I just finished reading Ready Player One last night, and only started the book two days ago. I decided to read it because of its glowing reputation amI just finished reading Ready Player One last night, and only started the book two days ago. I decided to read it because of its glowing reputation among both science fiction aficionados and gamers, groups that are notoriously hard to please, particularly in the areas they overlap. Ernest Cline’s debut novel is in many ways the quintessential nerd novel, what with its obscure-reference obsessed nerdy protagonist who spends more time in his virtual world than the real one. And given the speed with which I completed the book, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the book or find it deeply engrossing at certain points. At the same time, however, I began to question what I was reading the further I got into the book until I just about disengaged during the last chapter. I even had a conversation with myself (or my cats, whichever sounds less tragic) about how the fundamental flaws of the book ultimately undermined a novel premise so that its stakes, setting, and characters proved neutered or absent in the face of a moral that was not at all in keeping with the point of view of the protagonist/narrator throughout the rest of the novel.
Both OASIS and dystopian America are intriguing settings but lack necessary specificity to make them come alive in a way that I found engaging. This is less true of OASIS, but that’s because, like much of the world of this novel, OASIS benefits from being composed of already familiar and existent settings, eliding the possibility that anything meaningful was created between the late mid 00’s (in a world mired with 80’s nostalgia a reference to the X-Box struck me as the most contemporary) s and 2044, when the story takes place. Sure, the narrator is obsessed with the 80’s and that obsession drives his interests and may be the reason he doesn’t consider other artifacts of his era, but the choice is so deliberate as to be artificial. As for the world outside of Anorak’s Castle, the fate of the U.S. and the world at large, is painted with broad strokes and, as filtered through the eyes of a bitchy teenager, lacks the visceral punch of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or Orwell’s 1984.
Returning to the OASIS, a major sticking point for me was what the rules for the OASIS actually were. Some of this gets fleshed out—the existence of PvP and non-PvP worlds, for instance, and the idea that magic and technology sometimes work on certain worlds and not on others—but the OASIS is ultimately a digital world, meaning it could be vulnerable to hacking and other loopholes the characters never seem intent on exploiting. If the evil IOI was really so evil, why not find ways to hack the system in a more direct way—given the presumed technological advances of the era, ones that allow Wade to circumvent nearly every problem that appears in the book with minimal effort by downloading secret IOI passwords or changing his fingerprints and retinal patterns not once but twice, you would think a company as wealthy and powerful as IOI would be to go around the contest itself.
But no, the villains, such as they are, exist to be as unquestionably corrupt as they are cartoonishly evil, but in the former case only just so. It’s never clear just how powerful IOI is, or even what wealth means in a world that appears to be uniformly impoverished by today’s standards. Given the relative complexity of modern fictional antagonists, I was eager to see more of Sorrento after his initial meeting with Wade, to see if he had facets beyond corporate shill and devilish bureaucrat, but no, he remains a flat and largely off screen (page?) presence, even into the final challenge of the Egg Hunt where, if he was competing along with Wade to find Anorak’s treasure, he was doing so in his own virtual world. The final game in the book was one player only, which while in keeping with the book’s title felt anticlimactic. Though not nearly as anticlimactic as some of the character reveals that happen late in the book. For sometime I actually thought that Aech might be Sorrento or at least an IOI employee, or that he or Art3mis were related either to Og, Halliday, or Sorrento--I was looking for a surprise I guess, one that never materialized with regards to the motivation of the villains.
Speaking of, I want to talk about Aech and Art3mis because they are probably the best characters in this book, the ones who feel most human and complex in both their behavior and actions. This is more so the case for Art3mis because we spend more time with her through Wade’s courtship of the Canadian gunter, all the while learning that she is confident, competitive, and idealistic, while also suffering from isolation and self-doubt due to the fragmentary nature of performing most social interactions online. Wade’s pursuit of Art3mis might be one of the most uncomfortably accurate portrayals of nerdiness in the book given his stalkerish behavior toward her after they “break up” (Art3mis rightly points out that breaking up implies they were together in the first place, which they weren’t) and the way he projects a “geek girl” fantasy onto her avatar all the while joking that she might be an overweight balding man posing as a woman. How much more interesting would the novel had been if that had been the case, particularly given the frequency with which men often impersonate women in spaces where anonymity is a key feature? What Wade truly have been able to love that reality?
Aech, by contrast, becomes interesting when he is revealed to be, in her words, “a fat black chick” and a lesbian to boot. Unfortunately, the novel rushes through this revelation and Aech’s interesting upbringing at breakneck speed, leaving little time for either the reader or Wade to grapple with the reality of what he has learned. Given his prickly demeanor, it seems odd that he’s so immediately copacetic with learning this truth. Again, I ask how much more interesting would the novel have been if we had followed Aech, in all her queer, badass glory from the start of the novel rather than perfect Wade Watts?
This ultimately gets to the real root of my issues with the novel: Wade Watts, white boy savior. Wade is a Mary Sue if there ever was one, and coating him in a prickly shell of adolescent geek angst does little to hide this fact. There simply isn’t a problem that Wade encounters through the span of this novel that he doesn’t solve with a deus ex machina. Everything from finding funds to continue his exploits (he racks up endorsement deals after becoming OASIS-famous despite the fact that the companies looking to do this could probably just simulate his avatar—I mean, we can hologram dead celebrities in 2015 for Christ’s sake!) to infiltrating the IOI headquarters by faking debt problems to get himself into indentured servitude at the company comes so easy to him that the stakes are never felt. This is especially true in the last few chapters of the novel where and his comrades compete to make their way through the crystal gate sequestered away in the only place outside the OASIS that is not described as being repugnant: Oregon (that part, perhaps because of my proximity to the Pacific Northwest seems about right). After sort of nearly getting blown up an IOI explosion (but not really) Wade never faces any danger, or really momentary struggle, in the real world beyond the depression that sets in after his (not really) girlfriend breaks up with him. He even deus ex machina’s his chubbiness away in a totally superfluous passage that nonetheless corrects the one area Wade didn’t seem to have confidence or ability in.
And as far as danger in the OASIS is concerned, what is there really to worry about aside from being torn out of your chair and thrown out the window (IOI really is the worst—why didn’t they just abduct Daito and interrogate him or hold him hostage like any smart evil corrupt corporation would? The Umbrella Corporation and Weyland Yutani would have a field day with these guys). The danger in OASIS feels real moment to moment like the danger of a video game, especially one with multiple players and no save features, but fades when you realize how overpowered the main character’s avatars are and how, in the end, dying in the game doesn’t measure up to the fact that some real murders actually take place (Wade resurrects his fallen companions on OASIS but Daito can’t be raised so easily in the real world.) This of course leads to the puzzling moral of the story that James Halliday comes out and tells Wade—go do stuff away from games. If Halliday were autistic as the book hints at, I don’t know that he really would feel that way from a neurocognitive standpoint. Even so, given the world Wade lives in, ill-defined as it is, outside OASIS doesn’t sound like that fun a place to be. And don’t get me started on how Wade ultimately won the contest by cheating in the exact same way (albeit without a corporate division devoted to the very idea) that the Sixers were, by using the knowledge and skills of others to recall dialogue and exploit bugs he would not otherwise have known.
Despite all my nitpicking (my particular nerdy specialty) I did like the book, and was most engrossed in the gaming sections where Wade had to navigate challenges and the thrill of nostalgia brought me back to an era that I just missed (I was born in 1987) but was evident enough in my own childhood and upbringing. Ultimately, though, I feel that the story would have been better served by a protagonist who wasn’t a troll with the power to pull solutions to problems out of thin air, that played with the duality between avatar and person, and that was more invested in exploring its world than providing oodles and oodles of fan service....more
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