Saturday, September 02, 2017


With Stephen Spielberg's "Ready Player One" poised to become next year's geek blockbuster, I wanted to get a lead on the excitement and so picked up its source novel for the weekend. As expected, it was a light and easy read, albeit largely predictable and derivative. I had the book for a week but finished it in two days.

A quick synopsis: in the year 2040, a large chunk of the population is wired to OASIS, a virtual reality world that is part game and part alternate economy. On his death, Halliday, the creator of OASIS releases a revised will. He has hidden an easter egg somewhere in OASIS, and whoever finds it gains control of the company and of the virtual world. Enter the scrappy young loner first-person narrator hero Wade Watt.... Well, you know the rest.

The appeal of "Ready Player One" is firmly grounded in its nostalgia for the 1980's. Halliday is obsessed about the 1980's, the period of his childhood, so all the clues and challenges for the easter egg hunt revolve around geek culture of the 1980s: video games, role-playing games, TV shows, movies, music, and other minutiae. Ernest Cline, author of "Ready Player One", is himself an 80's kid (like Halliday, born in 1972), so read into that what you will.

Like Cline, I too am a child of the 80's. Not only did I understand almost all the references, I actually *have* first-hand experience with them through -- in those pre-Internet days -- magazines, bootleg VHS tapes, and pirated game disks. You might say that this is a book aimed squarely at me.

For that, I should be delighted, or should have been. The thing is, I wasn't. Somehow the novelty wore off within the first quarter of the book. "Ready Player One" is just so relentlessly chock-full of detail about the 1980's that I got sick of it soon enough. (Unlike, for instance, "The Brief and Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao", which used the Wave Motion Gun to great effect, but I digress.)

What's more, the heroes in the book treat this obsession as a virtue. They boast of having seen such-and-such a movie a hundred or so times. Not only is it a virtue, it is a necessity to win the hunt. Minor spoiler incoming: in order to win a challenge, they have to act out, with complete action and dialogue, the movie "WarGames."

Which really makes me a little sad. I look back fondly at the 80's (as I write this, my Luke Skywalker X-Wing Pilot from Kenner sits by the monitor) and the reason I can do that is because I've grown beyond it. "Ready Player One", for all its shiny technological advances, posits a world that is static and obsessed with an idealized past. Heck, those technological advances seem to exist solely to support that vision of the idealized past.

How much different is that from the world we live in today? Marvel churns out movies based on characters written in the 60's and 70's every six months. Star Wars, released in 1977, will release a new film in its franchise every December. Game of Thrones, wrapping up its HBO series next year, is actually twenty years old. And around these and more, we've built up an infrastructure of fandoms to fuel our obsessions.

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