Monday, February 22, 2016

Review: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

I devoured Ready Player One in just a couple sittings, which is a rare thing for me these days.  It certainly went down in a delightful way, but now, a few weeks later, I'm not so sure if that was really because it's a fundamentally delightful novel, or because I am the laser-targeted audience of it.  It does have tons of positive energy--it's probably going to make a fun movie--but I'm aware that even a grouch like me has few defenses against such a focused ray of nostalgia. 

The story is set thirty years in the future, in a joyless, overpopulated world that we don't, thankfully, see much of.  With cheap energy on the way out, populations have been retracting toward what jobs or assistance are left, and middle America has put its own special flair on the ungoverned shantytown, which by the 2040s are basically trailer parks piled up on top of one another.  It's here, nestled behind his aunt's clothes dryer, that we first find Wade Watts, navigating high school, and chasing whatever available escapes from his shit existence.

Fortunately for Wade (not to mention the rest of humanity), online resources have developed quite a bit by these days.  There exists a shared virtual OASIS, which is basically a shared, free-form, customizable online environment, with vast servers and a really spiffy virtual interface, that has grabbed up the entire population.  Everybody uses it.  Like Facebook, it was the right technology at exactly the right time, and it made its developers fabulously rich.  People meet, game, watch TV, go to school, and have business meetings in OASIS, because let's face it, it helps to go somewhere.  In the book universe, the originally developers of the technology were children in the 1980s (just like me!), and the imprint of these old men's dreams is everywhere in the virtuality.  The event that sets the plot in motion is that the company founder, one James Halliday, has died, leaving an elaborate will.  Whoever can find the three Easter eggs he left in his sprawling online galaxy will win his inheritance, and it proves to be more difficult than even obsessive fanboys can work out.  By the time Wade (online handle: Parcival) is lucky enough to figure a piece out, most of the world has long since given up the hunt, but now an egg has been found, and the chase is on. 

The "egg hunt" draws heavily on the 1980s cultural influences that led Halliday to create OASIS in the first place.  It was informed by all the stuff nerds would have liked, before the days when being a nerd was cool.  A hunter culture has grown up that studies and celebrates the culture, and Parcival has (rather conveniently) mastered every potentially relevant facet of 80s dork trivia: from the popular movies, to the bad Japanese tv imports, to prog rock, to Dungeons and Dragons, to the clunky computers, to the arcade games we used to obsess over.  All of these things have some prime niches in the OASIS, and the accelerating race through them is a love-fest to us current fortysomethings.  The first clue, we learn before long, is within a vintage D&D campaign, not found before now because it was hidden in an unlikely place.

It's interesting to me (and it earned Cline a pass for the book's most obvious flaw) that I knew a few savants like Parcival growing up, or at least I knew kids who shared an aspect or two: misfits with freakish game skills, or fan nerds, or kids who could sleuth out computer tidbits, or who obsessed on text-based games.  And maybe I'm a little ashamed about the times I sidled away from these perpetual acquaintances in the vague hopes of finding where the girls were, or what mysteries alcohol might hold for me.  [I am ashamed, to be clear.  And I am sure I would have liked the girls from those original circles better, too.]  In any case, the characters did not seem completely artificial to me.  It's not quite as spot-on as was, say, the world where Freaks and Geeks was, but that (virtual) rec room where Parcival hung out with his buds only needed the spilled sodas and forbidden thrill of HBO movies to match my experience at that age.

And of course these 80s kids are the ones making popular culture now too, cobbled together from the trash of three decades ago.  I realize that I have no useful vantage point to judge it--I honestly can't tell if there was something really original that was sparking to life in those times, or if it's merely the weird sensation of our turn at adulthood now rolling around.  I mean, I want to believe that it was the off-color, under-the-surface, cult fare--the independent scenes--that ended up resulting in anything worth a damn.  I want to argue that illegitimacy, popular scorn, is what lit the creative fires that are burning today.  But that's bullshit, right?  Or at least bullshit here?  Pretty much everything mentioned above (except the MUDs) was successful, and these quaint beloved movies were friggin' blockbusters.  Reminiscing about our shared love of Star Wars is maybe not so controversial.  But there were new things developing then too, and maybe there's an argument that this was the decade where people (Americans anyway) started to turn more toward a shared multimedia escapism that, in the timeline of Ready Player One, eventually coalesced into a population-wide MMORPG.  

So is this novel an objectively good book, or is it rollicking nostalgia service?  I tried to imagine how I might have reacted to it if had been released in 1990 or so.  I think it could have been: its obvious predecessors were there (Neuromancer gave us cyberspace in 1984, and Snow Crash, which is a lot closer in tone, was only a couple years around the corner), and god knows the pop culture references were still fresh.  It might have been both more fun and more insufferable.  (But as for the planned movie, I'm sure the special effects would have sucked back then.)