Book #94: Ready Player One (2011)

Ready-Player-OneAuthor: Ernest Cline
Language: English with bits of Japanese, Latin
Length: 940 minutes (15 hours, 40 minutes)
Finished listening on: 3 December 2015

I originally saw this book set out as the readers’ choice in a bookstore in London before I tracked it down on Audible to listen to. The storyline intrigued me – it’s a sci fi book set largely in a virtual reality world, and the book had received mostly positive press.

It’s very heavy on 1980s references. The plot starts with the death of a famous billionaire responsible for starting the Oasis – a virtual reality world that fills many functions in the future society, including that of Facebook and even the internet itself in today’s society, but stemming from a gaming culture. He pledges the system itself and his vast fortune to someone who can complete an obnoxious series of tasks and find an “Easter egg” – a secret – inside the virtual world. To do that, they have to research him, his interests, and his motivations. That’s where the 80s references come in – it’s video games of that period that interest this character (and presumably the author).

I think it’s attained its popularity directly because of this nostalgia factor. I found that I’m too young to get most of the references that the book makes, which perhaps allowed me to see them for what they were: shallow shout-outs, not really adding much substance to the story. I was quite glad to see that the author’s second novel flopped quite badly, because it didn’t have this element and was a tepid nerd romance – which is also what this book would be without the nostalgic parts.

Basically the romantic subplot of this movie is borderline misogynistic, and heavily focuses on the straight male gaze. I spluttered at the end when it turns out the girl he fancies has, in real life but not in the game, a birthmark on her face, and doesn’t believe she’s pretty until he, the straight male savior, comes along to tell her otherwise.

Not only that, but the whole idea of the knowledge of the 80s ever being useful for something like this is also very much a geek boy’s fantasy, and I loathed that aspect of this book. Perhaps contradicting the 80s side is also the heavy use of early-2000s gaming slang, like “leet” or “haxxor”. I feel defiled, having to hear those words read out loud by Wil Wheaton (who I bet was loving every moment of this book, especially the part where he’s namedropped).

But aside from the problematic stuff, the book is also not well written. A lot of the sentences are awkward, and the story pacing is uneven to say the least. As an example, the first act of the book sees the main character stuck inside the educational side of the Oasis, unable to pay his way to another in-game planet (that doesn’t seem like a nice system or one that would catch on quickly), and without cash in the real world too – somehow able to feed himself despite his aunt (of course he’s an orphan) stealing his food stamps. In the second act, he suddenly comes into money, and he magically knows exactly how to spend it responsibly. A couple of explanatory paragraphs later, and money is never an issue for him. This kind of sudden and sharp change in the situation was par for the course. I’d like to have seen the consequences of the boy’s actions in the real world come back to bite him somehow – he essentially comes into the money by signing some advertising contracts without reading them, which would be an easy way for the author to pin him down later. But they’re never mentioned again.

His origins in the trailer stacks of the midwest was also ripe for exploration that didn’t come. He escapes his aunt’s home in the first few chapters and doesn’t seem to go back. I felt that this part of his character was unnecessary except to show the dystopia of the non-virtual world. There is such obvious opportunity to explore the conflict of the down-trodden, poor man outside the simulation, and the famous man inside it (think Harry Potter forced to live with the Dursleys), that I felt let down that this never happened.

His attitude towards those less fortunate or less clever than him, while common in geek circles, is absolutely reprehensible. We see him in a customer service position later in the book, and he seems to spend his day whining about how awful all his customers are. I just get the feeling the author would be this kind of unpleasant person in real life, too. I bet he complains about the friendzone.

I liked the book for its worldbuilding, however, and I would very much like the chance to explore the virtual world the author describes. I also found myself caring about the main character and wanting to find out what happens when he confronts the villains – who, predictably, are one-dimensional without redeeming features. And the author should really learn what fascist means! He throws it around like a meaningless insult.

I also think that the predictions of the book are accurate. A lot of the future world, including the virtual reality stuff but also the collapse of the economy and other parts, seemed realistic to me. I can certainly imagine this coming about in the next few years.

But while it was fun to explore the world of this book, I feel that a lot of the appeal is the author just shouting “Isn’t this cool??” while we look on, and he equates referencing something with homaging it, which isn’t quite enough. It’s exciting to an extent, but it’s also unrealistic and there are too many wasted opportunities for me to recommend it.

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