Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Ernest Cline, Ready Player One

Not to be confused with Douglas Coupland's more mysterious but realistically near-present apocalyptic Player One, Ernest Cline's Ready Player One comes with buckets of spare media-savvy nerd credentials -- but legit nerd credentials? Hard to say. I don't want to distrust a book just because Entertainment Weekly says it's one of the best books of the year, though I am indeed just that snobby/shallow, but how nerdy can it be if EW can climb on board?

So yeah, Spielberg is apparently going to direct the movie, but again, what's the legit nerd quotient of that?

The book's opening is phenomenal, I have to say, and the basic conceit sounds great. Twenty years from now, with petroleum almost all burned, most people survive in vertical warren-like stacks of RV's and trailers held together by scaffolding and sewage pipes, living fully haptic virtual lives online in the OASIS, a richly textured environment that integrates with the Real World. (You can attend school inside the OASIS, for example, and get a real high school diploma.) One of the two inventors of the OASIS has died, and has left a complex video explaining that his entire mammoth fortune, including control over the OASIS, will go to the person who solves the riddle buried inside OASIS.

Via A Book Is A Girl's BF
There's lots to enjoy about the novel, don't get me wrong. We occupy a rich, complicated virtual world with Cline in Ready Player One. Much of the pleasure is exactly what you'd expect from a 1980s-centric novel focused narrowly on vestiges of pop culture (snatches of movie dialogue, name-dropping, etc), but Cline has some of his characters neatly and quietly confront stereotypical gamer culture. And if you can identify with protagonist Wade Watts, a somewhat underprivileged, oft-bullied, teenaged gamer obsessed with the 80s, then you're likely to see yourself throughout the novel.

To some extent, though, that's the main reason I distrust the book and its reception. In brief, it's perfectly calculated to strike the fancy of 40-ish media types (who were teenagers themselves in the 1980s) and their 60-ish bosses (who built the 1980s culture quarried by the book), and so flattery has driven some of the fawning media reception blurbed on the book's cover: "Willy Wonka meets The Matrix" (USA Today); "the grownup's Harry Potter" (Huffington Post); "an adrenaline shot of uncut geekdom" (Publishers Weekly).

Wevs.

Ready Player One did have the promised tapestry of 80s references -- not my 1980s, mind you, without the Cars' Heartbeat City or Rambo: First Blood Part II or John Mellencamp, though it was nice to see Bryan Adams and Time Pilot 1984 again -- but as one of my book club compatriots asked, "Did we ever really think that Second Life was the future?" (I paraphrase.) We did think that, definitely, though it has faded markedly since its peak. Second Life is still active and accessible, with the occasional reporter even doing something touristic there, but it's possible to read the novel as somewhat dated to the 2009 peak of VR breathlessness.

Really, I expected to really enjoy this novel, and I did, but I was also disappointed. There's no genuine basis here for the "cult" status self-importantly assigned to it by the entertainment industry, though, and I see Cline as complicit in that misassignation. Good on him for finding a way to earn a living as a novelist, and I think his upcoming Armada will be really intriguing, but Ready Player One was and remains over-hyped.