Ready Player One: Virtual Utopias

Cover of Ready Player One

 Title: Ready Player One

 Author: Ernest Cline

 Publication Date: 2011

 LC Call Number:  PS3603.L548 R43 2011

 Ready Player One is, oddly, a dystopian science fiction novel about 80s nostalgia and virtual reality.  I’d heard all kinds of interesting things about it and wanted to try it as a lighter read.  As a paean to nerd culture, it was something I knew I needed to check out. On the whole, it’s clever and pretty well put together, but somehow not as much fun as I’d hoped.

Sometimes books remind you of things that they actually don’t want to address themselves. In this case, it was a fact that is very easy to forget, and, in fact, often forgotten: the kind of nerdiness addressed here has to do with an immersion in pop culture, and this sort of engagement with culture is actually a function of privilege.  Let’s think about the video games, for instance.  I was very interested in this sort of thing as a kid, and I grew up in about the right era, but I hadn’t played most of the games, for the very simple reason that my parents would not buy me a Super Nintendo.   Now I was privileged in all sorts of ways, but this little example shows how easy it is to miss out on these things, not through lack of will, but simply by not having access to them.  In Ready Player One, though, this gets a little weird.  The main character actually is underprivileged; he lives in a trailer with an aunt who is a caricature of the unscrupulous and unpleasant welfare recipient and he essentially has nothing, except for access to an extremely extensive, popular and well-developed communal virtual reality (the OASIS).  And within this reality, he has access to essentially whatever cultural products he wants, although he is not very powerful in this world either.

This is pretty clearly a matter of narrative expedience, because the structure of the book calls for the protagonist (his name is Wade) to rise from obscurity and powerlessness to fortune and glory, but it’s odd.  In this setting, copyright law is seemingly no longer enforced, which certainly makes things easier, and on first glance seems to make sense, because this is a world in which the US economy has essentially disintegrated and people would appear to have more pressing concerns.  On the other hand, it’s also a world in which corporations have seemingly unlimited power; they are able to “indenture” their debtors and make them work of their debts for often indefinite periods of time.  It’s difficult to imagine companies letting copyright go under such circumstances, and of course, under current US law, none of the cultural materials that are referenced here will be out of copyright by the time the book takes place. In fact, it’s a little surprising they haven’t tried to shut down the OASIS entirely as a gigantic den of file-sharing pirates. At the same time, though, it’s necessary that Wade is able to access and rebroadcast all this stuff, because the point of the book is for him to be an expert in 80’s-era popular culture who uses his knowledge and his puzzle-solving prowess to find a hidden treasure.  It’s a pretty small plot hole as these things go, and, again, it’s probably so that Wade can essentially level up throughout the book; in fact, this is a popular plot arc of many ‘80’s movies, so that’s probably part of it too.  But the book trips over itself a little bit in this respect because, while it’s interested in Wade’s struggles, many of which have to do with his poverty, it doesn’t really take it seriously.

Anyway, this isn’t the most important thing about the book, just something I noticed.

My other insights aren’t all that staggering and this is going to sound as if I’m just attacking the book, which is actually relatively fun to read. But there were certainly some things I didn’t like about it.

Wade himself is one of them.  There were some aspects of his personality that I didn’t find especially endearing, but the narrative strongly suggested that I was supposed to like him.  I’m not typically bothered by characters who feel unhappy about being in bad situation, but his sullen resentment of everyone around him turned me off from the very beginning of the book. Eventually, he ends up working in tech support and treating all his customers with utter contempt because they made silly mistakes and weren’t as knowledgeable as he was. I was dismayed to find that the author of the book has actually done tech support work;   I hope this part of the book is not autobiographical.  So that was one part of it, but the other part was that I really didn’t like the way that the love story was handled.

You see, Art3mis is a good character. She’s self-possessed, intelligent and pushes back at actually appropriate times. But between the way she’s handled as a romantic lead and her existence as a token female character, there are definitely some problems with the way she is presented.  Since the book is told in first person, we see her only from Wade’s point of view.  He begins the book with a crush on her, before they have ever met, so there is not much hint of her existence outside of his obsession with her.  She’s not the only female character in the book, but she almost is.  The other female characters either: 1) die after one appearance in the text 2) are only referred to in the text as an already-dead person 3) are very minor or 4) masquerade as male in order to avoid getting sexist reactions, until a dramatic reveal at the end.  So throughout the majority of the book the only real function of the only visible female character is as a love interest (though, yes, she does solve some puzzles).  There are, however, numerous references to girls as intimidating, foreign, unapproachable, and to nerd girls as exceptional.  The book is set in the near future, but apparently all the work that women have done to be accepted in nerd culture has had no affect at all. This is kind of depressing. And then there’s the love story itself, which consists largely of Art3mis telling Wade on numerous occasions that he should back off and him mostly not respecting this.  She tells him at one point that she doesn’t want to talk with him until the puzzles are all solved and that by the way she is not his girlfriend; he responds by sending her numerous messages, showing up at her virtual home with a John Cusack reference, etc. At the end of the book, her reticence is explained by a birthmark on her face. So, it’s really insecurity about her appearance that prevents her from falling into his arms rather than, say, concern about his lack of respect for her boundaries, or some aspect of her life that she hasn’t shared with him.  At some point he rescues some information about it and he takes the liberty of going through it to find out everything about her that she had previously chosen not to tell him.  She’s angry when she finds out, but there are no long-term plot implications for this anger, and of course, they are together in the end.

(And I’m not even going into the character who is female (and African-American and lesbian) but presents as male online in order to avoid expressions of prejudice, except to say that the reveal of her real-life identity is seen only in terms of this information’s effect on Wade and not, say, the way that it undermines the presentation of the OASIS as a utopia or even a nice place to live. OR the way that connecting with people online is seen as an escape, a lesser thing, something for losers. Aren’t we over that by now?)

Anyway—this reads too much like an attack on the book, which wasn’t really what I wanted to write. As I say above, it’s clever in a lot of ways. But there were definitely some things about it that bothered me.

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