Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ready Player One: nostaligia porn for the 80's geek

My review in epinions for Ready Player One reprinted here

Ready Player One is Ernest Cline’s new novel that basically proves that dork culture is officially mainstream, or mainstream enough for a novel like Ready Player One to get glowing reviews from both Time magazine and the NY Times.

I suppose the fact that pretty much every summer blockbuster these days is an Nth degree superhero sequel, the biggest thing in chick flicks is vampires and werewolves, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy wins Oscars shows dork ascendance in pop culture. Novels is the latest frontier.

The premise of Ready Player One is that it is the year 2030, and the inventor of the virtual reality universe that everyone now lives in (because an energy crisis had created a permanent global economic recession) dies and leaves all his money to whoever can find the easter egg in his virtual reality world. The working class nerd boy heroes have to search his VR universe (which includes of course a Star Wars sector, Star Trek, Firefly, Goonies, Dr Who, etc. etc. etc.) to finish the quest. So in this sense, the book follows the classic James Campbell hero cycle that defined many an 80’s epic.

But really the story is just an excuse to relive all the 80’s media that dorks of a certain age grew up with. It references pretty much every geeky movie, video game and D&D product from the 80's that fits into its 300 odd pages. Part of what makes this the most fun I have ever had reading a book is it made reading an amazingly visual and visceral experience, triggering images and flashbacks to scenes and experiences that defined my childhood.

For example, the first quest item the heroes have to find is within the most famous D&D adventure, the Tomb of Horrors,  and can only be obtained by battling the lich king in a game of Joust (the game with the flying birds). Starting with the first paragraph where the chaos of the world is described as “dogs and cats living together…mass hysteria” which brings up images of Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, the book allows the reliving memories like placing quarters on arcade games to get next in line, getting lost in a maze of twisty passages in Zork, quoting lines of movies you’ve seen a million times like Monty Python, to dreaming about the technology of Max Headroom. Especially satisfying are the obscure references that resonated with me, like reading BASIC programs off a cassette drive, learning the president and vice president of VR space is Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton, hearing the voice of his AI was briefly Majel Barett, or taking a test as hard as the Kobayashi Maru. Often,  find myself thinking something like—that character is just like Jordan in Real Genius—when on the next page, Cline writes, "just like Jordan on Real Genius."

While satisfying, it also feels a little pathetic. The players spend 100's of hours of their lives watching and re-watching, playing and replaying 80's media to solve the quest, which sounds painful and pathetic until I realize I've read and seen pretty much everything they have. Which in the end reminds you that you are not alone. The author, the reviewers at Time and NY Times, and all the readers who have pushed this book up best seller lists probably did the same thing.

Admittedly, there is little depth here. For trashy sci-fi that provides enough thought provoking material to fill a graduate seminar, I turn to Neal Stephenson. But the reading and story is appropriately satisfying. It is also impressive that despite the fantastic premise, it is actually quite plausible. Most of the VR technology mentioned—like spheres that let you jog in, glasses that project images onto your retina, haptic gloves—exist today, and the social structure of the virtual world is similar to Second Life today. The real world economics a bit off, the prices of virtual goods should be much closer to marginal cost (i.e. zero) than they are, and the predictions of the world’s gasoline running out abruptly so that people had to abandon cars on the highway is simply ridiculous. But these are minor and besides the point.
The point of the book is to share in the joys of the media so many of us consumed in our childhood. Ready Player One provides an amazingly visceral reading experience and more importantly helps all of us who loved these dorky things feel a little less alone. The genre I suppose is not new—the NY Times aptly pointed out Kevin Smith has been doing this for decades—but this is the first I’ve seen in novel form, and this is seriously the most fun I’ve had reading in a very long time.
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