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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Guest Article: A review of "Ready Player One"

This is a guest post written by The Jack. 

Ernest Cline's Ready Player One is a future dystopian adventure story that largely takes place in a virtual world built on 80's pop culture.


Ready Player One is a world where having a detailed knowledge of Family Ties, Ladyhawke, and Q*bert is absolutely vital. It is knowledge that could save your life, make you fantastically wealthy, or let you rule two worlds: the virtual and the real.

The virtual world, OASIS, was basically created by one man: James Halliday. Halliday grew up in the 80's and naturally was an awkward geeky genius. Thus he made a virtual world that ended up taking over all entertainment, communication, business, and education.

And with the real world a shambling mess, OASIS is used for everything, not only to save money but also because OASIS is the only stable institution left. Whomever controls OASIS controls the world.

This made Halliday a sort of de facto benevolent dictator at least until he died. And in true 80's fashion, there was a will, a challenge, and a contest.

You see, Halliday left clues, Easter Eggs, in his game. Whoever finds them all gets control of his company.

Yes: A videogame Easter Egg hunt where you decode 80's esoterica to gain control of, well, everything. As mentioned before: control OASIS, control the world. As you can guess, the main characters, both protagonists and antagonists, are all searching for these clues.

Interest in the contest sparked a huge 80's resurgence, explaining why people in 2044 are into 80's pop culture.

The main character is Wade Watts, a young man nearing the end of high school. He lives in a future trailer park ghetto. The future version is even worse because the trailers are stacked atop each other.

He has a few friends, all in OASIS, and part of the Egg Hunter culture. But the biggest hurtle in Wade's quest is his crushing poverty which limits the worlds he can explore and how he can level up.

OASIS may be a perfectly running and idealized boon to a humanity in its twilight days, but it's gotta make money somehow. And it does this by charging players when they travel to different parts of the game.

Okay. The protagonists are a ragtag bunch of young people who have a lot of heart and want to prove themselves.

So what are the bad guys? A rich corporation that wants to take over OASIS, of course.

If OASIS and Halliday represent benevolent corporatism, then IOI, Innovative Online Industries, is fascist corporatism. The interesting part is that IOI really is a bunch of imperialistic, corporate slavers with a plan to take over the world

That they don't simply bribe government officials or hack into the OASIS servers to find the secret that way is a bit of a glaring question, but... Halliday was just that good I suppose.

This ties into the worst part of the book: flat antagonists.

Sure, IOI is bad, believably so. As the story unfolds, we learn to just what depths IOI will sink. At first, the reader may be inclined to think that Wade's complaints against them are the standard gripes against Big Evil Business.

But no, IOI really is monstrous. However, the people working for IOI are interchangeable cookie cutter villains. Only the main big bad has any distinguishing personality, and that's minimal.

I suppose, however, that the antagonists are a minor part. The story is about decoding a rich eccentric's posthumous mystery to win a giant inheritance, and doing so in a wild simulated universe dripping in 80's and geek culture.

An interesting aspect of the story is the stark contrast between the real world and the game world.

In the real world there is peak oil, global warming, war, plagues, mass starvation (even in North America), economic implosions, government collapse, neo-serfdom, and brigandry.

Yes, brigands. If you leave the "safety" of the cities you have to travel in armored bus convoy. Otherwise you'll be attacked by bandits. The book does a fair job of showing just how dire the consequences are of running out of even remotely affordable power. This is also where the book stumbles because while society is on the brink of collapse.... the network connections don't go down.

Meanwhile in the game world, you can watch whatever movie you want, read whatever book you want, play whatever game you want, and learn whatever you want. You and your friends can also fly around in the Serenity with Space Marine Armor and light sabers and green lantern rings.

And that is the book's biggest handwave. How did OASIS get the IP rights to everything?

The book also explores the effects an immersive virtual world would have on society. For example: OASIS gutted public education by offering an in-game telepresence system. Instead of sending your kids to a real school, they plug into a virtual one.

The teachers have admin powers and can thus control the learning environment. Yeah, the best parts of homeschooling and private schooling. All in high contrast with how public schools work within the book's real world. Imagine the worst of an inner city school today and have it be even more crippled and bloated.

The whole book is a treasure trove of geek references and humor. You can feel the enjoyment. Ernest Cline had great fun writing this book and he wants to share it with the reader.

The book even manages to maintain drama when the bulk of the action is in a simulated environment. What's makes dying dramatic when you're just in a simulation?

I won't say how the book manages to make actions in OASIS have consequence, but it is well thought-out. And no, there is no Matrix-style "Injuries in the game happen in the real world."

There is also a good exploration of "Who you are in VR" versus "Who you are in real life". Recall that the protagonist has not met any of his friends in the real world.

In addition to the villains being too flat, Halliday's company is... too good. OASIS is never directly subverted. Its employees can't be bribed. Its servers aren't hacked. And its lawyers can keep the government (any government) from taking over.

In the story, OASIS is presented as more of an alternate universe than a virtual world. It is something to claim, something that just exists, not something that was built by human hands.

However much of the drama in the story lies in how fleeting this all is. OASIS is only an oasis because of Halliday. If anyone else took over then they could rule the virtual world like a tyrant. Which underscores the problem, the one refuge in a world heading to destruction will fall into the hands of the best Pac-Man player. No, I'm not exaggerating.

Still, the plot has a clear direction and unfolds well with increased risk and drama. And of course the setting is extremely amusing.

If you're a fan of the 80's or geek culture, you may want to give this a go.

3 comments:

  1. Good review, I really enjoyed this book when I read it a few months ago.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Read it. It was a great book.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Gah! I read this and LOVED it, but now I'm angry at past self for not
    listening to the audio. Wil Wheaton! What a waste. May have to reread on
    audio.

    Maycee (All Alaska Outdoors Fishing Lodge - Alaska Ptarmigan Hunting)

    ReplyDelete

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