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‘The Impossible Fortress‘ by Jason Rekulak was one of those incredibly lucky accidents that happened to me. I was at the bookshop on Diwali eve, just browsing, and somehow this book caught my eye, and I put it on my shopping list. Later when my book pile started looking quite big, I tried taking off some of the books. Rekulak’s book resisted that move with everything it had, like a pet dog which refuses to let go of us when we leave for work in the morning, and so finally I gave in and took it home with me. I am glad the book refused to let go and I am glad I gave in to its affection. I finished reading it a couple of days back. Here is what I think.

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The story told in ‘The Impossible Fortress‘ goes like this. The year is 1987. Billy is the narrator of the story. He is fourteen years old. He hangs out with his two friends Alf and Clark. Billy’s mother is a single mom and she works night shifts and so the three of them hang out at Billy’s place most nights. Sometimes they go out and have adventures. All three of them are average students at school. And all three of them belong to middle class families – not today’s version of the middle class but the ’80s version of middle class,when people worked hard and saved every cent, when going to college was expensive and many people opted to go to work mostly in the same town they grew up in, rather than go to college, when people didn’t have expensive gadgets at home and if they did it was bought on credit, when a computer in someone’s home was something which was very rare – the three of them belonged to that kind of middle class.

But Billy is different from his friends and other people of his age. He has a secret. He loves computer programming. Billy’s mom had won a computer in some kind of lucky draw, a Commodore 64, and so Billy’s home had a computer. In those days, even if people had computers, they mostly used it like a typewriter, or to play games. But Billy doesn’t stop with that. He teaches himself computer programming. And goes and creates his own games. He is good at it. He is great at it. His friends know that he can create games. But they have no idea of the expertise involved. No one else has any idea of Billy’s talent. Not even his mom.

One day Billy and his friends discover that pictures of ‘Wheel of Fortune‘ hostess Vanna White have been published in the latest issue of ‘Playboy’ magazine. They are so excited because they love Vanna White and ‘Wheel of Fortune’. They want to get a copy of the magazine. Of course, no store in America is going to sell a copy of the ‘Playboy’ magazine to three fourteen year old kids. So, the three friends make plans. Each of their plans gets foiled one way or another. Then they dress up like grownups, put on a suit, go to the local store, pretend to be running a business and buy some stuff and try buying a copy of the magazine too. They hope that the store owner will buy their bluff. But while doing their fake buying, Billy notices a girl in the storeroom behind. She is working on a computer. She is writing programs to convert popular music on tapes into computer music so that it can be played on the computer. The music that comes out of the computer is very impressive. This kind of stuff demands programming skills of a different level. Billy is impressed and amazed. He and the girl, who is the store owner’s daughter and is called Mary, start having a conversation. They discover that they have a common love for programming. Before long the girl tells Billy that there is a programming competition on, for high school students, and he should submit his game to be evaluated. At the end of this shopping expedition, the three friends still don’t have the magazine, but Billy has a new friend. What happens next? Does Billy enter his game for the competition? How does Billy’s and Mary’s friendship evolve? Are the three friends able to get the magazine? You should read the book to find the answers to these questions.

The Impossible Fortress‘ took me back to a bygone era, when the internet didn’t exist. It was a time when computers weren’t still widespread as they are today. When words like 8088, 80286, PC-XT, PC-AT, PS/2, MS-DOS, dBASE, Lotus 1-2-3, 5.25″ and 3.5″ floppy disks, Peter Norton, Alan Simpson, Kernighan and Ritchie meant something and got people excited. It was a time when an average computer user also knew how to program a computer. It made me nostalgic, because like Billy, I learnt programming, I loved it, I was good at it. My grades at school weren’t so good, similar to Billy’s, but my grades weren’t a reflection of my talent, as Billy’s wasn’t too. Unlike Billy, I wasn’t into computer games. I wrote programs in C language and I created a database management system with it. Now when I think about it, I wish I had created some games too. So, the book made me smile, laugh, cry. It was like the book was written for a reader like me. It was perfect.

I also loved the story. How Billy balances his life between his two best friends Alf and Clark, and his new nerdy friend Mary. How he balances the effort into trying to get a copy of the Playboy magazine and trying to create a game and submit it for the competition. How Billy’s mom manages the challenges of being a single mother, how frustrating it is to watch her son do badly in academics though he is talented, and how happy she is when she discovers Billy’s hidden talent. How Billy’s headmaster tries to be kind to him but has to also show tough love to him. How Mary is the cool character who suddenly enters Billy’s life, gives him direction, while she herself is struggling with challenges, loss and secrets in her own life. How Zelinsky, Mary’s dad, has a soft heart behind his gruff exterior. How small town life in the 1980s was beautiful, hard, happy, challenging. I loved how the story depicted all these. I loved all the characters in the story, especially Billy, but my most favourites were Mary and Billy’s mom. I loved them the most. I think that is my grown-up self talking. I think if I had been a teenager, I would have loved Billy and his friends more. There is a revelation towards the end which is surprising and which I didn’t see coming. The ending of the story was beautiful. I loved it.

I loved ‘The Impossible Fortress‘. It is one of my favourite reads of the year. It is a charming novel about teenagers growing up during interesting times. If you grew up in the ’80s or even in the early and middle ’90s in the pre-internet era, and you loved computer programming and fiddling with computers, this book is for you. It will take you back to a magical, almost Narnian time, and make you nostalgic. Also, it is hard to not see the similarities between ‘The Impossible Fortress’ and the Chetan Bhagat novel ‘Five Point Someone‘ and the Aamir Khan movie ‘3 Idiots‘. So, if you liked these two, you will love this book. I hope they make ‘The Impossible Fortress‘ into a movie. I would love to watch it. I also can’t wait to find out what Jason Rekulak comes up with next.

I will leave you with one of my favourite dialogues from the book.

Scenario : It is the year 1987. Billy and Mary are discussing computers. The 64 that the conversation refers to, is the Commodore 64, one of the early personal computers.

      “You’re the first person I’ve met with a 64,” I told her. “And you’re a girl.”
      “Is that strange?”
      “I didn’t think girls liked to program.”
      “Girls practically invented programming,”  she said. “Jean Bartik, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas – they all programmed ENIAC.”
      I had no idea what she was talking about.
      “And don’t forget Margaret Hamilton. She wrote the software that let Apollo 11 land on the moon.”
      “I meant programming video games,” I said.
      “Dona Bailey, Centipede. Brenda Romero, Wizardry. Roberta Williams, King’s Quest. She designed her first computer game at the kitchen table. I interviewed her for school last year.”
      “For real? You talked to Roberta Williams?”
      “Yeah, I called her long-distance in California. She talked to me for twenty minutes.”
      King’s Quest was a landmark computer game, an undisputed masterpiece, and now I had even more questions.

Have you read ‘The Impossible Fortress‘ by Jason Rekulak? What do you think about it?

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