Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Ready Player One

Posted by Kurt

This book is The Da Vinci Code for Swatch Dogs, Diet Coke heads, and guild leaders. For absolutely mindless entertainment, it's just fine, but everything here is about as shallow as a 2-D side-scroller like Super Mario Brothers (and not one of the sequels with a storyline, just the one about jumping and running).

The book begins with a surprisingly good background chapter. We are in a dystopian future, and the dystopia is half-hearted (a "climate change makes the world suck because Al Gore said so" kind of scenario, like it was developed by timid Democrats trying not to offend moderate voters), but since the story isn't about how to solve the world's problems or how a reader in 2011 can prevent them, I'm willing to go along with the lazy setup. The important thing is that most of humanity has chosen to escape into a virtual reality, like World of Warcraft with a full sensory experience. The founder of this world dies, leaving behind a grand quest to allow any user to find his game's hidden Easter egg and take over the world. The dead man was obsessed with 1980s pop culture, so the world learns to study episodes of Silver Spoons and Back to the Future movies for clues to the treasure hunt, and the introduction sets up this story very well, with plenty of footnotes and references to the research conducted by egg hunters ("gunters"). For a while, I thought I was getting a playful academic exercise along the lines of House of Leaves.

Unfortunately, the creativity flattens out after the intro. Cline has certainly put a lot of thought into the details of his sci-fi creation, and it shows. Nearly every page has some pop culture reference to delight fans, and Cline walks readers through some scenarios that are a bit more creative than, "And then the hero.. did something on his computer.. and he beat the bad guy." The problem for me is that this is a streamlined quest novel, and characters don't really exist except to advance the plot. The protagonist develops a crush on a girl, and they hint toward the debate of "Is your online persona the truest form of who you are, or just the most deliberately created and presented?" But they never really follow up on the philosophy; it just becomes an excuse for a little relationship tension when the plot needs them to take some time apart. The villains of the story are corporate and nasty, but not terribly original, and the race against them for the treasure plods along with a feel of inevitability. This is not a book for plot twists or honest emotion, or any kind of value statement beyond a bland 1990s, "Wow, the internet can bring us together without racism or sexism or discrimination based on sexuality!"

So read this for what it is: a love letter to geeks. It's an adventure story, it has some puzzles and riddles, and it has lots and lots of 80s trivia. If you're looking for meaning or a lasting impact, then you'll be disappointed.

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