Sunday, August 24, 2014

Ready Player One, Reviewed: Yummy '80s Nostalgia Feel-Good

Ernest Cline's Ready Player One is a feel-good rags-to-riches '80s-nostalgia quest set in a dystopic future and the immersive alternate reality in which its residents transact most of their online existence.  The story is a sort of Brewster's Millions meets Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Unlike the protagonist of Brewster's Millions, the narrator isn't predestined to get a crack at inheriting – he's in a race against everyone else looking for the dead man's loot.  As in Brewster's Millions, he's beset by cheats looking to sabotage his quest in their own self-interest.  Worse, the route to victory is much less clear than in Brewster's Millions – in that book, it's at least evident how one should behave to accomplish the mission (also, Brewster's Millions has  only one contestant).  Ready Player One presents a multiple-stage quest driven by riddles that depend on knowledge only dyed-in-the-wool geeks steeped in '80s lore could possibly unravel.  The payoff? In the tradition of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the prize is fantasy-land itself, and the right to run it.  The end echoes Brewster's Millions: the hunt for the "Easter Egg" hidden in the VR universe forces the narrator to immerse himself in a pretend world that ultimately teaches him he must live in the real one.  It's an uplifting story made all the more hopeful by the miserable dystopia in which it's set.  Loved it.

Sympathy for the downtrodden protagonist is built quickly enough that the occasional, hefty block of multi-paragraph infodump worldbuilding is easy to accept in what feels an earned confidence the story is worth the effort.  The sense of infodump was greater on re-read than on first pass; much is also historical trivia that can be fun to experience in the context of the '80s-nostalgiafest that is the in-game contest.  And some is really unavoidable: historical computer game details and how to exploit their bugs turns out to matter, and the reader can't be assumed to know the huge variety of '80s trivia the protagonist has amassed in order to master the in-game quest.  Several scenes clearly show the author intended a specific image appear in a film adaptation, but this break from storytelling to film direction doesn't come often enough distract one too badly from the story.  And maybe they won't distract you enough to push your head from the story as they did me.  Maybe you'll like them.

The book is a fun read.  Loaded with pop cultural references, it's hard not to giggle eventually even at such things as the names of VR planets.  Anyone who grew up with computers from the era of text-based games will adore the competitions laid out before the characters.  I can't say what people will think about the story that haven't lived through the '80s, but the book's nonstop celebration of fandom will appeal broadly to those for whom music, movies, or games ever formed an important facet of life.    A strong female character is revealed early on – and not simply to rescue.  Although some late-appearing pro-gay and pro-minority elements have a bolted-on feel, the gender equality is baked-in and can be tasted throughout.

Part of the story's triumphant feel comes from its Cyberpunk sensibility, depicting individuals awash in a sea of overwhelming social and corporate powers that seek to crush them into industrial lubricant – the perfect place to showcase human triumph at the individual level.  And that's part of the book's charm: it doesn't depict Conan (or even Molly Millions) wiping the floor with corporate goons, it shows individuals working for a common cause – as individuals – to triumph personally over the dehumanizing social machine.  In an interview on urban fantasy, author Jim Butcher pointed out that Mark Twain advocated a formula: for every plausible-feeling fiction the author must mix two parts truth.  Ernest Cline provides, first of all, a plausible environment – who doesn't believe people flee their real-world lives for an online experience even now? – then populates it with plausible villains.  The corporation seeking control of the OASIS online system evidences motives and intentions readers will find extremely plausible in the current age of targeted advertising and e-snooping.  The fact that it also turns out to be a credit card company that collects debts using indentured servitude none are expected to repay simply mines history for mining towns, company stores, debtors' prisons, indenturement, and a host of other real-world evils that aren't hard to imagine returning to vogue as individual rights continue to erode.  Half the setting's feel comes from the fact there's no effective government to keep wrongdoers in line – precisely why the online OASIS is crucial to preserve: it's a place a benevolent omnipotent caretaker is not only possible but has become (at least in the fictional world) necessary.  The dark world is close enough to the one people know – or at least, the one they fear coming – that it's an easy sell as a future setting.  The plausible dark future and its plausible greedy villains are a perfect place to put good-hearted people in jeopardy in order to prove their mettle.

And save the Universe.

If you spent much of your formative years in the '80s, you must read Ernest Cline's Ready Player One.

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