Saturday, November 5, 2011

Book Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

"Most online games of the day generated revenue by charging users a monthly subscription fee for access. GSS only charged a onetime sign-up fee of twenty-five cents, for which you received a lifetime OASIS account. The ads all used the same tagline: The OASIS--it's the greatest videogame ever created, and it only costs a quarter.
"At a time of drastic social and cultural upheaval, when most of the world's population longed for an escape from reality, the OASIS provided it, in a form that was cheap, legal, safe, and not (medically proven to be) addictive. The ongoing energy crisis contributed greatly to the OASIS's runaway popularity. The skyrocketing cost of oil made airline and automobile travel too expensive for the average citizen, and the OASIS became the only getaway most people could afford. As the era of cheap, abundant energy drew to a close, poverty and unrest began to spread like a virus. Every day, more and more people had reason to seek solace inside Halliday and Morrow's virtual utopia." -- Ready Player One.

Join me, if you will, as I try to pursue that most elusive of blog posts, the short book review. I think this quotation demonstrates the basic plot: as global conditions worsen in the near future, we'll all retreat to virtual worlds. It's Second Life gone global, with a dose of Matrix-level VR. The catch is that OASIS' founder James Halliday was obsessed with 80s pop culture--Dungeons & Dragons, heavy metal, video games. And when he passed, he left behind a challenge--anyone who could solve his 80s-themed riddles and puzzles would get his controlling share in OASIS. Thus, we have the plot: teenaged geek boy Wade Watt sets out (with some help from his friends/rivals) to unravel the mystery. And against him are the employees of Innovative Online Industries, the heartless conglomerate that will throw any amount of money or kill anyone necessary to get control themselves. (Note to any benevolent billionaires who wish to put odd inheritance clauses in their wills--in general, you should probably add provisions to keep people whose business practices are your exact moral opposite out of the competition.)

Thus, the book is an unusual combination of future thinking scifi and nostalgia-based 80s pop culture. And there is a LOT of stuff on videogames--the opening chapter has one of the most in-depth explanations of Robinett's easter egg in the Atari 2600 Adventure that I've ever read. So this should be right up my alley, right? Eh.... not so much, actually. As someone who was 7 when the 80s ended, most of my pop culture nostalgia is for the 90s--X-Men cartoons and Reboot and Sega Genesis, and so forth. Thanks to various research, I'm familiar with most of the stuff Kline's talking about. I know Joust, and the D&D Tomb of Horrors module, and the phone phreaks. But it's all academic knowledge for me; there's no personal attachment. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

What's more interesting to me is how the book is being marketed. The list of author recommendations on the back include Charlaine Harris, Terry Brooks, John Scalzi, and Patrick Rothfuss. So we're talking about a pretty hard push to get it to the audience that's reading the adult fantasy/sci-fi genre. Ready Player One is not really in that genre at all. I understand why it's promoting itself as that, given adult fans are the ones likely to favor the nostalgia factor. But it is, very much, a book from the\young adult fantasy/sci-fi genre. And despite the uniqueness of the trappings, it's a very typical YA format: teenager gathers friends, fights evil, grows up. It's Harry Potter, if Harry was into obscure 80s geek stuff rather than magic battles against the forces of evil.

Actually, that's not quite right; it doesn't remind me of Harry Potter so much as a YA Heinlein-penned book, such as the previously reviewed . They're both tales about a young male figures overcoming adversity (in fairly black and white conditions) and growing into independent adulthood. It's the difference that's interesting, because the difference between the two is the difference between Heinlein's 1950s, 60s version of what makes a boy into a man, and the modern equivalent today. Heinlein's figures need to become functionally independent, for example, and Wade's problem is largely the opposite. Starting off as a rather stereotypical shut-in, he slowly becomes more used to having friends in his life--he doesn't have to worry about setting himself apart from his parents, because they never had much impact on him to begin with. Similarly, Heinlein's boys to men come to occupy very traditional gender roles, with a slowly blossoming, era-appropriate relationship with a young woman, in a manner that solidifies the proper behavior for both. (This makes a sharp contrast with his adult material, such as Job: A Divine Comedy, which features the Church of the Divine Orgasm.) Wade is a boy interested in girls, but gender roles don't really concern him; he accepts homosexual relationships as readily as any other sorts, and falls quite thoroughly for a girl gamer who's largely his gaming equal--no shrinking violets here. The society of the future may be economically starved and generally impoverished, but at least we're not intolerant jerks. (The best example of the difference between now and then, though, is that there's a passage in Ready Player One where Halliday extols the virtues of masturbation. Not finding that in a 50s YA novel.)

Thematically, the book is about escapism, and doubly so. By centering on a sci-fi based creator that's obsessed with the 80s, the book has simultaneously a retreat to the past and future--anything to escape the now. Cline set himself a difficult task. How do you sell a YA story about moving into adulthood when so much of the plot is about glorifying the past? There are two choices--you either promote the past as better, which is rather defeatist, or you try to forge ahead, in which case you risk disrupting exactly what attracted readers in the first place. I think he strikes a nice balance between nostalgia and bildungromans, all in all. And Cline's pulled off a double audience: I'd recommend the book for both the Harry Potter adventure crowd, and those looking for an 80s nostalgia kick. It's a light, fast-moving story, and if that's what you're in the market for, it'll do fine.

Later Days.

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