Wednesday, March 11, 2015

(Not) Ready Player One

So I know a lot of people recommended I read Ready Player One. It sounded like a lot of fun, and I aim to entertain, so I read it. Here is my take on it:

On the whole, it was kind of an unnerving experience. The many recommendations I have received make all the sense in the world. Like the main character, Parzival, I am obsessed with nerdy popular culture and revel in my geek esoterica. It is quicker for me to recount the fan circles I am not taken in by (Doctor Who, My Little Pony) than all the ones I love or participate in. I also design ARGs for a living; sprawling campaigns of concatenated puzzles and minigames. Some of them are even competitions or contests like the Egg Hunt that drives the plot of Player.

In fact, I think Ernest Cline's greatest success is that he makes more plausible use of the puzzle-chain plot device than any other author I've encountered to date, including Dan Brown's DaVinci Code, or even any narrative-driven puzzle game. Curators of relics, villains, and ancient architects typically do not spend their days designing puzzles and riddles. But game designers do exactly that, so for once, it makes perfect sense. And that's good because it's a premise that makes for a fun ride.

I was also really taken in by Cline's description of a dystopian America where people live in perilous stacks of mobile homes and their only respite is a utopian online world. Dat situation. It has this beautiful William Gibson tech-speculation by way of Douglas Adams absurdity thing happening. I really wanted to read that book. But what followed was a lot less smart and funny.

Referential humor is a great literary garnish, or social flourish. I enjoy it when people toss out a well timed quote, but I like it even better when they casually drop a line or two without making a big deal out of it. That's the fun of inside jokes. They create common ground, and make denser, dryer, or more somber material light and animated. But the references aren't garnishes here. They are the entire menu.

That may have been enough if I was slightly more attached to the zeitgeist of 80s pop culture that is the core of the book. But I was born just a few years too late for that, and I think I read it a few years too late as an adult. If I read it as a teenager, I think I would happily overlooked the flaws that now bug me and just enjoyed the awesome multiverse that is OASIS. It indulges this child-like manic mania to mash things up. You got Blade Runner in my Star Wars! Voltron in my Dungeons and Dragons! And yes, I love all of this shit! But where's the through line? Where are we going with this?

In a weird way, Ready Player One is the polar opposite of Big Bang Theory, but it spins me so far around the emotional spectrum that I wind up in the same place. BBT always struck me as the sitcom equivalent of locker-room ridicule; laughing at (rather than with) nerds. The jokes are dumb, the references feel disingenuous and most of the characters conform to cursory archetypes. I know many other nerds feel differently. Maybe as the personification of suburban American normativity, I'm desperate for the opportunity to feel persecuted. Whatever the cause, I feel bored, or angry, or uncomfortable watching it. And even though there is nothing insincere about Player, I felt the same things reading a lot of it. Pages of context for things that target audiences will already know (who Gary Gygax is), mixed with paragraphs of exposition for bits of world building that won't matter again (like the gun vending machine at the end), and this uptopian attitude toward how great online games are. The characters have all gone so deep down the rabbit hole of this escapist wonderland that I feel like no light will ever reach them. They effortlessly (but unintentionally, I think) embody so much of the negative aspects of modern 'nerd' culture, that it's like looking in a terrifying funhouse mirror. We have a bunch of hateful escapist elitists who mistake caustic sass for sharp wit and have no ambition beyond being good at games.

Artemis is an abstract manic pixie dream girl with very little personality beyond the references she spouts. Aech is a sounding board for Parzival, and her reveal is under-explored (it also makes Parzival look as self-absorbed as he is). The Daisho Bros are truly dated and offensive caricatures of Japanese people (believe it or not, the entire culture was not minted from Akira Kurosawa samurai flicks). But the worse really is Parzival. He is a haughty, snide prick who always has some kind of ulterior motive. His aunt was a bitch, but I don't think we get a full page worth of regret, or pathos, or mourning, when she and an entire tower of families are blown up because of he just HAD to give somebody the finger.

The nature of the quest also really bugs me. Basically, being a gunter means investing more of your life in other people's creations than creating anything or attempting something yourself. To do this, you must shun reality (which is admittedly awful in Cline's future) and to a large extent, other people. I mean, I just think about what happened to all the other gunters who get wasted (or lose their characters) so Parzival can become unfathomably wealthy. Was it worth it for them? Maybe if he goes through with his promise to end world hunger... but that was never really his motivation. And can we expected a kid who has never really experienced real life to take on that lofty goal when he arguably only took it on to impress a girl? God knows he didn't have time to research the regional variabilities of malnutrition, or the multitude of factors that contribute to food deserts--I'm pretty sure Parzival would have to be about 80 years old to have memorized all those books and shows and in addition to mastering so many old school videogames.

I can hear people who read my first effort shouting at me: "Hey Hank! Remember that chapter where your protagonist receives a decade of fighting experience and instruction in just two days?" Yeah. Yeah I do. I could counter and say that was fantasy, not sci-fi, but that's a deflection. "Remember how your book is also a high stakes last man standing competition against nebulous evil?" Yes. And this is what bothers me most about Player: it reminds me that my first effort is more somber, but ultimately just as shallow. It was fun to write and I am sure that Ready Player One was a blast for Cline to create as well, and I think that in itself is praiseworthy. But I always kind of hoped that if you can do that (have fun creating a thing) and put it in front of your ideal audience, they wouldn't react like I am acting now.

Maybe it is enough though. Ready Player One was well received. Optioned for a movie. NYT best seller. There will always be a guy like me, pissing on the parade.  Maybe I should learn to shut up and smell the success, or even look carefully to it's example when it comes time to revise The Harrowing. After all, it made a very complicated world accessible to a broad audience, and fit sex, violence and swearing into a story that feels an awful lot like YA fiction.

But moving forward, I prefer to look at Ready Player One as a reminder to try and do better.

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