Monday, May 4, 2015

Signal Watch Reads: Ready Player One

Welcome to The House of Unpopular Opinions, in which I attempt to alienate all of my longtime readers, many of whom I consider good pals.

It's not that Ready Player One won't make a decent enough movie when Steven Spielberg supposedly brings it to the big screen in the next couple of years.  I think it will be a visual spectacle of a movie, and I'll pay good money to see it.  It's just that when The Hunger Games feels like deep, societal commentary and introspection in comparison to your book, I kind of wonder what I'm reading.

The story:

Wade Owen Watts is a kid living in "the stacks", a sort of slum comprised of towers of mobile homes erected tens of stories high outside of Oklahoma City.  He's grown up poor in a near-future America dealing with an energy crisis of crippling proportions, and a state that's given over significant power to corporate interests right up to the point of re-starting indentured servitude in place of debtors prisons.

Almost everyone in America, and, indeed, on Earth, uses the OASIS, a virtual reality gaming system that has grown to undreamed of proportions and become a way of life.  While the world falls apart around them, humanity wears visors and haptic gloves (and suits, and immerses themselves in full rigs) to role-play their lives in the OASIS in whatever setting they like, moving between worlds created and custom built, largely around 20th Century ideals of science fiction and fantasy.

The creator of the OASIS - a cult figure that's part Steve Jobs, part Bill Gates, part Gary Gygax, part John Hughes, part Howard Hughes - has passed.  His obsessions with the ephemera of the late 70's - early 90's, the period of James Halliday's own youth, are integral to the OASIS.  In the wake of his passing, a contest is announced - whomever can find three keys hidden on the OASIS and find the final "Easter Egg", will become heir to Halliday's interest in his company and rule the OASIS.  The trick being, one must become utterly familiar with 1980's pop-culture, and more specifically, geek pop culture, in order to complete the quest.

This creates a subculture of users, Egg Hunter/ Gunters, who seek the egg, as well as nefarious, well-funded corporate types who set up a virtual army in order t capture the prize and basically own the internet.  All are consumed with 1980's pop-culture, an artifact now 60 years out of date but extremely well-documented and a source of never ending fascination and compulsive study by the Gunters.

Got all that?

Spoilers below - because I don't know how else to discuss this book.

In a fairly recent Patton Oswalt comedy special (Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time), Oswalt describes a booking for a show at a casino where he made a ton of money.  He was nervous and prepared a lot of material.  He walks out on stage at the casino, and the drunks in the audience begin shouting names of TV shows and movies where they've seen him.  For thirty minutes, his entire set is him having his own work shouted back at him, and the crowd is so delighted to recognize him, he gets thunderous applause and leaves the stage and is told he had a great set by the house manager.

And in a lot of ways, this book feels to me like maybe it's getting applause for just randomly naming stuff from the 1980's, like 1980's pop-culture Boggle and then assembling it in order around the framework of a kind of dull-sounding video game walk-through.  But people like familiarity.  VH1 has taught me I will watch any old garbage on a Sunday if you show me a Rubik's Cube and have that girl from VIP talk about it in front of a green screen.  And this book does that from first to last.

In many ways, Ready Player One is essentially a book about someone playing a video game, which - rewards or no rewards - is a sort of odd thing to read.  If Spielberg and Co. land the rights to all of the name-dropped entities from the 1980's from role-playing modules to Atari games to whole scenes from movies to pop songs to Godzilla movies, this is going to be an incredible @#$%ing movie.  In that way, the book is a lot of fun if you grew up on 1980's pop culture (and I'm increasingly disturbed to learn that every generation after X has, indeed, been brought up on 1980's pop culture in a way that makes me a little sad) and ever rolled polyhedral dice or watched Blade Runner too many times.

But it's still, no matter how you slice it, a guy recounting how he took a couple of years to solve a really complex game.  Which, to me, in real life, can feel a bit like someone recounting a dream.

Here's the deal - there's really no doubt from page one where this is headed.  The mere fact that the book is basically presented from the opening as "here's how things went super well for me or I would have no reason to tell this story" is as linear as playing a video game that has a single ending.  There might be mishaps along the way, you might lose lives here and there or find a cheat, but it's still only going to end one way, so you kind of have to accept that from the beginning, the reader knows how this will end.

From a pure logistics standpoint, it's also kind of difficult to get one's head around how our hero managed to learn and master pretty much 10's of 1000's of hours of every pop culture concept from the 1980's by the age of 18, 60 years after the fact.  Random numbers of times a movie has been seen to  mastery of everything from classic arcade games to details of Family Ties episodes - to the point where you kind of think the guy squeezed in 30 years of life into about 5 years of his life.  It just never really adds up, and gets progressively harder to buy as the book goes along and delves into the minutia.  Now, the book treats it like there was, essentially, nothing before Star Trek and nothing after The Matrix for the purposes of the narrative, but a niggling voice in the back of my head just never really bought the conceit of the book.  It seemed that, at least, we should acknowledge that our hero was one of maybe a few hundred or a thousand with that kind of depth of geek power knowledge. Not that I speak from a point of experience, but...  anyway, I'd just think what the author describes - complete mastery of damn near everything from the 1980's - never felt plausible, especially for such a young character.  Sure, our hero is the one who is at the forefront of the challenge, but as in much of the world building - it doesn't hold up very well when he suggests there are a hell of lot of others out there just like him.

Speaking of world-building problems - there's a major economic crisis occurring in the book, one where people are starving inside the US, but somehow there's also enough time and money that everyone spends their days jacked into a fairly expensive-sounding set-up with the OASIS.  It becomes less and less clear if the author really thought all of this through, as he swings back and forth suggesting that a lot of people live like the narrator - in shanty-town conditions - but somehow he's also the poorest of the poor, and yet there's lots and lot of folks out there in the OASIS with dough to blow on starships and whatnot.  It's a world where people are literally spending their way into slavery, so maybe that makes sense, but it feels like the author wants it both ways, even when he makes it seem pretty easy, honestly, to climb out of that financial hole if you're even mildly clever.

The book is obsessed with the 1980's, but there's a curious lack of context given to the 1980's.  The looming threat of the Cold War is never mentioned (nor are Russians, past or present) except as a nifty back-drop to the movie War Games.  It's a curious way to reflect on a period, and, as with a lot of the book, I could never tell if the author was making a statement about the obsession with pop culture or was as neck deep into it as the characters of the book, so head-first into the minutia of how one plays Galaga that you forget that grown-assed adults were keeping the world on the razor's edge of nuclear annihilation for a good span there, that war raged in Afghanistan, Africa was hit with a terrible famine, etc...  All stuff any kid from the 1980's would have known, but instead we focus on Transformers and which giant robot is coolest.

The book, told from the perspective of a white young male who has spent a lifetime immersed in the ephemera of video games, movies, 60 year-old TV episodes, D&D supplements, etc...  never really gets over that perspective.   It's Simpson's Comic-Book-Guyism.  He doesn't need to know about anything that really happened or is happening so long as he knows all of the actresses who played Catwoman on the Batman series.  It's not treated as a luxury, it's treated as a privilege.

With the possibilities of the virtual avatar and identity in only the most cursory and ham-handed way, and I'll let other readers weigh in on that one, but I was pretty disappointed.  But as it ignores history, the book also ignores everything but the perspective of a self-pitying character without a lot of redeeming qualities except that he's a reflection of the target demographic of the book - gamer dorks who still like 1980's movies.

Perhaps most bizarre to me, early on, as a direct result of the protagonist's decisions, hundreds of people die in fiery wreckage for what can, at best, be called an abstract moral victory that benefits literally no one but the protagonist and his ego.  I expected this to be weighed upon for the duration of the novel, and maybe some self-awareness to come to light of cause and effect and moral implications of a video game versus the real world.  But... nope.  Necessary casualties so we can have the punchlist "Uncle Owen/ Aunt Beru" sequence that doesn't so much leave our hero with a quest for justice so much as it really inconveniences him.

There's also not really much character growth for anyone.  At one point the leads explain what they'll do if they win the competition, and our narrator's response is purely juvenile, sullen teenager garbage, and his love interest's response is not a lot better, if at least more humane.  At least you get the feeling the villains have a plan if they win.  I sincerely expected a chapter or three in the book about how maybe the characters learn about life in the real world and that applies to how they win and what they decide to do when they win.  But... nope.  It's all 80's pop trivia as an end unto itself, and even when the book wants to tell you "real life is out there", at best it's telling you to go kiss a girl.  Which... man.

At the end of the day, the book is a fun throw away wish-fulfillment fantasy for those of us who've obtained pop-culture trivia to feel like we could maybe compete if we practiced our classic arcade game skills.  It provides the only possible scenario for a practical use for the sort of information hoarding that was the Gen X'er's form of geekdom (I fully believe the Millenials' geekdom is more about conspicuous consumption and appropriation of licensed content for personal fantasy rather than trivia one-upmanship, but I'm willing to hear an solid argument for why I'm wrong).  And that's okay.  That's a decent basis for a movie or something.

But as a novel, I found the story and characters hard to connect with.  From the pedantic nerditry right down to the unnecessary "let me tell you about religion" speech to the telegraphed ending, to the seeming lack of self-awareness that could have been attributed to a sullen teenager's worldview that never really manages to pull out of steep dive to the constant insane luck of the narrator (and seeming lack of awareness of system administration by the author), the book didn't land too solidly with me.  As I said in the intro here, Hunger Games at least had the courtesy to not have the protagonist sit on her laurels and accept that her fate was deserved and made sense as the world burned around her.  I'm not sure if a sequel is in the works (Cline's follow up appears to be a mix of Ender's Game and Space Invaders), and never giving the characters a chance to really realize maybe Halliday's obsessions weren't as important as he made them out to be, nor particularly healthy to pursue in like fashion...  at some point toward the end I wasn't sure what I was reading.

And if I haven't dug myself a deep enough hole with you readers - I also didn't really like Wil Wheaton as the reader.  Much for the same reason I didn't want to watch The Wil Wheaton Project on SyFy.  Nice enough guy, I'm sure.  But his reading didn't make me feel any less of the pedantic form of nerditry that was already oozing out of the text, and, in fact, enhanced it with some iffy reading.  Not every point needs to be made by. putting. full. stops. between. words.  That. gets. tiresome.  after. a. while.

I wanted to like the book, it had some neat ideas and fun moments.  It just felt like a book written by and for folks who see pop culture as the culture.  And I know they're out there.  I'm on tumblr.  I have my own obsessions, healthy and otherwise.  I guess I felt like the world outside of the OASIS was maybe more interesting than a big game of World of Warcraft with a money-ball at stake, and that what would happen with a bunch of shut-in's winning billions of dollars and having total control over the world's foremost communication medium sounds a lot more interesting than the footnote of this story.  I'd say I'm old and don't get it, but as a child of the 1980's who also likes Matthew Broderick movies and solved the first clue before our narrator, I don't see how it isn't aimed exactly at me.

Now I'm going to go back to watching old Wonder Woman episodes and Film Noir movies and playing with Superman toys and then spending hours writing about them.


Jake Shore said...

I hated this book.

I went into it wanting to like it, but it was terrible. When I look at the amazon reviews and all the accolades, I can scarcely believe people are so un-discerning. This is a badly written book. It may well be the most amateurish thing I've ever read outside of fan fiction.

Having said that, the first 20-30 pages had me pretty engaged with the premise and the nostalgia. I would say this is 90% of the book's appeal, so credit Cline with coming up with a highly appealing concept. I mean, imagining going to a virtual school where kids are showing up in their Colonial Vipers, or X-Wings and DeLoreans is pretty darn fun. Unfortunately, it all begins to wear thin quickly.

First, the nostalgia grows stale. Never does the reader learn what the 80s meant to Halliday or what the decade was like for those who lived through it. Instead it's basically a form of trivial pursuit; a status symbol for nerds to flaunt and feel superior to everyone else. Something that is common enough today and turns my stomach when I see it. And this never stops or evolves, even at the end of the novel, a sort of quiz show one-upmanship.

Second, the protagonist is one of the most selfish, unlikable characters I've ever read. He's just pathetic. As I went along in the book, I couldn't help thinking the protagonist was channeling the author, Ernest Cline, who seemed to embrace this culture of nerd-hipster superiority. Like you, I was also dumbfounded at the protagonist's indifference at his aunt's death and his (or the author's) failure to recognize his responsibility for it. And then I had to listen to his preachy, middle-school lefty moralizing. No thanks. Although now I feel at least fortunate I didn't have to listen to Wil Wheaton deliver this moralizing.

In the end, Ready Player One is a great concept that never comes close to realizing its potential - just wish fulfillment for a sullen, morally-retarded teenager. I agree wholeheartedly with this statement, "It just felt like a book written by and for folks who see pop culture as the culture."

Sound Affects said...

Yup. Agreed on all counts. I read it a few years ago, whenever it was published, so I don't remember some details, but I called it nostalgia porn. It's clearly aimed at guys our age, and I know it landed with a lot of us. For me it was never going to work because I hate nostalgia for the sake of it. I remember eventually skipping large sections where it was just a description of a movie I'd already seen. Pointless. I think I kind of enjoyed when the characters were out of the game and just being the assholes they all are. I'm ok with not liking characters, but then there wasn't much depth to them either. So I think I enjoyed that just in comparison to the in game stuff which I found mostly tedious.

horus kemwer said...

I've cleverly managed to avoid this so far, and now I will continue to do so!