Friday, April 10, 2015

Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Over the past couple of years I've repeatedly heard the praise for Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon). That praise is basically summed up by some version of the following: if any of your formative years were spent in the 1980's and if you spent any time watching movies and playing video games, then this books is for you. Well, I did those things, so it should be for me, right?

YES! To repeat what I've seen one version or another – it’s like this book was written exactly for me. I did see all those movies, I watched those shows, I had that Atari game. And that one. I spent hours at the arcade plugging quarters into that machine. D&D.

This book was made for geek culture – particularly us geeks who spent time in the 1980's. It tells the story of a frightening, but all too likely future, that is if not dystopic, is the next thing to it. Only the stratification of that future, where there are haves and have-nots – the top is dominated by that geek who huddled in the corner, who had no life, who couldn't talk to girls. He went and took over the world – or perhaps, more correctly – re-created the world via virtual reality to suite himself. And then he made everyone like exactly the things he liked. Ready Player One works so well because it tells the story of that stereotypical nerdy underdog rising up and not just winning, but winning everything. It’s the story about the legacy of one such winner and the creation of another.

And it’s told almost entirely through references to the 1980's. TV shows, videogames, movies, computer games, D&D, etc. It’s very nearly perfect. It’s way fun. And it’s triumphant. Of course it’s going to be made into a movie directed by none other than Stephen Spielberg – how could it not be? The book isn't a journey, it’s a game, it’s a quest, it’s an Easter egg hunt. And everyone gets to play.

There’s only one issue I had with the book – an issue that fits in so well with a book rooted in geek culture of the 1980s. This is a dude book. The reality is that there is only one female character in this book, and she is completely defined as love interest number one. The geek goddess that the geek protagonist falls in love with. She serves no other purpose. It doesn’t matter that she’s, smart and capable (even ’badass’) – her purpose in this book is to serve the geek protagonist. This is an unfortunate reinforcement of so much of embedded misogyny of geek culture – one issue that geek culture is struggling so hard to get past now. Some will point to a spoilerific moment toward the end as a refutation of the above, but really, that changes very little in how ‘girls’ are framed in this book. Some may point to the final pages of the book to say ‘look, see, it’s OK dude’, but I’m sorry, the climax of geek’s wet dream doesn't fix anything. Essays could be written, but this review isn’t the place, and I lack the pedigree to pull it off as it should be.

Could Ready Player One both be the book that it is and deal with this issue respectfully and intelligently? I have to think the answer is yes. If geek culture is going to get passed these issues, then authors really need to step up to the challenge of making it so – and really, it’s often not such a great challenge at all.

But, as I said, this is a dude book, and I’m a dude. It was written for me. In more than a few ways, it was written about me. And yes, even considering that little big issue I mention above (of which I have my fair share of culpability for in my own time), I loved every fucking minute of Ready Player One. This is one of those books that kept me up late reading, it stayed with me after I stopped reading, it had me truly excited to read in a way that so few books can achieve.

In retrospect it’s damn near depressing how a book that is so rooted in a flavor of pop culture could affect me so strongly. Again, essays could be written about this. It’s Meta, maybe intentional, maybe not, but Ready Player One is paradox in what it rebels against as it embraces just that. Perhaps that’s THE paradox of geek culture itself. Which I suppose makes all the more appropriate in Ready Player One.

But in the end, I can only repeat what I said above…

I loved every fucking minute of Ready Player One!

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