Those who follow me on Twitter (follow me on Twitter! @garybuh), know that I recently wrapped up Ready Player One and Did Not Like it. Between this and my dislike of Jazzpunk, I'm gaining an even greater reputation, I imagine, as a monstrous killjoy. When it comes to RP1, I think it's worth examining my distaste a little further because it's applicable to greater nerd/geek/games/killme culture.
First, let's talk about what the book does well: Plot. Like most lauded genre fiction, it's a page turner. The initial concept (Willy Wonka quest with clues in a video game, like Swordquest but with higher stakes and the internet) is a pretty good one. Also, though the villains are extremely 2 dimensional, it's a deft touch that they represent corporate drudgery and, literally, charging an internet tax. These are clever conceits. In the world of RP1, the stakes (other than death), are wage slavery, ie getting an unfulfilling day job and having the internet taken away. These are resonant now even if they're meant to be far more important in the future world the book presents.
Now let's talk about what the book does badly or at least mostly badly: Everything Else. Because I'm part of the target audience for the book, I tend to think in lists and 200 word summations, and far be it from me to resist being an audience. So let's go point by point in easy to read infolets.
- Characters Good god. Someone awesome on twitter linked me this little youtube to illustrates what's wrong with the characters in this book. Watch that.
Pretty rough, right? The characters in RP1 are entirely defined by their tastes. Every single "cool" character is introduced by mentioning what sort of faded tee shirt they're wearing and often with a password or avatar name or a ship name that is a reference. Sometimes the author spells these out and sometimes you're left to pick them up but they're always there. "Bad" characters don't have taste. In fact, it's taken away from them when they work at the company, and they wear featureless clothing and their avatars have numbers instead.
This definition extends to the entire world. We're meant to believe that one nerd who grew in the 80s created a super internet and therefore EVERY SINGLE PERSON IN THE WORLD is so obsessed with the same things he was that nothing new has happened. There's a bit of explanation that this is because of the easter egg hunt but the idea that no one has written a book or song, no one has created new forms of art, no one isn't nostalgic is silly. You could say this is some sort of sly commentary on nostalgia but if this book is saying anything about nostalgia, it's that it's awesome and should be soaked into every fiber of the world. This leads me to...
- A Confused Thesis/What is this book about?
Do you know? Because I fucking don't. On the macro level, the author spends 330 pages telling us how awesome the 80s were and then 20 pages shoe horning in a message about how it's important to live in the real world. Dog, you just spent the whole book telling us the real world is trash and the only measure of a person is what graphic tee they're wearing. You don't get to undermine your whole book at the end of the day and get away with it.
And honestly, if he had gone full bore, it might have been a neat book. It'd still have too many problems to be actually good but a book that posited: hey, the real world sucks and these escapist venues we have are really important and actually can be an acceptable alternative for some people. That's a compassionate, interesting point but it'd require a totally different book than this.
RP1 is meant to appeal to me and you and everyone who listens to our shows. These references, these cool shirts and awesome references are meant to evoke a tinge of nostalgia, a dopamine squirt of recognition. He's using the character's appreciation of these things as shorthand for likeability and development.
There was a moment it sort of worked on me. Early on, the main character comes across an IRL representation of The Tomb of Horrors. I thought, well, that's fucking cool. I'd like to explore the Tomb of Horrors. But like everything in this book, it's barely more than a mention. There's a lich at the end but there's nothing about actually exploring the tomb. No sense of suspense or danger. The tomb is dismissed because it's done it's job; it was mentioned.
See, I think the author really does like all of these things but he has nothing to say about them. There's no real reason any particular game or movie is referenced other than that he likes it and the audience likes it too. The Tomb of Horrors is about something, damn it. It's Gygax becoming frustrated with his players and their power (and really, his creation) and lashing out. It's not just a book on a shelf. It's a thing you can read and think about.
This goes for everything in RP1. I don't have my copy right here but if I think about how many pointless references there are in the book, I think they make up the majority of the word count. Barely a paragraph is written without a sly mention of Space Invaders or Ladyhawke and there's never an actual reason for any of them. They're interchangeable totally. The scruffy, wise game dev: is there a reason he's wearing a Moon Patrol shirt rather than a Mappy shirt or a Joust shirt? Nope. The author isn't interested in the things he's interested in.
And isn't that nostalgia? You don't actually want to think about the things you like. You just want to feel good about having liked them. That's dumb and poisonous.
- Borderline transphobia
This is a minor mention because, honestly, it could be way worse but in a future world where everyone spends most of their time online, there sure is a lot of ink spilled worrying that the girl the character likes might be a guy. I mean, it's a major plot point. So much ewwww, gross, what if she has a dick?!?
And I get it. You like what you like, right? I'm not saying the character should meet the girl, have her be biologically male, and just go with it. But the volume and the intensity of the disgust trouble me.
- Gross power fantasy
I should point out that I like the same things the author does and when I was young, there are ways I was similar to the main character. Specifically, there's a sort of gross subplot where he's obsessed with a blogger and aggrandizes himself about how, though she doesn't conform to traditional standards of beauty, he'd still be into her.
This hit home because I did this constantly as a youth. I would look at a girl I thought was sort of maybe a little attractive and think, "I bet the other boys wouldn't accept you but I would." And at the time, I thought I was a fucking super hero for this. A selfless crusader for above average BMI and mild acne. And it wasn't that I didn't think these girls were attractive. Again, the feeling it came from was genuine. It was the way I was begging for a fucking cookie. The way that this sort of thinking presumes that any girl with these traits would be lucky to have a guy be into her.It robbed the women of agency. I eventually figured this out and developed a gnawing shame about it and worked my way through it. I got better.
RP1 has no interest in the main character growing at all but especially not in this respect. And her, the non character, thinks she's hideous because she has a birthmark. He doesn't care and she's so touched by this, at the end, that she lets him in. They're 18 years old. Because it's a teenagers fantasy that, like a Moon Patrol shirt, is displayed but not commented on or subverted. It's gross
The main character is meant to be a put upon loser and grew up in Harry Potter style misery. But he's actually an amazing hacker and strategist. He hacks into the biggest company in the world. He outsmarts them too. He gets the girl, he solves the puzzles. He becomes fabulously wealthy. He has an honest to god training montage to get ripped. But he doesn't work for it.
Contrast with Harry Potter. Yes, Harry ended up being capable. But he learned it. He fucked up for seven years. Contrast this man child with Scott Pilgrim. Scott grows. The point of Scott Pilgrim is that he grows. Wade from RP1 runs in place while a bunch of pop culture words fly around him.
I'm not meaning to put you on blast if you like this book. If you dig it, I'm glad you did (despite the fact that there's a terrible, very awkward scene of the main character fucking a real doll). But I think this book illustrates the emptiness of nostalgia better than almost any other work. And what's worst is that it doesn't mean to.
This is relevant to what we do because, on some level, we traffic in nostalgia as well. But while we parade Marios and Fantasies Final in front of you, we never let that be the end of it.