ReasonForOurHope

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Book Review: Ready Player One

PREFACE:
I usually don't do book reviews.

Most of what I read is non-fiction religious and political books.  For the religious books I distill them into some kind of coherent thought on my part through essays.  I avoid as much as possible from political commentary to make the this blog as accessible to everyone.

As a result, I have not had a lot of time or interest in reading fiction.  I think the last fiction book I read before this was Mockingjay.

But as summer is dwindling, I wanted to get at least one good book read in.  I received Ready Player One in a Lootcrate gift box.  I had heard wonderful things about it.  Also recently announced that Steven Spielberg would be directing the film version.  But just could not get up to reading it.  So Sunday evening I picked it up and finished it Monday afternoon.

Below is my review


READY PLAYER ONE
by Ernest Cline


The story takes place in the year 2044.  The planet is in environmental and economic disaster.  It isn't quite Mad Max, a civilization recognizable to ours is still around, but you can feel it all slipping away.

To make matters worse, people have retreated into something called the OASIS:  a virtual reality world freely accessible to anyone with compatible visors and gloves.  Rich and poor alike enter this virtual world.  It is not as immersive as the Matrix; you never leave the real world and you cannot be physically harmed by what exists inside.  Designed as an open source universe by its genius inventor James Halliday, OASIS has any kind of fantasy universe and environment you could desire.  If you want to fly the Millennium Falcon to visit Middle-Earth for a game of Quidditch with Groot against Sark and General Zod, you could.  The Oasis has something for every obsession and it is used by most everyone in the world.

The key the plot begins when James Halliday dies.  Upon his death, he releases a video to the entire world stating that he has hidden an Easter Egg in the Oasis.  The riddle states:

Three hidden keys open three secret gates
Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits
And those with the skill to survive these straits
Will reach The End where the prize awaits
Whoever gets the key wins Hallidays' entire $250 billion dollar fortune and control over the OASIS.

This has led to a rise in two different factions of those searching for the egg: the Gunters and the Sixers.

The Gunters (short for "egg hunters") are individual and group enthusiasts searching for the egg for their own fortune and glory.  Sixers are those working for the evil IOI corporation.  They are named "Sixers" because their usernames have to begin with their 6-digit employee code.  Sixers sign a contract that if they find they egg they will give control of the egg to IOI, who will turn the OASIS into a corporate cash machine for only the wealthy.

Halliday also left an online journal (Anorac's Almanac) and a clue to the first key:

The Copper Key awaits explorers
In a tomb filled with horrors
But you have much to learn
If you hope to earn
A place among the high scorers

It was also widely known that Halliday was obsessed about all things '80's and the pop culture therein.  As a result, there was a resurgence of '80's fashion and style.  Not only that, but hunters became obsessive students of that era the way many modern geeks of today are.

The reason why I am spending so much time on the central plot (which is all laid out in the prologue) is because that is the best part of the book.

Cline has a gift for plotting.  I tore through the book because I felt a deep urge in me see the quest to completion.  Anyone who loves clue-based treasure hunting stories and games will also find this part very delightful.

The book also struck a strong personal chord for me.  I am one of those previously mentioned modern geeks who is obsessed with pop culture, especially from the era in which I grew up: the 1980's.  (I even once wrote a song about being an 80's Child, but I digress).  The book is lousy with references to Indiana Jones, Rubic's Cube, Galaga, Mecha-Godzilla, War Games, Dungeons and Dragons, Atari, Ladyhawke, Family Ties, and the list goes on and on.  Each little riff sends me into a whirlwind of nostalgia that stimulated that part of my memory filled with many happy hours of imaginative fun.

The world that Cline has built both in and out of the OASIS is very well thought out.  He describes both vividly and is able to capture the appeal and disappointment of living in that virtual world.  You simultaneously want to experience the OASIS while also being a bit appalled by how it affects the real world (the analogy to the modern appeal and problems of the internet are hard to miss).

Now, if you've noticed, I have said almost nothing about the book's main characters.  There is a reason for that:

The main character is terrible.

Wade Watts is a poor orphaned high schooler attending an OASIS public school while living his ne'er do well Aunt in a vertical trailer park.  He seems like the perfect pick for the hero mode: an orphan in poverty with genius and potential that remain untapped because of circumstance.  But these elements alone do not a hero make.

The problem is that Wade is horrible.

Okay, maybe I'm being a bit unfair.  He isn't evil, but he doesn't have much in the way of virtue.  Some of this could be understood and accepted as a Holden Caufield-esque teenage arrogance.  But there are two things that makes this not the case and actually detract from a lot of the story's fun.

First, there is a long 2-3 page rant by Wade against God and religion.  Wade is angry because he has "discovered" on his own through reading at the OASIS public library (remember he is too poor to receive a socially acceptable higher education), that the world is in terrible shape because humans are awful and there is no God.

I don't know how an online library disproves God's existence, but that is neither here nor there.  The rant is there to set up Wade's sense of hopelessness until he finds hope when he becomes a gunter.

But here is the problem: Ready Player One falls into the classic existentialist trap of meaninglessness.  Wade has come to the conclusion that life as no meaning.  That means all of his actions are meaningless.  He latches on to Halliday's Hunt almost like a religion.  Anorac's Almanac is his Scripture.  Movies and video games are his prayers.  Everything is about the hunt.  But either Wade or the author Cline fail to see that Hunt is also ultimately meaningless.  It has no higher significance to finding the egg.  If he wins, if he doesn't, if the "bad guys" win, if they don't… ultimately it doesn't matter.  And if you want your reader to care about the outcome, it is usually a good idea to avoid informing them that the pursuit has not meaning.

So for rest of the book there is always this hint of foulness.  But there is another huge problem with Wade.

MILD SPOILER FROM THE FIRST THIRD OF THE BOOK

When Wade gets into a confrontation with IOI they threaten to kill him by blowing up his vertical trailer park where they mistakenly believe Wade is currently hiding.  Wade will not be harmed by this action, but several innocent people will die if he does not give in.

Wade refuses to give in and the stack is destroyed killing a lot of people.  Now I get that Wade made a calculus that even if he gave in they would blow up the stack anyway.  But all he does about it is a have a quick cry.  I guess we are meant to take his tears as moral gravitas.

But who cares that he cried?  It reminded me of Tom from The Great Gatsby who bragged about his moral depth because he too could cry after setting a man up for murder.

Contrast Wade's actions with someone like The Doctor from Doctor Who.  Often The Doctor risks his own life for complete strangers because he understands that his life is no more important than anyone else's.

And Wade's life is so cheap.  In fact, at one point when it looks like the bad guys will win the contest, he plans to kill himself.

END SPOILERS


On top of that, the book is filled with every kind of politically correct cliche that could be mustered.  This book feels like it was written by and for the writers of io9.com and Cracked.com.  There is an obsession with all things pop culture along with a condescending sneer at all things traditional and religious.  It perfectly reflected the essential paradox of this blog: that I love a pop culture that hates me.

Ultimately, Ready Player One is the hunt not for an Easter Egg, but a Faberge Egg: ornate, complex, and beautiful on the outside, but ultimately hollow on the inside.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

EPILOGUE

Much as been written about Spielberg directing the movie version.  Many have said that he would be perfect because he set the standard for 1980's pop culture and film.  I agree he is perfect, but for a different reason.  The reason why Spielberg's movies are wonderful is because they have amazing depth of heart.  He was able to take a piece of cynical, ugly fiction like the novel Jaws and make it into one of the greatest films ever made.  He did that by giving heart to all the characters, including the insane quint.

If Steven Spielberg can do the same for Ready Player One, it might be one of his best movies yet.

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