Wednesday 15 August 2018

On Ready Player One: You, Sir, Are No Willy Wonka

By Source, Fair use,

I've got around to reading the 2011 novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It made me angry. More than once I was tempted to throw the book against the wall, and I can't recall ever feeling that way before.

This might be unexpected, as it looks like something right up my alley. RP1 is an unabashed celebration of 1980s geekery. It is veritably stuffed with references to cult movies, roleplaying games, music, books, television, and most of all, computer games.

(For some reason, comics aren't mentioned. Maybe Cline isn't a fan. Needless to say, it's all boys' media; Jem And The Holograms doesn't rate a mention.)

I was born in 1978, loved many of these works as a kid, and still enjoy them today. I'm more than happy with modern productions depicting geeky 1980s kids (Stranger Things) or continuing series from that time (The Last Jedi). I was delighted to hear last week that Patrick Stewart is reprising his role from Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which he first appeared in 1987.

So, what's my problem?

I didn't hate this book. In fact I enjoyed it, in between the rage-inducing moments. It's an efficient and fast-paced story, told with huge enthusiasm and a certain amount of charm, and I can see why it was so highly acclaimed. But if you give a moment's thought to its premises, the whole house of cards comes crashing down.

The World of Ready Player One

To recap, with a minimum of spoilers: In 2044 the world is a polluted dystopia. Life is grim. Fortunately, people can escape into a virtual-reality simulation called the OASIS. Using visors and gloves, they can participate in a myriad of virtual worlds, from mundane schools and businesses to heroic fantasy quests.

(We are told it's a global simulation, but don't encounter anyone from outwith North America and Japan. For all we know, the rest of the world has been overrun by triffids.)

The creator of the OASIS, one James Halliday, has died. He has left his enormous fortune, along with control of the OASIS itself, to whoever first completes a series of hidden challenges within its virtual realities. Discovering and completing the tasks requires knowledge of Halliday's obsessions in 1980s geek culture, which he has listed in exhaustive detail.

The protagonist, Wade Watts, is a poor but determined young man. Armed with his wits, courage, and encyclopedic knowledge of Halliday's favourite works, he takes up the quest to win the ultimate prize. His fellow seekers may be uneasy allies, or deadly enemies. In the end, only one of them will be victorious.

In 2018, celebrating geeky obsession takes on a more sinister aspect than it had in 2011. The gatekeeping and sexism become harder to overlook. We live in a world in which female Star Wars actors have been driven off social media by angry so-called fans. Vox has a very good roundup of recent RP1 criticism, which is well worth reading.

Even on its own terms, as an escapist fantasy from a less disturbing time, RP1 is positively creepy.

I'm not attacking enthusiasm for 1980s media; that would be more than a little hypocritical. If Cline had published a non-fiction book celebrating his favourite entertainment, I wouldn't have a word to say against it. It might have looked something like 1001 Movies To See Before You Die, and its many sequels each listing 1001 books, television shows, ice cream flavours, and what have you.

Instead, Cline decided to tell a story in a fictional world. I can't help thinking of the internal logic of that world; and how it holds together, or fails to.

You, sir, are no Willy Wonka

There's an obvious parallel between RP1 and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In both of them, an eccentric businessman offers an unimaginable prize.

Here's the crucial difference: In Charlie, we start off thinking the prize is simply a visit to Willy Wonka's marvellous factory. Only at the end do we learn the truth: Wonka intends to give his factory and fortune to a chosen winner. Unknown to Charlie himself, the factory tour is a job interview, meant to test his courage, restraint, kindness, and good sense.

Halliday is testing obsessive knowledge of 1980s geek culture. They are not at all the same thing.

Much of the narrative tension in RP1 is from the risk of a Giant Evil Corporation winning the prize, and with it control of the OASIS. But this is only possible because Halliday wants it that way.

Given untold wealth and power, Halliday could fund charitable good works or scientific research. He could set up the OASIS as a non-profit foundation, run in perpetuity for the benefit of its users. Instead, the summit of his ambition is to bribe as many people as possible to watch his favourite television shows. He can't control who will win the prize; but he dies knowing that millions, even billions will make the attempt, by minutely studying every item on his list of 1001 Things To See After I Die.

In Halliday's setup, the more poor and desperate people are, the more likely they will work for a shot at the prize. Whether they might prefer to do something else doesn't occur to him.

Not everybody loves or even likes Highlander, Rush, and Pac-Man -- to take three arbitrary examples from the hundreds in RP1. Not liking these things does not make you a bad person.

Kill All Butterflies

Obsessive study kills a lot of the fun in pop culture. (As ever, the webcomic XKCD has a pithy commentary.)

For instance, Wade has memorised the script of WarGames, which stars the likeable Matthew Broderick as a computer hacker. If WarGames inspires you to become a hacker yourself, well and good. If it inspires you to watch it again and again and again, until you know the script by heart, I venture you may have missed the point.

Taking another example: At a party, one character orders Glenmorangie on the rocks, because it was ordered by the protagonist in Highlander, and downs it in one.

This is no way to treat single malt whisky, so it's a good thing it's not real. The character has never tasted the real thing, and is just miming with a virtual drink. To our protagonists, sensory experience is irrelevant. Trivia from the canon are to be collected for the sake of collecting; like so many postage stamps in an album, or dead butterflies in a glass case.

We are assured Wade and his friends are happy with their butterfly collections; but I never get the feeling they had any alternative.

The OASIS is an awesome virtual environment. Its tools of creation allow an individual to construct cities or entire planets. Surely, its billions of users have built rich and vibrant cultures online, constructed brilliant and original works of art, explored new forms of storytelling. No doubt there is a very large subculture trying to unlock Halliday's puzzles, but it can't possibly encompass all of humanity.

It's as if today, there was a huge cash prize for demonstrating knowledge of 1950s pop culture. Of course, many would try for it. This doesn't mean young people would abandon their own media in favour of Elvis Presley movies. Their grandparents' stories, however well told, are of their time and don't speak to their own experiences.

None of these possibilities are mentioned. All we see in the OASIS are Wade's bland virtual school, and retreads of 1980s media. We don't get the feeling Wade has turned his back on contemporary culture, because no such thing exists. Wade and his compatriots don't feel like real people; we are repeatedly reminded they are Cline's sock puppets, as he expounds on his own personal holy texts.

Rats In A Maze

History has taught us that people who obsess over the details of holy books are not any more moral, kind, or compassionate than the rest of us. If anything, it's often the reverse.

The same principle holds if the holy text is an arcade game. I've noted you can be a good person without knowing or liking 1980s media. The converse is also true; you can be an obsessive fan of the media, without being a good person. Winning Halliday's contest doesn't demonstrate you're a worthy individual; only that your metaphorical stamp collection is bigger and better organised than anyone else's.

This is not a new or difficult concept. In The Wizard (1989), an antagonist is a champion gamer and also a sadistic bully. In Toy Story 2 (1999), the antagonist is an obsessive toy collector, as well as being a thief and all-around bad person. An old Onion article satirised obsessive fandom, in Maybe I Can Impress Her With My Holy Grail Quotes.

In RP1, trivia knowledge and goodness are one and the same thing. The hero literally impresses the girl with his Holy Grail quotes. (And she really is The Girl, a female sock puppet offered up as a reward for completing the game.) The main antagonist is a Giant Evil Corporation which comes close to winning the prize, but only because it cheats shamelessly. The heroes are superior in knowledge because they are good; they are good because they are superior in knowledge.

Nonsense. Anyone who's spent any length of time in geek circles has met (or possibly been) That Guy: The one who's memorised every page of the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual; every line of dialogue in Monty Python and the Holy Grail; every back-issue X-Men comic; and takes this as licence to look down on everyone else. In RP1, this tendency is celebrated; in real life, it's obnoxious. All too often, RP1 felt uncomfortably like being trapped in an elevator with That Guy.

I finished the book hoping for a twist like the one in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; or for someone, anyone, to acknowledge the monstrous selfishness of Halliday's setup. I was disappointed. Like a rat in a maze, Wade overcomes challenges, but doesn't question the intentions of the maze's builder. There's a message from Halliday about leaving the OASIS to experience the real world; but it feels like an afterthought, about as substantial as a fortune cookie, and in no way integrated with the rest of the story.

RP1 tells us about immersive virtual worlds, filled with creations from much better works of fiction; but it is populated by cardboard characters, in a cardboard setting, with a cardboard understanding of morality. And this is why I had to restrain myself from throwing it at a wall.

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