Thursday, October 1, 2015

That's Entertainment 2.0

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011): This YA, nominally science-fictional novel by Ernest Cline screamed 'Adapt me, Hollywood!' as soon as it came out. And indeed Hollywood came, and Spielberg directs for a 2017 release. It's a shame, I think, that Spielberg choice -- Edgar Wright could probably make a movie better than the book by putting a noticeable spin of satire on things. He could certainly match or exceed its manic, mindless metafictionality.

We start in Oklahoma City in the 2040's, in an America gone to ground in the ruins of its apathy and decayed infrastructure. Pretty much everyone, rich and poor, spends a lot of time inside the OASIS, a Massively Multiplayer Online Everything created by a reclusive and now deceased billionaire genius. Upon his death, that genius created a contest. Whoever wins the contest wins his company and his fortune, the latter somewhere in the mid-100 billions. Years go by, the contest unsolved. And then, one day, our orphaned, poor, plucky protagonist figures out the first stage of the contest. And we're off.

Because the billionaire obsessed over the pop culture of his childhood, everyone who's anyone is now an expert on pop culture from the 1960's to the 1980's, from video games to types of sugary breakfast cereal, from Japan and the United States and Great Britain, from Family Ties to Ultraman. They have to be experts. A detailed knowledge of the band Rush may be vital to winning the contest.*

Ready Player One has its charms. It's relentlessly entertaining and tightly plotted within its extraordinarily familiar plot outlines. The pop-culture references are sometimes fun. Some of the near-future, dystopian world-building is inspired. The world has burned itself out, and no one even bothers trying any more. When one can escape into a candy-coloured Matrix of near-infinite entertainment, the world outside can go to hell. A gifted science-fiction writer could do a lot with a world in which the Real has disintegrated while the Unreal has flourished. Cline isn't that gifted a writer. And besides, he wants you to have FUN.

Oh, FUN. This is indeed a novel of endless entertainment. Its own plot beats and characterization are almost doubly Meta: everyone in the novel knows about Star Wars and Dungeon and Dragons and Harry Potter and The Matrix. That our orphaned protagonist is a cross between Luke Skywalker and Neo and Harry Potter can't really be complained about in a novel that acknowledges all those influences throughout. Or can it?

Well, entertainment! Our protagonist Wade (or his online avatar Parsival, if you prefer) exists in a flattened-out world of popular though often geek-centric entertainment. You're not going to get any high-culture references here. Well, you get one Shakespeare quote, but that's because the play and the game share the same name of [The] Tempest. There are a lot of giant robots, and giant robots are cool. There's a lengthy section devoted to Rush's 2112 with nary a mention of Ayn Rand. There's a lengthy section devoted to Blade Runner which pays lip service to the idea that the genius recluse's favourite novelist was Philip K. Dick, but there's no trace of Dick's novels or short stories, much less his sensibilities, in the novel.

This is a Fun Machine. Welcome to it. There's a brief moment towards the end when what had begun to seem to me to be the best possible climax for the novel seems to manifest itself. But then it doesn't. This is exactly the sort of genre work driven by David Langford's Plot Coupons and the search for them that we've seen a million times before. And there's nothing inherently wrong with that. But there's nothing here of meaning. There's nothing aesthetically challenging. There's nothing Sublime. Ready Player One is all Cracker and no Jack.

The real-world sections are William-Gibson-lite; the OASIS sections are so saturated with pop culture that by the end, you may feel a need to read or watch something difficult, whether that's a Bergman movie or a stretch of writing by James Joyce, just to reconnect with the idea that there's more to art than entertainment. The novel even makes Monty Python unsubversive. Ready Player One could be one of the disturbingly simplistic, perfectly immersive melodramas that humanity drowns the best part of itself within, in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. It's exhaustive. It's exhausting. But by God, you will bloody well be entertained. Recommended.


*Spoiler Alert: It is.

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