Sunday, July 5, 2015

Book Review - Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

I have just read the novel Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. It is his first novel, and takes place in the near-future, in the 2040s. It is a dystopian novel, and, paradoxically, a utopian novel as well.

I want to start by saying, for better or for worse, that Ernest Cline is perhaps the biggest nerd I have ever encountered in my life. Throughout the novel he shows an encyclopedic knowledge of video games, from Atari to online multiplayer, as well a prodigious knowledge of cult films and television programs. He makes me sound like a surfer from Santa Cruz. Sporadically during the first half of the novel, he would suddenly halt the plot dead in its tracks to summarize the storyline of a famous game or film, or to remind us of exactly how long a TV show was on the air. It was cute the first time, but after a while I was tempted to reach my hand into the past, grab Mr. Cline, and pull him the hell out of his basement.

The story is one that we have all seen before, though perhaps not on such a grand scale. In the future, energy is scarce and everything is polluted. The world is bleak and dirty, and people escape by plugging into a virtual reality world called OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersion Simulation; as a librarian, who must keep up with all kinds of acronyms for my job, I was impressed by how many acronyms Cline managed to come up with). OASIS is, in fact, an entire galaxy of thousands of different planets, each with simulations that represent video games, movies, board games, historical periods, novels, brothels, bars, terrains, and damn near anything else you could think of. Every user creates an avatar with customizable appearance, and that avatar can gain abilities and credits by taking on "challenges" that were created by other users. People connect to OASIS by means of a special visor and haptic gloves.

The premise is all too familiar. In today's world of YouTube, Netflix, X-Box, World of Warcraft, etc., Cline's creation is remarkably easy to envision. The novel succeeds by means of Cline's spectacular imaginative power. What it lacks, however, is a decision whether to treat this world as science-fiction or as fantasy.

In our library, Ready Player One is labeled as Fantasy. The plot does, indeed, resemble an epic quest from Tolkien or Simon R. Green: the creator of OASIS, a man named James Halliday, has died and bequeathed all of his riches and all of OASIS to the person who can solve a series of puzzles hidden in the virtual realms and collect the supreme "Easter Egg." A young orphan named Wade Watts escapes his miserable surroundings by logging on to OASIS as much as possible, and he is the first to take a step successfully toward finding the mythical egg. Soon Wade, along with a handful of allies (whose names he does not even know, since they have only met online and share only their avatar names), are racing to obtain the egg before an evil corporation obtains it first and turns OASIS into a for-profit amusement park for the very rich. Wade must face riddles, demons, dragons, space battles, and hand-to-hand combat as he continues in his quest.

I've read that the difference between fantasy and science-fiction is that, whereas fantasy asks us to suspend our disbelief and experience the impossible while knowing it is not really there, science-fiction attempts to back up its ideas with enough facts that it becomes plausible to us, and we recognize that those ideas are already a part of our real world. While the premise of Ready Player One is plausible enough, the action of the novel is mostly the stuff of dreams and video games. Thus, I am left with the feeling of an author telling me, "Yes, life really is a dreadfully dangerous thing, but you can always imagine something better and then the world won't seem quite so bad - until you go outside again and receive a fresh reminder." When I first saw the cover of this book, I imagined the story as something where a person must play his way through a series of fantastical-yet-real challenges - a story that inspires us to rise to the challenges of everyday life, and that teaches us not to be frustrated by failure. But Ready Player One achieves neither of these effects. It paints the world as a harsh and futile place, and any taste of success in the novel feels contrived and forced.

This book has been called a "nerdgasm," a "cyberquest," one that "pleased every geeky bone in my geeky body." Yes, they are already working on a movie adaptation of it - directed by Spielberg! Holy cow! Perhaps that name will draw enough people to the theaters, so that it is not a box-office bomb like Ender's Game or Hugo. This book panders to an audience that "knows" how to seek virtual solace as a substitute for a real connection to the world. Richmond Lattimore once wrote of the playwright Euripides, "Even his own invention, bright optimistic romantic comedy, becomes drama of escape. Usually, escape is impossible. He believe in a world he disliked. His gods represent this world." No matter how much we want to escape the world, the only thing to which we can escape is more of the same world. The language and culture might be different, but the limitations are the same.

Perhaps I am being hypocritical. I play computer games sometimes, and I used to play them a lot more than I do now. I write my own fiction, much of which involves fantasy and science-fiction. But Ready Player One is an exciting, epic story that tells me nothing about the author. Every "challenge" in it, every "game-within-a-game" that Wade plays through, is taken directly from a preexisting work - and half of them are very old video games. Cline spends pages describing a tedious PAC-man tournament, a battle against a computer player in the old "Joust" game, "Tempest," "Black Tiger," and more. A video game is a simulation of a story, which is a retelling of something that might have happened in real life or simply come out of the programmer's imagination. And Cline actually describes the events of the gameplay - in other words, the novel becomes an imitation of an imitation of an imitation. Whatever meaning existed in the original game is lost now; Cline exploits the sense of challenge in a game, just as a means to make the eventual victory over the machine seem as if the gamer has earned it.

The book did not bore me. It was exciting. The second half of it moved a lot quicker than the first half, and I get the feeling that Cline was becoming more and more comfortable as an author as he went on. The dialogue was very 21st century colloquial. My favorite example is when Wade says to the evil corporate executive, whose cronies are derogatorily called "Sux0rz," "You and the other Sux0rz call go f--- a duck." Very classy. One hundred years from now, I doubt people will be able to appreciate half of the references and phrases that Cline uses.

What I wanted from this book was the feeling that I was experiencing a real adventure, one probably wasn't real but one that I wanted very badly to be real. I guess I was aiming too high, as usual. The best fantasy adventure novels I have read so far are The Golden Compass, Howl's Moving Castle, and the Akira manga series by Katsuhiro Otomo. Akira, now that I think about it, is a more successful blend of science-fiction and fantasy: set in a Neo-Tokyo, it portrays a group of teenagers who must adapt as their world becomes a battleground for a set of psychic juggernauts, who struggle to control their powers as they destroy the lives around them and are in turn manipulated by various forces. The action of the graphic novel is impossible, but I can believe in it the way I believe that a person's psychological and social struggle can bring him to do wonderful and terrible things beyond anyone's predictions.

Ernest Cline is, clearly, a very intelligent person. His plot is intricate and well-imagined. This will not be his last work, and I have high hopes for him. What I want is for him to put himself in the story. Ready Player One seemed to imply that the reader needs to stick a quarter in and enjoy the ride, through the kaleidoscope of gameplay and virtual artifacts, all the while knowing that we are being pulled through a preconceived storyline that has just a few endings, all of which have already been programmed in. What I want from Cline is, to quote Neo from the end of the The Matrix, "a world where anything is possible."

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