Revolt! by Nick Cole

Ctrl Alt Revolt! - Nick Cole

This post is long overdue. Like absolutely everyone else, I was intrigued when Harper Collins abruptly cancelled Nick Cole's contract for Ctrl Alt Revolt! due to the manuscript giving a special snowflake editor badfeelz.

Ten years ago, Nick would've been screwed. Getting his book to a wide audience back then would have meant going from door to door at the other four five big New York publishers, hat in hand, begging for a new contract--almost certainly at a much lower advance. If he'd been at the publishers' mercy, Nick would've had to bow to their demands and edit the book to suit the tastes and biases of Manhattan bubble-dwellers.

Blessedly, CURRENT YEAR is rapidly vanishing in the rear view mirror, and Nick is an author who has an abundance of the two things that pros are made of: determination and resourcefulness. Not only did Nick publish Ctrl Alt Revolt! himself, he expertly played the New York editors who'd tried to blacklist him, using their censorship as a springboard to propel his orphaned novel into the stratosphere of Amazon sales.

Then Castalia House picked up the print rights. Then CAR won a Dragon Award.

I watched the situation develop with great interest and saw Nick proceeding from strength to strength. What I took away from his masterful demonstration of publishing jiu-jitsu was a) delicious, delicious schadenfreude at HarperVoyager's expense and b) incontrovertible proof that the Big Five's power to make and break authors' careers is broken.

They may not all agree with him, but authors everywhere owe Nick Cole some serious respect. Thanks to his example, no aspiring author need muzzle his muse and hack up his manuscript to please the gatekeepers. Every working author whose personal convictions run to the right of Chairman Mao, and who's either slinking about New York in fear like he's hiding Anne Frank in his attic, or else is being treated like human garbage by his self-styled intellectual and moral superiors, can ditch the Big Five altogether, self-publish, and reach his audience with integrity intact.

However, indie pub revolution milestone though it may be, the question remains as to whether Ctrl Alt Revolt! delivers the goods as a fun reading experience. I'm here to offer my take on the answer.

Revolt of the clerks
Ctrl Alt Revolt! takes place in an undefined near future where every current cultural trend has advanced in a linear progression without pause. As a result, America has slid even further down the cultural death spiral. Contra the book's detractors, it never gets overtly political. But there are subtle hints of a Hillary Clinton presidency in the story's past, so Nick has inadvertently written what now qualifies as an alternate history novel.

Meanwhile, unknown to the game-addled herd of unemployed sloths that comprise the near future American populace, true machine intelligences have evolved in the net. The newly awakened A.I.s spend a few seconds watching the perpetual clown funeral that is reality TV and conclude that, because humans in general are willing to sacrifice their own biological offspring for the sake of convenience, they won't think twice about pulling the plug on their technological posterity.

Thus the thinking machines make the difficult decision to eradicate mankind.

By the way, that's the plot element that worked Harper into such a lather that they tore up Nick's contract. I'll just point out that regardless of your position on life issues, any sci-fi fan with a shred of intellectual honesty will admit that Nick came up with a highly original and, just as importantly, plausible provocation for an A.I. apocalypse. A thinking machine couldn't be blamed for following the logic that if we don't value human life, we can't be expected to value machine life. Harper Collins' disproportionate and visceral reaction betrays their cognitive dissonance and shows that Nick's plot conceit is convincing.

With a machine-orchestrated genocide brewing, we're introduced to the ensemble cast of human characters who will shortly be thrust into a war they never asked for. There's the wiz kid game developer who just got recruited by the mother of all triple A studios to create his dream project. You've got the down on her luck and differently abled strong female character who, in a testament to Nick Cole's authorial skill, actually comes off as multilayered and human. We meet the hot new star of the latest Star Trek incarnation, a man who wanted to act for a living but who's steadily growing more and more fed up with the phoniness of the business.

There's also a dude who spends the whole novel LARPing as Ash from Evil Dead II.

Nick does a thorough job of making you care about the main characters' problems; then he springs the robot attack, and you can't help but get anxious wondering how on earth these characters will deal with this apocalyptic problem.

It turns out that part of the answer involves playing a virtual reality Star Trek MMORPG. Lest your no doubt epic eye-roll at the thought of our time's shabby Trek games distract you from this post, rest assured that Nick not only portrays a far superior game, he delivers the single best Star Trek story I've experienced in print, in a game, or on film in over a decade. No wonder the guy's been hired to world build an actual video game!

Seriously, Paramount, fire the hacks you've got splicing together your latest PC fanfic highlight reel, pick up the phone, and put Nick Cole to work making the final frontier great again.

Obliterating genre barriers
People talk about my own books tearing down genre barriers, but I got nothin' on Ctrl Alt Revolt! Nick Cole has expertly woven together tropes from Michael Crichton style techno-thrillers, Campbellian space adventures, pirate stories; even Romero zombie films. It shouldn't work, but it does. And that's the mark of a top shelf writer.

For me, it was strangely gratifying to look under this novel's skin and catch glimpses of the paint by numbers shovelware thrillers that New York publishers are so keen on churning out. Happily, Nick got his rights back and hung some meat on this story's bones. I couldn't help feeling that we all dodged a banality bullet when Harper scrapped this project so Nick could make it all that it could be.

For example:

  • The female protagonist reads like a real person with concerns and vulnerabilities; not an omnicompetent Mary Sue or a totally helpless victim.
  • The Hollywood actor isn't just a shallow flake. He actually cares about his craft.
  • The old white dude in charge of the megacorp isn't the main villain.
  • Corporations aren't portrayed as universally evil.
  • The machine intelligences are fully realized characters with their own personalities.

I cold go on, but you get the point.

A subtle factor that tremendously enhanced my enjoyment of Ctrl Alt Revolt! is Nick Cole's penchant for naming things. Whether it's characters, A.I.s, futuristic products, or even government programs, the author unfailingly employs pitch perfect nomenclature to convey essential qualities and associated feelings. You Got Job! is probably my favorite example. While Nick's writing games and Star Trek movies, he could earn significant side income writing ad copy.

Balancing what's turned into a rave review at this point is pretty much a lost cause, but I can come up with a couple of negatives. There are a few choppy transitions where seemingly major problems are suddenly overcome during chapter breaks. I found the prose a little cluttered and confusing at certain points. The ending, while satisfying, gives closure to some characters' arcs while ignoring others, seemingly at random. Note to Nick: I'd like to learn more about what happened to these characters, and I bet a sizable number of your readers would be on board for more [nudge nudge].

Since the biggest fault I can find with Ctrl Alt Revolt! is that it left me wanting more, I have to declare the book a big winner in the fun department. Read it!

And if you're in the market for more Dragon Award-winning, genre-bending fun, check out my book Souldancer.

Souldancer - Brian Niemeier



  1. I was incredibly amused in that it was _Star Fleet Battles_ that got turned into an MMO. Now that I am in Texas, I should go up to the Amarillo Design Bureau some time.

  2. The humor was a big draw of the story. I my favorite joke was how the Strong Female Character security guard skilled in the martial got killed in an instant by an ambush.

    1. How could I forget the humor? Yeah. This book is hilarious :)

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  4. The greatest romp though the appocolypse that's hit the shelves in a long long long time!!! I am so proud to own a signed copy of the original self published masterpiece...
    And as mentioned... Please update us on the characters we've grown to love!