Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I reviewed Wintersmith yesterday.  I didn't start Ready Player One until after I finished reading Wintersmith.  So, there's my first review.  I read this book in two sittings, and only because I passed out before finishing it in the first one. This book is amazing, and the ways in which it's amazing are kind of tricky.  First of all, the 80's theme throughout a book set in 2045 was an amazing way to invest the entire story with the kind of rich, immersive culture that makes you feel like you're really in the book, but that's not something anyone could do again.  Cline spotted one of those beautiful tricks that can only be done once without coming off as cliché, writing a story in the near-future that's obsessed with the recent past.

He also avoids dipping into the solid-state utopia-or-dystopia problem of a radically different world.  The 2045 he writes is real, and it has real problems and real benefits, and the people in it genuinely experience both happiness and sadness, pleasure and suffering, in proportions that vary like they do in the real world.

It is, however, a polarized setting, and the utopia/dystopia qualities yo-yo throughout the book.

The spoilery part of the review starts below the fold.

[warning]Spoilers start here.  If you want to avoid reading any, skip to the bright yellow alert.[/warning]

The book starts out in bleak poverty, after the collapse of modern civilization in the traditional sense.  We've run out of fuel.  They call it the Global Energy Crisis, which is a term so clever and perfect that I think I'll be using it in the future.  The main character, Wade Watts, lives in the future version of a trailer park.  It's too expensive, fuel-wise, to live in suburbs, so people live in "Stacks" -- towers, sometimes over twenty-high, of trailers, supported by cheap scaffolding, right outside city centers.

Wade's parents are dead.  He lives with about twelve other people in a trailer owned by his aunt, who hates him.  His only escape is in his small hideout, a van in a junkheap where he accesses OASIS, the virtual world invented by eccentric game designer James Halliday where basically the whole world lives the functional, social part of their lives.

Inside the game world -- where Wade is a "Gunter," someone who hunts for the easter egg that is the driving macguffin[1. I call it a macguffin because it's a single object that drives the whole plot, though that might not be fair because the easter egg has a genuine purpose, being inheritance of James Halliday's entire fortune and control of OASIS.] of the book, and goes by the username Parzival -- Wade lives in apparent utopia.

But problems with the game environment emerge, too.  Limitations of travel in the artificial economy of OASIS are just as substantial as the limitations in the real world, and fairly intimately tied, because the world economy is, basically, the OASIS in-game currency.

Other issues with the world of OASIS emerge, too -- at first glance, the place is pretty white-washed, the only other race I remember being mentioned is Japanese, presumably a nod to the reality that Asian and Caucasian are the high-status races of the gaming world.  There's also classism -- Wade faces quite a lot of criticism for his use of default player skins, and he's made fun of for being low-level, since he can't get off the school-planet and back often enough to grind.

And the major antagonists of the book, IOI, the Sixers, are trying to win the easter egg to take over and corporatize OASIS.

The issues of identity dishonesty on the web aren't addressed until near the end, where it's revealed that Aech, Wade's (Parzival's) best friend on the web, and in fact at all, is not a skinny white boy, but a "fat black chick"/"young African American woman" (first Aech's self-description, then Parzival's phrase.).  She hid behind a Caucasian male persona on her mother's advice to avoid persecution, and ended up living in a Winnebago  when her mother kicked her out, when she came out of the closet as gay.

Parzival's romantic obsession with fellow Gunter Art3mis is also heavily influenced by that same fear, that she might not be what she claims to be, or look how she looks in OASIS.  In her case, it turns out to be less extreme -- though she obviously has huge insecurities about it, she looks almost exactly like her avatar, except that she has port-wine stain birthmarks across one side of her face.

It's hard to say what kind of conclusions to draw about those issues as they're raised in the book.  It's obvious that superficial qualities have negatively impacted both Aech and Art3mis's lives, and they're able to reduce the effect of those prejudices on OASIS.  It's also true that Parzival forms strong relationships with people he might have found physically offputting thanks to OASIS.  But there's something deeply troubling about the idea that the solution to racism, sexism, and body shame is to make all your acquaintanceships in a virtual space where you can pretend to be "Normal."

Fortunately, Cline doesn't try to present it that way.  The book doesn't come off like he thinks that masking your identity in OASIS is an ideal solution to those issues, he only cops to the reality that it's what people would do.  (And, indeed, what they are doing -- many female gamers pretend to be male in order to avoid sexual harassment online.  I don't know about the prevalence of masking one's race, but I wouldn't be surprised if that were common, either.)

Finally, the "Big lesson" of the book, hinted at all the way through then finally said aloud by Halliday's digital recording of himself when delivering the prize:

"[...] [A]s terrifying and painful as reality can be, it's also the only place where you can find true happiness.  Because reality is real.  [...]"

I accept that it's the right thing to say in the book, because obviously OASIS, with all its advanced visuals and haptic feedback, isn't good enough to outdo the sensory experience of reality.  But the idea that reality is more real than the simulations has always bugged me.

Our brains don't give a crap how "Real" the input they get is.  Reality is a mostly-empty fog with quarks and bosons flying all over the place.  OASIS was just as close to an accurate view of the universe as our natural perception is.  Or, if it's farther off, it's not by a meaningful degree.

The thing that matters about finding happiness is your ability to connect with other people.  Because of the trust issues and limitations of the game structure, that might not be easy in OASIS, so the real world might be better.  But it's not the tangibility of our lunch or our curtains that make life meaningful.  It's the relationships we have with each other, and OASIS wasn't a one-player game.  It was an MMO, and as far as I'm concerned, that's the meaningful bit.

[notice]Spoilers are now over.[/notice]

Ultimately I think Ready Player One is an excellent book, and I recommend owning it, and reading it, and thinking carefully about its lessons about love, friendship, integrity, and the future of humankind.

I give it a 5/5, which I realize seems to be what I give most books.  I need to start reading crappier books.