Sunday, May 25, 2014

Ready Player One

 "I'm seeing flying ostriches now in my sleep!"

     The most important film critic of our generation, a Mr. Roger Ebert, once said that when he reviewed movies, he tried to look at each film from a specific viewpoint. He said the first thing he would always do is ask "Who is this movie for?" That he couldn't review a movie until he knew who the filmmaker was trying to reach, and that he would then work forward from there and review the movie on the merits it had from that perspective.

                  I have had my mild disagreements with Mr. Ebert in the past, but I'm reminded of Lewis Carroll's maxim about the broken clock being right at least twice a day. And in this statement, he outlines something kind of important to remember about criticism. Especially with Ready Player One. You see, Ernest Cline is pretty clearly writing for a specific audience with this book. And if you're not in the specific audience, well, it can kind of get annoying when the unending spiel of anime, TV, movie, and music references fills up the page like brand names in American Psycho...though perhaps that might be the point, a self-reflective look at "geek culture" and internet culture and all of the numerous things that go along with that. It's hard to exactly say whether it's a culture-geek power fantasy, or making fun of it, but if it's as earnest as it seems in the book, I hope Mr. Cline got all the pop-culture references out of his bloodstream before he decides to write another one. 

              That isn't to say it's a bad book. Cline knows his way around a sentence, clearly, and he has some sequences that definitely work. While it's a deeply flawed book, it's an amazing first novel and when Cline works all the kinks out of his writing, I'd definitely like to read more of what he wrote. And I admit that there were some moments that definitely surprised me. And, at its core, it's got a really human message about growing up and learning to live in the world, or at least to make a place somewhere for yourself and your friends and your loved ones. But in the end, the sheer crushing weight of pop-culture eventually drowns out any message or heart or humanity the book has in its noise which, satirical or not, is still noise. And while at times it's worth the slog, most of the time it isn't really.

But how can it be all those things? Well, read on...

                 Ready Player One starts with a contest. James Halliday, a Richard Garriott-style figure and the head of Gregarious Simulation Systems, is dying. GSS, as they're called, is the designer of the OASIS, a virtual-reality full-immersion world with billions of worlds one could visit, where everything anyone could ever think of is possible. For years, GSS has kept its simulation under its control, resisting buyouts and deals of all kinds to keep the experience as "pure" as it can. They've only ever charged a quarter for access, with extra options costing more. But, as I previously said, Halliday is dying. And he's decided to leave his fortune to whoever can solve a convoluted series of riddles located around OASIS, with the clues being things that only true 'heads would know about Halliday, his work, and his obsessions. He even provides an almanac with clues on how to find what he calls "The Easter Egg". Shortly after the message goes out, people scour OASIS for clues. The hunt is on.


                    Except none of the people in the sim have a clue where to start, and while the clues are provided and people trying to hunt the egg are boning up on their music and pop-culture trivia, five years pass and no one's found the egg, not even the corporate hunters over at Innovative Online Industries who want to add all kinds of nifty ideas like content filters and a monthly subscription fee. But that's where Wade Owen Watts enters the story.

                     Wade is our narrator and protagonist. Like many young people his age, he's enrolled in high school in OASIS. Also like many young people his age, he lives in an impoverished area. That area is The Stacks, a series of trailers piled miles high with a rickety system of ladders and fire escapes between them. I probably should have mentioned, the world is in pitiful shape at this point, with the economy in freefall and another energy crisis looming and pretty much everyone stuck working for a corporate system that means they'll get enslaved until they die. Wade's escape from his rather horrible life and hellish family life (he has an abusive aunt and an equally abusive uncle) is to plug into OASIS or to watch a number of videos on his numerous laptops, most of which are salvage. But one fine day, Wade is looking over the riddle for the location of the first clue to Halliday's egg when he gets an idea, an idea that leads him to solve a mystery five years dead and become the first person to start the quest.

And then things get weird.

                   After Wade clears the first two of Halliday's six challenges (set up as "keys" with corresponding "gates"), he becomes the most wanted man in the egg hunt community-- both by his fellow hunters (a group of elite solo players nicknamed the "High Five" by the rest of the public because they're the five at the front of the pack), and by Innovative Online Industries, who want the egg all to themselves so they can exploit OASIS. And, unlike the numerous hunter clans and egg hunters, IOI is willing to use whatever devious, underhanded, low tactics they can-- kidnapping, murder, name it. And suddenly, Wade is thrown into a world much stranger and more complicated than his gentle existence in OASIS. One that requires him to do things far beyond even his comprehension. But in the end, it's all for the egg. It's for the future of a virtual world. And that's important, right?

                        Okay, so the major issue I have with this book is humanity. Humanity can be explained by the work having human emotions, human elements...basically, that the characters feel like real people. That there's some kind of genuine emotion. When I talk about a book having "heart"? That's kind of what I'm talking about. That there's something there that feels, well, human. And, well, two thirds through the book, when it becomes more about the people and less about the easter egg hunt, then it drops the mask of being the too-cool-for-school geek kid it's trying to be, and actually has something interesting to say. But then it buries that under another layer of cool references and virtual reality stuff. You get the feeling that these are people, but it all sounds very story-like. It's all flash. It feels...

                 Honestly, it feels like a big empty space full of all the stuff someone thought was really, really cool. Which is fine when you have a way to get it all out coherently, but much like someone trying to get you into all the stuff you obsess over, Cline just packs it in anywhere it seems like it fits. While this does result in some amusing sequences, overall the references just cascade over you like so much white noise* and empty space. You get a little about these characters, but you get so much more about how much they know about fantasy films and what series the spaceship they're driving is from. 

         None of which is really good for the plot. And when there are glimpses of these characters doing and feeling things that feel, well, real, most of the time it feels like a big adventure film cluttered with all the damn references**. The only chance you have to be let in is a bit at the end that was only sort of telegraphed. And if you're gonna half-ass your telegraphing and characterization, what you have is a book that's surprising only because stuff comes at random and out of nowhere. 

               Which leads me into something I felt Cline actually did fairly well. There are a few flourishes that he does telegraph, and when they came back into the story, I felt overjoyed. I felt like I was let on to something really cool. He didn't give much of a reason for the main twist that leads into the end of the story, and the climax is just one deus ex machina after another, but it's all hidden in there. He even gets a little into the history of why Og, the executor of Halliday's will, fell out with Halliday. There's a lot of great stuff surrounding the center of the story, but what is there kind of feels like it bounces off. He could have had a classic book here, a story of the importance of humanity and of reality told mainly within a virtual space. He could have found a thousand different threads to pull around the contest, but this is the story he chose to tell. And while I respect that story, I kind of find it more flash than substance. I especially like Og's argument that OASIS is a "virtual prison for people to escape the problems of the real world instead of fixing them", an argument that is seemingly unimportant in the large scale, though nodded to.

             But in the end, it's a deeply flawed book written well. Those who can get into the rhythm of references will dig it. Those who are in the target audience will dig it. Those who don't mind a book that will someday grow dated due to all those references or the target audience becoming someone else's target will dig it. But if you think you're one of the people who will, do yourself a favor and get it out of the library. It's an interesting read, but I don't think anyone should be buying this any time soon.

Also, never give a writer props for dissing Legend.

Insane City by Dave Barry
Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon***
The Black Opera by Mary Gentle


*He's got me hiding references in my fucking review now. Oh, and hey, Dylar junkies-- HAIL OF BULLETS!
** Okay, just so you know, I get most of the references and find it annoying. Now imagine someone's just getting into sci-fi and hears good things about this book, only to find an impenetrable Pynchonesque wall of references to other things. How the hell you think they're gonna react?
***Dammit, I will scale Everest this summer. Well, literary Everest

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