Monday, October 24, 2011
100 Books 59 - Ernest Cline's READY PLAYER ONE
"The past, she thought, was like glue. No matter how far you thought you had moved on, it kept you stuck in one spot." - from Gary McMahon's DEAD BAD THINGS
It's perhaps odd of me to quote from the book I took up after it in writing about Ernest Cline's Ready Player One (Dead Bad Things will likely be book number 60, unless I get a wild hair and tear through the rest of Henry James' Portrait of a Lady this week), but then again, it's odd and a bit startling to run across a sentence in the next book that so very aptly captures my feelings about the former.
I can't remember the last time I tore through a book this fast, but even as I was, on the whole, enjoying it, something kept bugging me: for all the fun it offers -- for all the fun it offers, Ready Player One is actually kind of a depressing book.
Stick with me here.
As anyone who's read the blurbs knows, Ready Player One concerns a dystopian near-future in which most of the world is utterly consumed by a contest to find the ultimate easter egg in a giant, sprawling combination MMORPG/Second Life/Web X.0 computer generated universe called the Oasis. The player who finds the prize wins not only that creator's immense personal fortune but also control of the company, which means, effectively, control of the World As We Know it circa the post-oil 2050s*. With stakes like those -- and the world otherwise being a blighted, miserable, static place (as in every major city now having giant sprawling exurbs full of nothing but vertical trailer parks -- trailers stacked via makeshift scaffolding into huge structures like skyscrapers -- full of refugees from the smaller cities that have collapsed economically and socially in this new energy crisis) -- this game has pretty much taken over the collective everything.
And here's where the sad really gets to me. Because the game is all about the creator, Halliday's, pop culture obsessions. And he's an old fart in the 2050s -- meaning he grew up in the 1980s. Which means everyone in the 2050s is spending all of their time in goggles and haptic gloves studying up on 1980s pop culture. Most of which, let's face it, wasn't really very good. You who are nostalgic for it are only remembering the highlights. Sit down and watch an episode of Family Ties. Or Silver Spoons. Now imagine that your best and only shot at a halfway decent future is playing a game which, in part, requires minute knowledge of that crap. That the knowledge base also includes good stuff like Star Wars and Monty Python and Zork may make it seem palatable but... ugh.
We who are part of Halliday's generation, who were teenagers in the 1980s, already have had a taste of what that is like. Growing up in the shadow of the Baby Boom, we had 1960s culture force fed to us constantly. And a lot of us just went ahead and embraced that 60s nostalgia -- ersatz tie dying, affected preference for that era's music and politics and mores over modern stuff and all -- at the cost, to some degree, of our development of our own culture. Hence crap like Family Ties.
But so now we have a world beset by real problems -- energy shortages, staggering poverty everywhere except for a few tiny pockets, rising sea levels, polluted air, crime, darkness, horror -- and everybody is avoiding this by immersing themselves in a virtual world fixated on the 1980s. Minutely studying John Hughes movies. Deconstructing Thundarr the Barbarian. Memorizing Superman III.
In its defense, one of the competitors in Ready Player One wants to use the staggering load of money at stake to save the world (as opposed to another, who wants to use it to build a spaceship and go find us another planet, thus saving humanity as a concept but leaving billions behind to stew in the filth of generations), but she still has to win the game to do so. All other planning is on hold while the best minds of the current generation re-enact War Games.
All that sad subtext aside, though, Ready Player One is a fun, fun read. I am absolutely its target audience, and was utterly absorbed in the urgency of the plot -- for it's not just about game play, this story; it's a struggle for the future, with our plucky protagonist fanboys pitted against a giant, evil corporation who wants to take over Oasis and commercialize the hell out of it, privatize it, wall it off, monetize its user data -- sound familiar? So even though it's far fetched that our plucky fanboys and fangirls could save the world with Halliday's money, I still bought in to the notion that their quest had meaning in that they were trying to keep the world from getting even worse.
Plus, yes, it would be fun to get to play King Arthur in a meticulous re-creation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. For great justice.