Remember when I said that we had a power outage the other week and I read three books in two days? It was freakin’ fantastic. Like a vacation for my brain. Or the universe screaming “Write, monkey, write! More! Now! Better!” Alright, alright. Chill out, universe. Go snack on a galaxy or something. Jeez. So, I read Redshirts, American Splendor, and Ready Player One. I’ll talk about them all eventually (and probably soon – it’s a bookblogstravaganza!), but Ready Player One seems to be nibbling the most at my lit crit buttons so it gets to go first.
So much good weirdness going on here. Ernest Cline is a badass, a nerd ninja, if you will. I’ve had this book on my monstrous to-read list for a long time, but since I usually buy used books at an actual store full of used books, my options are somewhat limited. But then I was visited in the night by the Hey Good Job on Paying Off That Old Debt Fairy who brought me, wonder of wonders, an extra fifty bucks. Which I promptly blew online. Yes, I bought books online. I don’t feel great about it, but what’s done is done. I’m killing the brick-and-mortar bookstores. I’m a horrible person. Flagellation accomplished. Can we move on?
You know how sometimes the evil marketing imps put a scene on a poster or in a trailer for a movie and when you watch the movie you’re waiting for that scene to happen? It’s not spoilery, exactly, but it sets a tone, perhaps, or takes you out of your watching experience? This is the first time that this has happened to me with a book jacket blurb. (My telling you this is not spoiling anything, by the way. It’s right there above the title of the book.) “Willy Wonka meets The Matrix,” it said. And that’s accurate, I couldn’t have put it better myself, but it definitely made me read the first few chapters in a certain light. Because I know both of those stories really well, and was kind of waiting to see which aspects of what story would come out first or be most important. Once I got the feel of it, though, and understood what was going on in this world, shit got awesome. I finished the book in about eight hours. Couldn’t put it down.
Obligatory brief rundown (and here’s where I might get spoilery): It’s a near-future America where everyone has basically abandoned any effort at living a normal, productive life in favor of spending all their money, energy, and time in a virtual reality system. The system started out as a gaming platform and then grew to include schools, jobs, and every other kind of entertainment imaginable. Meanwhile, the real world has become a sort of peri-apocalyptic hellhole, with people getting killed over electricity and wifi connections and whatnot. The gentleman who created the virtual world dies, and upon his death announces a contest. The winner will inherit all of his vast wealth, ownership of his company, and control of the entire system. Here’s the cool bit, though: the contest is a search for three keys that unlock three doors inside the virtual reality, but to get to them people have to solve intricate puzzles which are based on 1980s pop culture (because that was when the guy grew up, and it requires an intimate knowledge of all that stuff and his love of it – brilliant). The story follows a young gamer kid and his band of cyber buddies as they try to solve the puzzles and win the prize before a huge, evil conglomerate does. Because if the corporate scumfucks win they’ll turn the virtual universe into an expensive, advertising-riddled, commercialist/consumerist nightmare (like what would happen if someone like Google took over something like World of Warcraft, for example). A somewhat stretched analogy: what if, upon finding out that he was dying of cancer, Steve Jobs had willed the entire Apple fortune and control of the whole internet to whatever geek knew the most about the 1960s? Don’t you think one of his competitors would be all over that shit? Or some other horrible entity that wanted that kind of power? Like the U.S. government? Or Koch Industries? Monsanto? This is what we’re dealing with here. Good and evil. And pop culture trivia.
Here’s what I really love about this book: it’s pretty much a chivalric story, right? Good Guys versus Bad Guys on a quest, and righteousness triumphing over evil in the face of adversity. But with Atari games and what appears to be an unhealthy knowledge of the band Rush. A story for our times, in a retro-futuristic kind of way. I think I talked about this a bit in my Patton Oswalt post, but there’s a generation gap among nerds that’s pretty distinct: pre- versus post-digital age nerdism. People who grew up in the 1980s had to really work for their obsessions. They bootlegged VHS and cassette tapes, heard about books and comics through word of mouth, and had to blow dust out of their Nintendo cartridges (or, horror of horrors, stand for hours in front of an arcade game). Life was hard for the 80s nerd. They had to, like, find real objects to enjoy. In the world. With their hands and human interaction. Then there was the transitional phase during my generation’s adolescence. The advent of cell phones, mp3s, email, practical laptops, online dating, MMORPGs, etc. And now there’s this whole new generation of twerps who learn to type before they learn how to properly write and consider Wikipedia primary source material and would have a nervous breakdown if they lost their Adderall or their smartphone. These people have never lived in a world where Kurt Cobain was alive. And they can vote. Just take a second and wrap your brain around that fun little fact, folks.
Gaming has played a huge part in this particular generation gap. It’s one of the places where our technological advances are most quickly brought to bear. So it’s appropriate that Cline would use gaming as the forum for this kind of old nerd/new nerd struggle. It’s something that both generations have in common, even though they’re vastly different things. Like a tank operator with missiles and shit at his disposal studying medieval weaponry, sort of. But here’s my real question about this aspect of the book: why work so hard to improve the quality of life inside the gaming universe when the quality of life in the real world is shit? It does come up, when the main character is told that he should use the vast resources that he might win to feed and house real, live, human people. But does altruism necessarily beget altruism? Do the poor and the hungry, despite their sympathy for the other poor and hungry, hesitate to give to others because they need everything that they have? Do the wealthy give to every bullshit cause without doing research on what their money actually does? I think the answer to all of these is assuredly “yes.” I know that when I’m at my brokest is when I most regret not being able to donate to things that I believe in. Sorry, NPR. Sorry, Humane Society. Sorry, Heifer International. But it is what it is. Should I suddenly become vastly wealthy, I would pay off all my debt and then give a bunch of money away, for sure. Meanwhile, that spare ten bucks that I could give to NPR is going to go for books right now. Because escapism is important. And I think that might play a big part in the ethical conundrum of this book. The virtual reality raised these people. Literally. They went to school and met their friends and lived and breathed this world so completely that its destruction would be worse than bombing the homes where their bodies live. They want to maintain its integrity not so that they have a place to escape reality, but because it is their reality. Where you or I could look at certain gaming or internet addicts and say that they walk a fine line between their online life and their real one, Cline’s characters have no line at all.
Which is weirdly tied in with all the pop culture references here, too. When does “pop culture” become “culture”? Books, movies, comics, music, games. Are these as important as politics, religion, war, babies, sickness, love, and death? Maybe not, in an I-need-this-to-survive kind of way. But they’re no less real. Even the most primitive of historical cultures found a way to sing a song or slap a stick-figure mammoth on a wall. Art may not be “real” but it is, absolutely and without question, “important.” Having said that, do I think that WarGames is as important a film as, say, Pulp Fiction to our cultural history? No. But it could be argued that Pulp Fiction isn’t as important as Casablanca or Nosferatu. Perspective is key in these discussions of what matters. Even more key? Passion. Obsession. Absorption. Just because something is widely considered crap, doesn’t mean that it won’t have a powerful and meaningful impact on the next artist who creates something that drastically changes our whole outlook as a race. Hitler was a Wagner fan, for fuck’s sake. There’s no accounting for taste. And when knowing the right movie line for line can change the world? We’re all going to be glad that some dude has the nerd brain to have memorized that movie.
The nerd brain is a powerful tool. (You don’t have to be an overt geek to have a nerd brain. Just follow me for a minute.) It’s all about intellectualizing the things that are important to you. Whether that be politics or science or comics or music. Or all of the above. Are you a total jock who obsessively follows the statistics of all your favorite sports teams? Guess what? You’ve got the nerd brain. You do math, whether you realize you’re doing math or not. Do you know every aspect of American history and politics and economics backwards and forwards? Nerd brain. Memorization and obsession and synthesis of disparate ideas. That’s all that the nerd brain is. Whether we train it on time travel according to Einstein or according to Doctor Who is completely irrelevant. But use your power for good and not for evil, is all I’m saying. Obsessive love can create the most amazing art, science, math, athlete, whatever. I think that’s really the main point of Ready Player One. It’s not a by-gamers-for-gamers kind of book. It’s about total immersion in a set of ideas, and using those ideas to build newer, better ones. What more can we ask of each other? Well played, Ernest Cline. (See what I did there?)