Thursday, December 22, 2011

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Before turning to the topic at hand, a brief digression (that will end up being somewhat relevant to the review itself, so bear with me here.)  I, along with who knows how many other people, am the owner of a Kindle.  As regular Kindle users know, it recently became possible to use the Kindle to check out library books, joining the modern ranks of e-readers.  My local library is pretty on the ball with technology and has access to Overdrive, which is the publisher-required middleman for e-book content.

You may be thinking that this is how I obtained my reading copy of Ready Player One, and that is correct.  But I’m also really wondering about my own personal moral standing and the future of the library.  As it happens, you can only check out three Kindle titles at a time – you also can’t forget to return it, since the book simply evaporates after your time is up.  Also, the library has to buy an e-book license for each digital copy, so if the library only has one license then only one person at a time is allowed to have access to the e-book.  If you want you can put yourself on a hold list.  And some publishers have requirements that the library must re-purchase the license after the book has been checked out a certain number of times (HarperCollins earlier this year set the number at 26, I don’t know if they ever backed down on that or not.)  Librarians obviously hate the idea that they have to continuously shell out money for a digital book which has a marginal cost of zero and isn’t suffering the degradation that a real book will if it ends up in the wrong place such as anywhere in the vicinity of a toddler.

So let’s recap here – we’ve got the technology to instantly magic the complete text of any book in existence to anyone who’s got a computer or an e-reader and to do this with no additional cost, and yet the process sucks.  The publishers are intent on making this a more painful and less pleasant prospect than physically going to the library and more expensive to the library than actually buying a physical copy of a real book.  Which means that the future is less about awesome technology than about the laws, regulations and social norms that constrain everyone’s use of that technology.  And then there’s people like me which are lending credibility to this asinine system by participating in it, which probably means that despite all my complaints I’m still part of the problem.


Ready Player One is a book about nostalgia for nerd culture of the 1980s.  Everything else about it is what you would call an Excuse Plot, such as when you’re watching a movie and the cable repairman turns out to be played by Karl Hungus, and then you know that cable repair is probably not going to be a critical plot element exactly.  So in evaluating this book you have to keep in mind that every single thing that happens in this book is designed around composing cool setpieces of vintage nerd references, and everything else is pretty secondary to that.  This could be done in a truly terrible and/or cloying matter, at which point this book would be complete crap, which I fortunately report is not the case.  But at the same time I’m not totally sold on it either.

Now, I was a nerd in the 1980s, although I think I’m maybe 5-7 years too young to really be the right-on-target demographic here because I was also teething and learning the alphabet during a lot of that period.  (Although my first video game was a Space Invaders clone for the Kaypro II).  I was really a nerd of the 1990s if you count the ability to do reasonably independent stuff.  Why waste a paragraph on my own circumstances when describing someone else’s book?  Simple, any analysis of nostalgia is going to be self directed because that’s the whole point of it.  If you’re going to reference, say, The Legend of Zelda for the original Nintendo, then the only reason that anyone would care is their own experience playing that game.  Maybe you remember your friends taunting you because you kept getting killed by an Octorok, or the hassle involved in getting down into the seventh dungeon, or endless arguments over A Link to the Past or whatever.  If you’ve never played any of those games and don’t have any personal experience with them then a reference/homage to them isn’t going to give you any warm fuzzies and might even be incomprehensible.

The action in the novel revolves around, essentially, treasure hunting, since the creator of OASIS has died and left his $240 billion fortune (still the greatest personal collection of wealth in the 2040s, take that, future inflation) to the person who can complete his online Easter egg hunt.  What is OASIS, you ask?  Something of a combination of Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse from Snow Crash, a little bit of World of Warcraft, some Facebook, and a few elements of blazing a butterball-sized crack rock.  Everyone’s on OASIS pretty much all the time, and why not?  The world has hit peak oil, so there’s constant wars, riots, global climate change, dogs and cats living together, etc.  So it’s a pretty crappy time to be alive.

Enter our hero, Wade Watts, alliteratively named by his father who died while looting a convenience store, and raised by a single mom in an Oklahoma trailer park.  And who is obsessed with nerd culture of the 1980s because that’s what the creator of OASIS was into, so that’s the secret to finding the clues to the Easter egg.

Now I mostly like Wade, he’s a pretty good portrayal of what someone like this would actually be like.  He’s not physically intimidating and he’s smart, but in a pop-culture and game-centric sort of way.  So he’s not going to be winning any fights or turning heads at the Sorbonne.  Nonetheless I’ve known some dudes like this, he’s basically a decent sort and I didn’t mind spending time with him.

Do you think there is any chance that you’re going to get through this book and find out that Wade doesn’t manage to outwit, out-game and out-trivia the murderous cabal that’s also after the prize and become the world’s richest man, and that he won’t get the girl?  I’m sure there’s someone out there who’s never read a book or seen a movie about an underdog before and it will come as a surprise to that person.  Other than that, you basically know what’s coming, and there’s a bunch of really fun nerd references in there.

I liked it.  It was pretty good.

Now, having praised this book, let me go ahead and bury it.  Remember all that business at the beginning about Kindle library loaning?  Wade learned to read and write through OASIS since every kid is apparently allowed free access to all the public libraries and Sesame Street.  And all through this, in the back of my head, I was thinking – that would certainly be cool, but really?  The book publishers are going to allow unlimited access to all their books and CTW is going to just let everyone spend unlimited time with Elmo without a royalty?  For that matter, did AT&T and Verizon not try to strangle OASIS’ bandwidth, charge extra fees, demand a cut of the action?  Did the movie studios and television networks go gentle into that good night?

I’m not going to shill for Paolo Bacigalupi’s vision of the future, but his harrowing post-peak oil collapse stories and novels paint, I think, a better version of what that crisis might be like.  I don’t really think that in the face of what’s going on in this story that keeping the power on to a trailer park in Oklahoma would really be a big focus of anyone in power’s priorities.  I felt that there’s a much greater chance that all his potential would go to waste – well, even more so.

So, as much as I wanted to get into this book, I kept feeling a huge tension between the story that was going on and the fairly well done setting and backstory.  It appeared to me that what I was being told about the world made all the events at best extremely unlikely, probably impossible, and that mismatch made the whole thing feel even more artificial than something dealing with the 80s should be.  Nonetheless, this is a pretty interesting first novel and I’m interested to see if Cline can get something in better focus with the next one.

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