Thursday, April 12, 2012

Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player One
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The best thing I can say about this book was that I got to listen to the audio version. Wil Wheaton's narration made a lot of the cringeworthy aspects of an uneven debut worth listening to, though I was still unable to overlook the book's flaws. The book had its moments, but, in the end, the target audience was too fringe, the fanboy pandering too blatant, for me to recommend this to anyone but hardcore fanboys.

If you've heard of this book, you already know the premise: dystopian future, video game contest to win billions of dollars, hard-luck kid winds up first on the scoreboard. It is an intriguing premise, and the world-building is solid. The technology is even plausible, and it's easy to wrap one's mind around the notion of a virtual reality world everyone immerses themselves in to escape the depressing reality of their lives.

However, rather than trust the reader to make the mental leap, the writer devotes the first six chapters to setting up a world that isn't incredibly alien. Nothing of interest happens in those six chapters, except that Wade Owen Watts dumps a ton of info on top of your head and expects you to care as much as he does about his obsession. He reminds me of every fanboy who's ever driven me from a comic shop by relating the minutiae of their latest WOW quest and ignoring my requests to change the conversation. There's a reason why this shirt exists.

I started off disliking the main perspective character, and he never grew on me. I never felt a sense of investment in his survival or success. This isn't helped one bit by the fact that his life is never in danger. Even when he's threatened, he's safe and sound. There's one section where his personal safety is in question, and that's quickly and handily waved away by the arrival of a character on the scene who has all the resources Wade needs to be secure again.

The game, itself, is a nerd-boy power fantasy. Who wouldn't love to score points for knowing every line from War Games? Well, anyone who likes War Games for being a cool story, not pieces of dialogue to memorize. The approach sucks all the fun out of things I'm normally interested in. As interesting as the factoids were to learn as we go along, that they're points being scored and measured against other players soured my taste for them. Lots of fanboys love bickering over who knows more about the things they like, but statistics and minutiae don't make up the love of a pursuit. I like to enjoy pursuits because they're fun, not to add ammo to my argument about why so-and-so isn't a true fan.

I also objected to the treatment of women in the story. In the 30 years of future history this book covers, apparently there isn't a single woman producing anything worthy of Wade's remembering it. Also, while there are female characters within the story, the narrator makes it clear that they're an anomaly. He throws out the statement that the vast majority of Gunters (a portmanteau of "egg hunters") are male, and this is never questioned within the narrative. Art3mis, the girl with the largest role in the book, is there to serve as a love interest, a prize to be won by pushing the right selections in the drop-down conversation menu. (I kept waiting for the message to flash across his screen: "Art3mis is impressed with your honesty! +5 to Relationship XP!") He projects his image of who he thinks she is, and I was dissatisfied with the resolution of that shortsightedness.

I never got the idea that female characters were there for any reason other than as token characters, and the depiction of one was particularly problematic. As the character's appearance is a spoiler, I'll discuss that in my blog's comments to this post.

There were redeeming features of this book, despite my numerous complaints, and not just Mr. Wheaton's lovely narration. The straightforward style in which this book is written evokes a lot of the source material. It's written much like a straightforward rendering of a WOW quest, or like a D&D module without the pesky stats and treasure charts. As much as I complain about that above, at least it's consistent.

I did find the narrative predictable, and that twist of a character reveal was telegraphed from a mile away. On the other hand, I did still feel narrative tension. I didn't want to know what happened, I wanted to know how it happened. That I hated the narrator and felt no sense of danger stopped mattering, as I wondered what the next puzzle would be and how it would be solved.

Last, this author did his homework. This book is crammed full of things you probably didn't know about the 1980s, music, video games, anime, kaiju, computers, pop culture, and everything a geek could want to know. The game world seamlessly blends so many aspects of late-20th-century geekdom that there's something to please everyone in there. We even get crossover throwdowns that I know geeks like to endlessly speculate about.

Sadly, I am not the target audience of this book, and the narrative went out of its way to show me that, by appealing so much to its fanboy base. If you express your love of things by memorizing every minute detail of it, or if you've spent more than 24 hours at a stretch logged into your WOW account, this book would probably appeal to you. Memorizing tiny details you may or may not care about scores a person a lot of points in Ready Player One.

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  1. SPOILER - do not read farther unless you're okay with having a plot point spoiled

    In the third section of this book, Wade meets Aech, his best friend and the coolest guy he knows, in person for the very first time. It turns out that Aech is Helen Harris, an overweight black woman. He's initially mad at his friend for lying to him, but, in a show of how (ahem) enlightened Wade is, he gets over it. This is helped by the fact that she's a lesbian, apparently. So she wasn't lying about being attracted to women, at least.

    This was such a missed opportunity, to me. Wade could've reflected, at that point, that most of the other Gunters probably did something similar. It never crosses his mind. He continues to take it for granted that the vast majority of Gunters are male.

    Nor does he spend any time, in this narrative that has taken apart everything else in minute detail, wondering if perhaps there's something wrong with his good friend subverting her very identity by picking a white male avatar. He figures he can be color blind, and that's good enough. He doesn't wonder what kind of treatment she might expect as a black female in a space dominated by geeks and nerds, nor does he particularly care. If the problem is solved by her pretending to be white and male, it's not a problem, apparently.

    If you've never heard that there's anything wrong with the notion that women should erase their femaleness in order to avoid abusive treatment online, please, educate yourself.

  2. I'm not really a hardcore fanboy (okay I did collect comics during the 80's), I never played games, but I have to confess I adored this book. It was so much fun that I was willing to overlook some of the things that didn't quite work. I read it and didn't listen to it (I can't listen to books, I find my mind wandering), so that may have made a difference and I'm also a child of the 80's and could so clearly connect to so much of what was written.

    1. I was born before the 1980s, as well, and I have a lot of nostalgia for the period, too. I just couldn't get over how much this guy was like all the hooting monkeys who've chased me out of chat rooms and message boards and comic book shops because I'm not a TRUE fan of what they're talking about.

  3. I was on a panel at Minicon which was specifically about the "Let me tell you about my character" problem, what causes it, and how to deal with it.

    1. Yeah? What was their advice on how to handle it?