Sunday, March 4, 2018

Review: Ready, Player One, by Ernest Cline

Don't get me wrong, Ready Player One is an enjoyable book. It is inventive in its virtual reality world, the Oasis, and in its dystopian real-world America. It is at times funny and at other times intense. But it can also be immensely dull. Ernest Cline clearly geeks out on obscure references scattered throughout the book, but his in-depth descriptions of little-known video games and Japanese TV shows bogs down the narrative. There are times when we are literally reading about a kid talking about how much fun he is having playing an old Atari game, which isn't really all that much fun to read. But part of what makes Ready Player One so interesting isn't the obscure references, but the idea of virtual reality being better than real life itself - and this is also one of its most troubling notes. One could easily conclude, upon finishing this book, that it is perfectly acceptable to devote your life to doing nothing but watching and rewatching movies and TV shows, playing and replaying video games, and doing as little as possible to interact with the outside world, a place that Cline's hero Wade Watts views as a nuisance.

It's understandable that Wade, and many others in the world, would be obsessed with this virtual world, the Oasis. The Oasis is perfect. One can access anything they'd like - books, movies, music, shows, games. It's true that exploration of the world is limited to those who have the money to travel, but the world offers ways for even poor kids to replace their real world experience by offering such services as online schooling. On top of that, the real world, in the 2040s, sucks. Global warming has made parts of the world unlivable, and much of the people, especially the poor, live in mobile homes that have been stacked upon one another, the Stacks. In such a dystopic world, it's no wonder that everyone would rather live in the utopic virtual world. It just happens to be an added bonus that the Oasis's creator, James Halliday, has recently passed and will give his multi-billion dollar fortune to whoever wins his "Easter Egg" game.

Halliday is the reason for the intense focus on 80s culture, as those hunting this Easter egg study all of his interest intently. But Halliday's interests in this culture are so narrow and obscure that most references will go unrecognized by most readers - particularly the book's target teen audience. The book will no doubt spur interest in this obscure content. I feel sorry for the characters in this book, stuck to the confines of the cultural interests of Halliday. And these characters study his interests to such obsession they probably know it better than him. Wade himself mentions watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail exactly 157 times. I mean, it's an entertaining movie, but that's pretty excessive. And it seems physically impossible, particularly considering how much time Wade spends on Halliday's other interests. Coming from Wade's perspective, this way of living seems perfectly acceptable, even though Cline does attempt to moralize later, rather weakly.

Where the book is at its best are the moments when Wade is interacting with the real world. When threatened in the virtual world, there is a lack of tension, but when these threats extend to Wade's real self, the tension is palpable. Wade must also contend with the fact that although his online avatar doesn't need such things as food and sleep, his real self does. There are intriguing moments when Wade must deal with the annoying realization that failing to exercise and feed his body healthy foods may ultimately inhibit his ability to play in the Oasis. There's also a hilarious section on virtual sex/masturbation. Intimacy is not something that Wade is used to, and maybe that's why he falls in love with a famous avatar, Art3mis, without ever meeting her in person (or is it even a her?).

It's a bit ironic that the real world exploits and descriptions in a book about a virtual world are much more interesting than the virtual world bits. Cline is able to effectively paint a picture of his dystopic vision of the future with the smallest amount of description, and yet he bogs down his description of the Oasis with tedious details. The best thing the book does is to briefly remove Wade from the Oasis, where we discover just how awful the real world has become, and where we can feel real suspense. Cline seems to drool over his descriptions of massive battles that happen in the Oasis, but they lack suspense because what's at stake is the death of an avatar, which can be recreated. Cline describes these huge battles with an excitement that doesn't quite translate to real excitement since it sounds more like somebody explaining to you a sequence they played in a video game.

In the end, this book plays out almost like an anti-The Matrix - where characters are fighting for their virtual world rather than vice versa. In Ready Player One, people have given up on rescuing the real world from the plight it has fallen into, and James Halliday's creation gives people an escape, one more akin to Plato's Allegory of the Cave - a seeming paradise that is nothing more than a luxurious trap. And like Steve Jobs today, whose iPhone has changed humanity in countless ways, not all of them great, Halliday is seen as god-like. But while I do have a lot of reservations about Cline's book, it's a largely entertaining read, and creates a future and a virtual world that are very believable because they seem to be pointing to a direction we are headed, in terms of global warming and virtual reality at least. I'll be interested to see Steven Spielberg's take in the upcoming movie. Will Spielberg paint Wade's obsession in same flattering light that Cline does, or will there be more nuance?

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