Sunday, January 8, 2012

Book Review: Ready Player One

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So much of popular culture is geared toward the fanboys that the old "Revenge of the Nerds" trope has almost become a cliche. In one summer we saw Thor, Captain America, Green Lantern, The X-Men, Transformers, Super 8, Cowboys Vs. Aliens, and probably more that I can't even remember on the big screan. Yet still, our cultural identity is still one where the "nerds" can't get dates to the prom and we cheer as these underdogs rise up, shake the sheets and obtain their long-overdue fame.

And so, in his first novel, Ernest Cline creates the ultimate geeky-kid fantasy. Set in a near-dystopian future, Cline creates a world that is one part The Matrix, one part Avatar and infinite parts late-20th century where a massive online role playing game (like the ultimate monster baby of 2nd Life and World of Warcraft) known as the Oasis has essentially made real what Justin Timberlake's character in The Social Network suggests: we, as a species, LIVE on the internet.

Wade Watts is our protagonist, orphaned (like any good comic book hero) and living in abject poverty where his only escape is to plug into the Oasis for every waking moment and transport his mind to a digital universe filled with interplanetary travel, magical abilities and epic conquests. For the MacGuffin, Cline creates a scenario where the multi-billionaire creator of The Oasis, before succumbing to age and disease, wills his fortune and his company to the individual who is capable of scouring the Oasis' infinite landscape and find an Easter Egg, hidden within the code through a series of challenges and secret gates.

Cline sets the tale in 2044, meaning that the Oasis' founder grew up in the 80s and 90s and thus, in order to find the egg, a person must be well-versed in the canon of early 90s science fiction, comic book, Saturday morning cartoon and fantasy lore. Basically, the more you know about being a teenager in 1989 the better you will do, and thus, overnight, old is new again as the entire world, desperate for a chance to inherit the billions, resurrects the Reagen days.

In essence, what Cline has done here is create a work of fiction that appeals to, and makes corporeal, the nostalgia of its readers. As Wade jumps from world to world in his version of The Serenity from Firefly, or in a suped-up BTTF Delorian, quoting Ferris Beuller's Day off and scouring cover art of Rush vinyls for hidden clues you think to yourself 'hey, I love that stuff too!' It is a shameless exploitation of Cline's own memories and those of all of us born before the 90s and yet completely being exploited has never felt better. What Cline lacks in quality of writing he makes up for in droves for sheer, simple delight.

As the story progresses toward the inevitable climax, Cline essentially builds the giant showdown in the sky that you always fantasized, one where the Millenium Falcon and the U.S.S. Enterprise can fight side by side and human avatar, unhindered by the limits of our boring "reality" can use samurai swords, rocket launchers, jet packs and magic to defeat their enemies. It's the geekiest dream you've ever had, but written on the page and is, for the most part, difficult to put down.

Sadly, Cline stops just short of transcending the popcorn into true depth. He seems to toy with moral issues of his world, where mankind has built a voluntary prison for their minds while the tangible world deteriorates into a lawless wasteland. He almost asks the big questions but always seems to stop himself right where he should pursue. What would be an amazing opportunity for commentary on today's plugged-in culture and the ramifications that, if unchecked, it could potentially unleash on politics and society fall by the wayside as Cline rushes to the next opportunity to impress us with his vast knowledge of geeky minutiae.

His protagonist, Wade, also stretches plausibility beyond what suspension of disbelief will allow. Obviously, we all love the idea of a broke nobody sticking it to the man and getting the girl, but when Wade suddenly becomes capable of Lisbeth Salander-level hacking skills, Cline forgets that the magic is supposed to stay in the virtual reality. He also falls into the trap of Chekov's gun, adorning every inch of the walls with weapons (both literal and figurative) that never fire.

Still, for all its faults and unfortunate simplicity, Ready Player One is still an absolute treat to read if, for no other reason, than to see all your old imaginary friends at the same party. B

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