Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Book: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (2011)

Remember nostalgia? They don’t have it like they used to. Back when I was a kid, they knew how to yearn sentimentally for the past.

A strange kind of nostalgia fuels Ernest Cline’s debut novel, set in 2044 during the third decade of the Great Recession. Society has largely migrated online, with most human interaction occurring in OASIS, a virtual environment designed by the late James Halliday. Upon his death, he released word that he’d hidden a series of puzzles in his creation – and that whoever solved them would own OASIS. After an initial frenzy of activity Halliday’s “easter eggs” have become the stuff of cyberlegend, forgotten by all save hardcore “gunters” like lonely Oklahoma teenager Wade Watts, aka Parzival. Then Wade discovers – and cracks – the first of Halliday’s puzzles, and finds himself racing his friends and an evil conglomerate for control of the only world that matters to them.

The story is Joseph Campbell by way of Willy Wonka, more involving in detail than incident. There’s much to admire about Cline’s worldbuilding both inside OASIS and out. But reading the book bore uncanny similarity to playing a videogame. I marveled at the inventiveness of the design, shrugged at the narrative, and felt jittery and hollow when I set it aside. Which may be a sign that I am not the target audience.

Except I am. Down to perhaps the very minute of my birth.

Halliday based his easter eggs on the pop culture of his adolescence. Meaning the pages of Ready Player One are steeped in references to the 1980s. Highlander, The Last Starfighter, Family Ties. The secret to saving the universe – OK, a universe, but you get my point – lies in a familiarity with John Hughes films so intimate as to be unseemly. And I got all the references. Or most of them, at any rate. I cheerfully confess that I have never played Dungeons & Dragons, and find the appeal of Rush to be utterly elusive. But every other throwaway line, I caught.

I found it exhausting.

There can be no more dystopian future than one in which people are still watching episodes of Riptide thirty years hence. Worse, Wade doesn’t even enjoy what he’s watching. One of Halliday’s challenges requires Wade to know every line of Matthew Broderick’s dialogue in WarGames without prompting. No sweat for our socially maladroit hero, who’s seen the movie several dozen times because it was a Halliday favorite. But he has no opinion of or reaction to it. It’s not kitsch, or a window into the early days of home computing. Wade’s triumph is a feat of simple if freakish memorization. Which depresses me, as someone who watched WarGames more than is medically advised.

Still, Cline is right about the direction we’re going in. It’s been said that we no longer live with pop culture, we live “in” it. Remember Diner? (Jesus, now I’m doing it.) In a 1982 movie set in 1959, a character who obsessively quoted dialogue from Sweet Smell of Success was considered so unusual as to be worthy of mention. Now it’s the way we all are. (Ironically, I walked around quoting dialogue from Diner all through high school.)

Maybe my problem is that I’ve never longed for the detritus of my youth. Like Wade, I’m immersed in entertainment of a bygone era. (See: Exhibit A.) But those works aren’t static. They’re alive to me, opening up parallels between then and now. They aren’t items to be collected but experiences to be shared, often with people who are long gone. Or maybe it’s that in-jokes always seem suspect to me, as if I’m being flattered for my good taste instead of being engaged in the moment. The self-esteem boost as entertainment.

Ready Player One embodies two mutually exclusive ideas at the core of modern popular culture. 1. Nothing is special. Not when it’s all accessible online and a long weekend with a Kindle or Netflix Instant can turn anyone into an overnight authority. That thing you love? I now know as much about it as you do. (Patton Oswalt wrote a Wired piece on society’s growing otaku nature and the pending pop culture singularity.) 2. Everything is special. That thing you used to love? It mattered. Hell, it can save the universe. Or at least a digital facsimile thereof, featuring entire planets based on Blade Runner. Again, I say this as someone who once appeared on a pop culture game show and recalled the name of the female doll in the Child’s Play movies.

Cline closes his book by saying that he hopes it inspires others to seek out the creations that inspired him. I hope it does, too. But I have my doubts.