Tuesday, 5 February 2013
Posted by emmetocuana at 05:37
Halliday had many well-known obsessions. Chief among them were classic videogames, sci-fi and fantasy novels, and movies of all genres. He also had an extreme fixation on the 1980s, the decade during which he'd been a teenager. Halliday seemed to expect everyone around him to share his obsessions, and he often lashed out at those who didn't.
While the Momus Report is a geek website - and I am an avowed geek, even my own father-in-law declared me one at my own wedding - a issue of concern for me is the increasing sense of entitlement within geek culture. There have been a number of recent flashpoints - the fake nerd girl brouhaha for example which succeeded the Felicia Day incident, or the death threats issued to critics of The Dark Knight Rises that wrote negative reviews - and then there was all the carping around Mass Effect 3. Fanboy entitlement is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot these days and I suspect the reason for this growing trend is because so many cult interests such as gaming, comics and genre fiction have been catapulted to a much wider audience. There's a degree of territorial concern being expressed here, which it just so happens also appears to dovetail with statements that have a certain bigoted flavour to them.
Ernest Cline's novel Ready Player One on the other hand should easily make fans across the board happy, as it relentlessly celebrates fan culture, with a particular emphasis on cult arcana from the 1980's. There's a certain bleed into 90 and Noughties culture as well (Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings films and Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels - oddly hyphenated here - get nods, not to mention Wil Wheaton and Cory Doctorow appearing as well-regarded statesman in Cline's future dystopia).
Teenage orphan Wade Owen Watts - he claims his dad was a comics fan - is trapped in a bankrupt future, enduring a long-standing Great Depression. Jobs are so scarce even fast-food outlets have year-long waiting lists for openings. Daily life is such an awful grind that around the world people jack into a virtual reality 'game' called Oasis, which provides a rich fantasy universe for participants to enjoy. The inventor of this computerized utopia, James Halliday, also provided for practical usage of the software. Virtual education is provided for young users and so Wade attends a highschool, interacts with fellow students - and even plays hookie - all from the comfort of his Oasis connection.
Upon Halliday's death a new field of study emerged - Oology, the study of easter eggs left within the game by its creator. The user - or gunter as they are known - who discovers the eggs will be awarded the prize of Oasis itself and control over the vast media empire it represents. As the story begins, Wade reveals that he is already on track to discovering the prize, before describing what led to his sudden online celebritydom - albeit under his handle of Parzival.
The appeal of Cline's book is the somewhat metafictional joke of the story introducing hundreds of its own easter eggs, with references to almost every fantasy and science fiction book, film, game or comic you could care to name. At times it feels like a novel-length adaptation of MC Frontalot's It Is Pitch Dark, except Cline then introduces a vast conspiracy launched by an evil corporation to take over Oasis. There is a moment when Parzival visits the virtual headquarters, flush with self-important resentment of the conglomerate, and it appears as if his hatred is entirely irrational. Then it is made clear that 'Innovative Online Industries' are indeed evil and quite willing to do whatever it takes to beat honest gunters like Parzival to the prize. This latter-day Charlie Bucket finds himself becoming the hero of his own story, with an eventual climax intended to represent The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny!
While Halliday's dated obsessions are embraced willingly by the future of the 2040s so that contestants in his game can understand his riddles, Cline seems averse to making satirical hay with the prospect of a perpetual 80s that is inescapable. Instead he revels in the chance to celebrate such classics as Matthew Broderick's Wargames, or Joust. There is something disturbing in this vision of a future that has given up on the real world - it is made clear that global politics have finally descended into complete irrelevance - but is fixated on Wade/Parzival's quest to save everyone from the horrible fate of having to pay through the nose for their entertainment. To offer a contrast, the novel Red Dwarf: Better Than Life has the crew of the eponymous mining ship be stuck in a virtual reality fantasy - Dave Lister, like Wade, even gets to relive his favourite film although in this instance it is Capra's It's A Wonderful Life - but the addictive 'gameplay' threatens to kill them. Whereas Wade is eventually inspired to become the fit and healthy individual he always wanted to be, as a direct result of his success in the fantasy world.
It is Cline's uncritical evocation of this wish-fulfillment fantasy that sticks in the craw. Yes this is a readable piece of escapism, but it reads more like a list of popular nerd properties than an engaging narrative. This book frequently promises to be far more interesting than it is - the set-up is one of the cleverest premises for a dystopia there can be - and yet it never delivers a truly devastating gut-punch, wittering away its momentum on the WoW-clone meets Willy Wonka conceit. Eminently disposable pulp fiction.
Labels: 1980s, Books, dystopia, Ernest Cline, fanboy entitlement, fanboys, Ready Player One, Wargames |