Thursday, December 10, 2020

Book 263: Ready Player One


“I’d been so proud of all this high-tech hardware when I’d first purchased it. But over the past few months, I’d come to see my rig for what it was: an elaborate contraption for deceiving my senses, to allow me to live in a world that didn’t exist. Each component of my rig was a bar in the cell where I had willingly imprisoned myself.”

Dates read: September 22-27, 2018

Rating: 3/10

I started feeling kind of old when I found not just one, but two, 1990s/2000s classic rap and r&b stations on the radio in Reno. Don't get me wrong, getting to have my high school and college party anthems playing on the radio on the regular is great. But it's a reminder that my youth is now behind me. The things that I loved with that pure, unironic love you really only have as a teenager (Clueless, Can't Hardly Wait, the first few Britney albums) are now winking reference points for new teenagers! The nerve! Get off my lawn!

When I was in college, though, it wasn't about the 90s. They were too recent. It was all about the 80s. So many 80s parties. I'll be honest: with a few notable exceptions, the pop culture of the 80s generally doesn't move me. That was not a good omen for my enjoyment of Ernest Cline's Ready Player One. In the near future, there has been widespread economic and ecological damage done to the world. Luckily, there's the OASIS, an immersive virtual reality where people can escape and exist through avatars. OASIS was created by a Steve Jobs-esque reclusive genius called James Halliday, who created a sensation when he died a few years before the novel begins by bequeathing his enormous fortune to whoever first can get to the "Easter Egg" he left behind...with clues rooted in the (you guessed it) 80s pop culture he loved.

Teenager Wade Watts (avatar: Parzival) has a comic book-worthy origin story: after the deaths of both of his parents when he was young, he went to live with an aunt in what are called the "stacks" homes outside of major cities literally stacked on top of each other. When he's not attending school via OASIS, he's doing what lots of people are doing: being an Easter Egg hunter, or "gunter" for short. When his obsessive devotion to Halliday's favorite video games, music, and movies pays off and he becomes the first person to discover one of three keys that will lead to the final prize, he's locked into a race for the finish. Parzival, his crush Art3mis, his best friend Aech and a team of two Japanese gamers are all competing...and also trying to ensure that an evil corporate conglomerate doesn't snag the prize, and control of OASIS, first.

If you really enjoy 80s pop culture, you'll love this. The idea of a world where our favorite trivia is literally the key to fame and fortune is delightful, and Cline's joy in writing it shines through. The plot moves along quickly, and it's not hard to see why this got made into a movie: it hits all the beats you'd expect it to, so it plays in your mind as you read. There's an emotional satisfaction to knowing the general track of things while waiting to see what little detours the specifics are going to take you on, and some sequences (like the climactic battle) are genuinely thrilling.

As a whole, though, the book fell terribly flat for me. As a non-80s devotee, it often felt like just constant lists of references to things that held absolutely no charm or emotional resonance. The storytelling was extremely basic, and the character development even more so. The issues the book is patting itself on the back for highlighting: that people might not be who they pretend to be for reasons both good and bad, that beauty comes from within, that it's your connection with a person that matters and not what they look like, are dealt with in a shallow, facile fashion that only emphasizes the simplicity of the narrative and the people who populate it. I've read a lot of books that didn't hook me, but few have been so boring as to be as difficult to read as this one. I do understand why it would appeal to people: it's a straightforward adventure story rooted in an era that many find nostalgically compelling. If that sounds fun to you, by all means, you'll likely enjoy this book like hundreds of thousands of people have. If not, though, this is one to avoid. 
One year ago, I was reading: Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling
Two years ago, I was reading: The Goldfinch
Three years ago, I was reading: The Games
Four years ago, I was reading: The Wonder
Five years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology

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