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Ready Player One

September 16, 2015

I remember hearing that Spielberg was working on the film adaptation of Ready Player One. Not something I’d read but it stuck out in my memories of drifting through various bookshelves. Why not get ahead of the game, I thought?

Ready Player One is a 2011 science-fiction novel by Ernest Cline. In the near-future of 2044, the world has turned into a generic dystopia. Like much of humanity, Wade Watts escapes this grim reality in OASIS, a sprawling virtual reality world. He and many like him are seeking the fortune of OASIS creator, James Halliday, hidden somewhere in the simulation, with only cryptic riddles based on 1980s pop-culture to go on. The quote from USA Today on the cover describes it as “Willy Wonka meets the Matrix.”

That premise holds such promise…yet why am I left feeling so very underwhelmed?

First of all, I’m left cold by the book’s fetishistic obsession with 1980s geek culture. Disclaimer: I’m a big fan of the decade myself, of the music and films of the 1980s. However, Ready Player One leaves mere fans in the dust miles behind. All the main characters, those interested in this elaborate Easter egg hunt, know all aspects of the decade (Film, music, video games) down to the minutia. Reciting the entire script of 1980s films are major plot points. What makes this worse is that the pop-culture (sixty years old by the time of the book) isn’t enjoyed on it’s own merits, or critiqued or put in much context with the rest of pop culture that came after it – Instead, everyone doubles down on the 1980s because it was the favourite decade of Halliday, who beqeuathed the Macguffin.

Over the past six years, I’d watched Holy Grail exactly 157 times. I knew every word by heart.

That is just sad. The few references that the reader can enjoy are drowned out by minutiae. And when it’s the backbone of the entire book, it’s just tiresome.

Secondly, there is little-to-no effort put in to describing the world these characters live in. Caveat: the majority of action in the book takes place in OASIS, which plays appropriately fast and loose with logic. However, the real world is barely draw in with crayon.

After all, the people of Planet Earth had other concerns. The ongoing energy crisis. Catastrophic climate change. Widespread famine, poverty and disease. Half a dozen wars.

Cline describes “the ongoing energy crisis” but neglects to mention how a large proportion of the world’s population can sit down and browse the internet for days at a time. Or how these people can afford to do so, since unemployment is vaguely rife. Late in the book, Wade buys a gun from a vending machine – but I have no idea what kind of society it is where you need a gun in the same way you need diet cola. For the most part, Wade exists in the real world safely…and mostly bored.

SPOILER ALERT: At the end of the book, Halliday’s avatar cautions Wade that the real world is the only place where he can find true happiness. Frankly, this comes across as a load of crap, because 1) Neither Wade or Halliday seem to care much about the real world and 2) we are never given any evidence that there is anything interesting in the real world, let alone joyful. SPOILER OVER.

The one aspect of the real world that gets much in the way of description is Innovative Online Industries (IOI). The world’s largest internet service provider, they’ve devoted a division “The Sixers” (~10,000 people) to finding Halliday’s treasure and thus gaining control of OASIS. They are introduced thusly:

They would start charging a monthly fee for access to the simulation. They would plaster advertisements on every visible surface. User anonymity and free speech would become things of the past. The moment IOI took it over, the OASIS would cease to be the open-source virtual utopia I’d grown up in. IT would become a corporate-run dystopia, an overpriced theme park for wealthy elitists…Like most gunters, I loathed the Sixers…whose goal was to hand OASIS over to an evil multinational conglomerate intent on ruining it.

This is Wade’s initial perception of IOI and the Sixers and that is never really challenged. In fact, the leader of the Sixers revels in the accuracy of this image and skips right over corporate ethics to straight-out murder. These guys are the bad guys and literally nothing else. (At the opening of the book, the search has been on for five years – this sizeable corporate division, with significant running costs, and zero results so far…who would keep funding that?!)

I wish triffling niggles like these could be compensated for by engaging and compelling characters but sadly, it was not to be. Other than his obsessive knowledge of 1980s pop-culture (see above), there is nothing else to Wade Watts. Nothing redeeming. Nothing likeable. Nothing even to make me hate him. And for the most part, his friends are equally one-dimensional. That they are looking for Halliday’s fortune is the only thing we know about them. I still can’t work out if writing the Japanese characters as full-on samurai is more than just stereotypical.

I want to dig down into Wade Watts a bit more. His only real-world “friend” is the elderly Mrs Gilmore, his downstairs neighbour. She offers him breakfast at the start of the novel and plays no further role in the book and Wade doesn’t consider her any further…until… SPOILER ALERT: She is murdered by the Sixers to get to Wade. From then on, she is occasionally invoked in case Wade needs something resembling motivation. I’ve eaten rice crackers with more definition. SPOILER OVER.

Wade admits that he had a hard time speaking to girls in the real world. Then at the start of his quest, he runs into a smart, chatty woman called Art3mis (OASIS name) – and just falls in love. And that’s as far as that goes for character development. She does begin to develop feelings for him after they strike up a correspondence – But this is only after being pestered for interaction by Wade. Yep, that’s the first step to true love – don’t accept that a woman doesn’t want to talk to you. Keep bothering her until she gives in!

After they start talking, Wade seems intent on proving that Art3mis is a woman in real life. Despite the fact that Wade has all his interactions and all he holds dear in OASIS, he is paranoid that he might be catfished by…

…some 300lb dude named Chuck who lives in his mother’s basement.

Wade lives his life in OASIS. He and Art3mis go on dates in OASIS. Yet he can not get over the configuration of her real-life genitalia. I really really struggle to see why this is an issue.

I can’t shake the feeling that Wade Watts would say that it is about ethics in video-game journalism, actually.

SPOILER ALERT: Lastly, late in the book, a character reveals themselves to be a “heavyset” African American woman in real life. We are then treated to this observation.

In Marie’s opinion, the OASIS was the best thing that had ever happened to both women and people of color. From the very start, Marie had used a white male avatar to conduct all of her online business, because of the marked difference in how she was treated and the opportunities she was given.

Better bloggers than me have proven this thesis to be true. But in 2044, the “best thing” for women and people of colour is for them to hide their gender/race – Just how depressing is that? That might explain why there is only one openly female character in the entire book. In 30 years time, women and people of colour can get ahead by pretending to be straight white men. Let the freedom bell ring *sigh*

So, in short, I was let down by two-dimensional characters in front of a one-dimensional backdrop with a frustratingly tedious conceit. It’s a real shame because I really wanted this book to be better. Because I know it can be better. Because that book is called Snow Crash and Neal Stephenson wrote it in 1992

Seriously, just go read Snow Crash

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