Tuesday, March 12, 2013

"Ready Player One", 2011.

As my interests are admittedly somewhat esoteric, it's very rarely that I feel squarely in the sights of an advertiser or trend. My market segment is a razor's edge, and most of the things I'm interested in buying are goods not presently found for sale in stores. Consequently it was with a modicum of uneasiness that I enjoyed Ernest Cline's 2011 novel Ready Player One, as again and again I felt uncannily that the author had written the book for me -- that I was, in a sense, being pandered to... a very strange experience! I had some concerns that his successful run of hitting the right notes for me with a series of particular generational cultural references might distract me from the ability to come up with a more objective overall evaluation of the book's merits. Sure, it's filled with things that I love, but is it actually any good? Fo shizzle you can cook a meal using all my favorite ingredients, but that doesn't mean that they're any good as a meal all mixed together.

(Further ensnaring me is my personal weakness for treasure hunts; back in the early '90s, a copy of Bamber Gasgoigne's "Quest for the Golden Hare", about Kit Williams' Masquerade and the craze surrounding it, inspired me to hash out the outlining framework for a cyberspace treasure hunt on dial-up BBSes, with clues hidden in offline message reader taglines, online game victory congratulations, file section FILE_ID.DIZ descriptions, high score tables in downloadable games, and SysOp chat sessions. It would guarantee traffic to partcipating boards, and allow them to showcase the elements of their nodes they were proudest of... but fell apart when it came to coming up with a prize to offer the victor. As I was a feckless 11-year-old with no capital (and that's right, lacking even feck), I suggested every participating SysOp chip in $5 for a grand prize (for the free advertising, of a sort), and that was the end of that! And then... as it turned out, that was the end of BBSes. But I digress.)

The cover blurb from USA Today is surprisingly bang-on, describing the book as a mash-up of the Matrix and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Though the story primarily elapses in cyberspace, it lacks the literary aspirations of eg. Neuromancer (with its famous opening sentence, "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel") or the sheer audacious scope of Snow Crash. (This lack of aspirations or audaciousness isn't necessarily a bad thing: unlike in both those books, here I never had any "what the heck is going on right now?" moments.)

The story is a straightforward one of a treasure hunt -- the treasure being a fabulous fortune with the fate of the OASIS, a kind of limitless free-to-play virtual reality MMORPG, at stake. The treasure hunt consists of a handful of clues pertaining to the late, eccentric OASIS designer's preoccupation with nerdy cultural artifacts from the '80s... a perfect framing device for any author who ever wanted his characters to experience firsthand eg., Zork, WarGames, and early D&D modules. If you're familiar with these topics, you need no elaboration. If you're not, the author gives you just enough to get up to speed before dropping you off at the next pop culture reference. Like a mystery, there must be a straightforward method to writing these: begin at your conclusion and then work backwards seeding pointers to it. In the book, the contest has such a grip on the popular imagination that everyone in the year 2045 is a fully conversant scholar of the '80s, prepared to hold forth at length on such weighty matters as John Hughes movies, Rush's discography and Atari vector arcade machines, dubbing themselves "easter egg hunters" (or "gunters") after the obligatory etymological unpacking of Warren Robinett's hidden invention.

The plot is almost secondary: to me the work is primarily notable due to the mere fact that Random House published a book in which the TRS-80 CoCo game Madness and the Minotaur is name-checked, my first text adventure on my first home computer, both pretty obscure even to rabid gamers. It's details like this which make the book feel so crafted to appeal specifically to me, but will you enjoy it? You don't need to share the nostalgia to appreciate the story, but it probably helps. (The specifics do sell me on the book, precisely because the enriching little particulars are the sort of thing that greatly enhance my enjoyment of the work but could never be inserted into something to increase its marketability. They're merely flavour without being a hook, if that makes sense.)

Ultimately we are introduced to several rival independent gunters (including an obligatory love interest), following the protagonist's lead after he initially accidentally blows the beginning of the case wide open. We learn more about them (including the obligatory "on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" trope) as they vie against each other, gunter clans, and a sinister corporate interest not above griefing and crossing the line into manipulating players in their off-line lives, an underexplored setting of a neglected post-post-scarcity society where children play in junkyards, families live in piles of RV trailers and debtors become indentured servants. Le plus ca change...

For occasions such as this, I extend the following piece of effusive, yet reserved, praise: "the best book of its kind ever written." (Typically, the subject of my faint praise will also be the only book of its kind ever written.)

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Thanks to the anonymous neighbour who, despite barely knowing me, sized me up to a T and dropped this in my mailbox!