Thursday, March 5, 2015

'Ready Player One' and the Commodification of Nostalgia


Here's the thing: I did not dislike Ready Player One while I was reading it. It's a good story and it's well written and it keeps you humming along steadily enough that you don't mind the occasional deviations into nostalgia-land or over-specific technical details. The story combines enough elements of other famous plotlines to be really compelling: it's a little bit Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a little bit The Matrix, a teensy bit Harry Potter, all served with a heaping dose of eighties nostalgia and nerd-dom. So, on the surface, there's really not much to dislike about Ready Player One. It's as good as they say it is.

On the other hand. When I finished reading it I felt kind of bereft. Or cold. Or maybe even bored? Because for all that it is a good story and the characters are reasonably interesting and the plot keeps you guessing, when you finally get to the end, you realize that there just wasn't much there. Not really. Not in terms of actual feelings or growth or change. And there's something kind of weird about a story so rooted in its cyber-punk, futuristic setting but still so obsessed with the past.

I mean, I mentioned that I was reading this to a friend of mine, and he responded by saying, "Oh yeah. Isn't that a book about videogame history?" Which, no, it's not. It's a novel. But I can completely see why he thought that, because Ready Player One contains so much history about nerd stuff that it sometimes feels like a viewers' guide to the best of eighties pop culture. And the obscurest.

But, all of this having been said, what's the book actually about?

Wade Watts is a regular sixteen year old boy living in the year 2044. By regular, what we mean is that he and his family, like most of the other people in the world, are desperately poor, borderline starving, and escape the grim reality of their lives by immersing themselves in the OASIS, a virtual reality existence.

The OASIS, which is a massive, fully immersive, universe of worlds and quests and games and schools and businesses, has become the dominant reality for human beings. Wade, in particular, has probably spent more conscious time in the OASIS in his life than he has in the real world. And that's good and bad. It's good because Wade's real life fully stinks. It's bad because his real life stinks because he puts no time into it. That being the central crux of why the world's such a terrible place now.

The story starts with a death, that of James Halliday, creator and sole owner of the OASIS. Since Halliday, a reclusive and strange genius, died without an heir, the world is thrown into chaos at the idea of who will inherit the OASIS as well as Halliday's two-hundred and forty billion dollar fortune. Even more chaos comes when Halliday's will surfaces: a video that states that his entire estate goes to the person who can find an easter egg he hid somewhere in the OASIS. All hell breaks loose.

But that was five years before our story starts, and at the time we begin no one has found the egg. No one has even deciphered the first clue to find the first key to the first gate (of which there are three) to find the egg. A whole community has sprung up around the idea, people who call themselves "gunters" (short for egghunter), and there's even a mild conspiracy. An evil and immoral tech company called IOI Systems has also entered the contest, using their employees as players and hoping to find the egg and monetize the OASIS. Everyone hates those guys.

Obviously, because Wade is the protagonist, he's the one who finds the first key and gate. This spurs the whole plot forward as the world once again becomes interested in the hunt, Wade's avatar becomes famous in the OASIS, Wade falls in love with another gunter, and IOI tries to kill him. The story goes from there.

It's also worth noting that the gunters study Halliday's life as their key to cracking his riddles. Since Halliday was a mega-nerd who grew up in the eighties and became fixated on that era, most of the book involves Wade and his friends cracking the puzzles with their encyclopedic knowledge of old Dungeons and Dragons modules or Atari games or episodes of Max Headroom - the whole thing is pretty much a primer on stuff that nerds liked in the eighties. Which isn't terrible, it's just also kind of frustrating.

Now, like I said above, I think this is a good book. It's fun and I really enjoyed reading it. But there were moments while I was reading, and more after I finished, where I felt kind of weird about the whole thing. See, Wade is our hero and as our hero, he's the "chosen one". The one who "really gets it." The guy who somehow, miraculously is best able to understand what Halliday was getting at in his clues and riddles, who most understands Halliday's mindset, and so is best at beating the game. 

The narrative basically shows us that Wade understands Halliday because he too is a pale, white, teenage boy with no real life who buries himself in fiction and is in love with a girl who barely acknowledges his existence.

The problem with this is that Wade as a character really isn't very interesting. He has the potential to be interesting, since it's not all that often that we read a story where the main character lives in absolute abject poverty (as Wade does in the beginning), but that goes away after the first hundred pages or so, and from then on, Wade is financially secure, the smartest ever, and pretty much invincible. It makes for a good story, but it also makes Wade a not super interesting character.

Furthermore, it's kind of weird how much time the story spends explaining eighties pop culture to us. Not that there's anything wrong with the eighties (though it's really not my favorite decade), but more that it feels intrusive. Personal? It feels like we're reading a list of the author's, Ernest Cline, favorite things. You know?

Plus, by having the main character be a "generic", "average", "normal" white boy, the story misses out on the opportunity to really explore what an immersive virtual reality world means for people. We get a little bit with a reveal, late in the book, that a character always knew as a white teenage boy is actually a black woman, and that she took that avatar in the OASIS because she wanted to avoid standards of sexism and racism that haunt her in real life. And that's super interesting! But the plot point is only given about two pages, and then we're back to Wade.

It's not that I think there should be no stories about white teenage nerdy boys, but rather that I think that a story like this, with so much potential for exploring gender and race and identity, really did itself a disservice by making Wade an "everyman." It completely ignored the most compelling aspects of its reality and in so doing made a character who's just okay. Almost everyone else in the story is more interesting than Wade, and that's a problem.

Now, I do think that this story raises a lot of really interesting questions about the actual world in which it takes place, but I also don't think it did a good job answering them. Like, in this world, where everyone exists inside virtual reality, where there are whole planets and cultures transported from the best of pop culture, we kind of get the impression that there's no new culture being made. 

Since anyone who wants to can live in the Firefly universe, what's there to motivate someone to make their own story? And that's a really good question. Basically, if we can have all the fanfiction we want, does that discourage us from creating our own stories and our own worlds?

Plus, there's strong implication that the OASIS is really what destroyed civilization. Wade lives in a world with rampant poverty, ravaged by climate change and devastated by storms, where most people are starving to death, but where everyone escapes all of this to live inside a fantasy world. The implication is that people do all this because they can escape to the OASIS. If it didn't exist then people might be forced to actually fix things in the real world, rather than ignore them.

But, again, that idea really isn't explored very much. Instead, we focus on Wade's quest to get the egg. There's a little bit in there about how as he goes along, Wade realizes that it's incredibly unhealthy to live so much in a false reality and that by the end of the book he wants to go outside and not log in to the OASIS again for a very long time. But it's not stressed and it's not really a big part of the story.

The main thrust of the story is really a sort of one-sided conversation that Wade seems to be having with James Halliday. And that's pretty interesting. I like the idea that Halliday set up this whole contest to make sure that whoever wins has to know the stories he knows and love them like he does. Because, by the end, it's very clear that you can't win the contest without loving the stories like Halliday did. You just can't.

It's an interesting concept, the idea that Halliday is looking for a spiritual heir in lieu of a physical one, but, again, it's more subtextual than actually developed. Mostly, this book is surface. It's good, entertaining surface, but it's not the next revolutionary novel or the next big thing. It's good, but it's not great. It lacks the depth to be great.

I know it can get kind of frustrating how I always tell you I like things with a caveat attached, but for me there's really no excuse for not pursuing greatness. I'll respect a book or movie or TV show that tried for great and failed epically more than a story that feels like it didn't try at all. And this one, honestly, feels like it didn't try. Not enough.

So yeah. If you want a book that's diverting and fun and weird, then pick this up. But don't expect to have your world turned upside down. That's the gist.

Super cool worldbuilding, though.

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