Saturday, August 20, 2011

Ready Player One and ARMADA by Ernest Cline

Americans are good at painting themselves into corners.  We do it because we don't put any thought into an exit strategy.  We don't know when to quit.  Recall a line from the movie The Americanization of Emily in which James Garner says, "God save us from people who always do the right thing, it's the rest of us who get broken in half."  We elect politicians who get us into unwinnable wars after they campaign on the American dream--peace, prosperity, growth, empire, freedom.  Ideals we want to hear even as, once again, we get out our buckets of paint--red, white, and blue.  And we play along, ever nostalgic for a past that can never be quite the same again, as we plunge into debt.  In the futuristic adventure novel READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline, our near future is a dystopian world from which everyone wants to escape.  Clues to these cyberspace alternatives exist today, but in Cline's imagined "Oasis" a myriad of very realistic but computer-generated planets exist which millions of players plug into, since we've lost hope in the real world.  And in keeping with our obsession for game shows, the main character is on a treasure hunt for an inheritance left by an eccentric billionaire, and he must fight other players through various levels or gates, winning points by playing video games popular in the 80s, (which was the billionaire's obsession).  Wil Wheaton narrates this cross genre adventure, which is a fable at heart.  He tells Wade Watts' story as part confession, part travelogue, part social commentary.  In the end, after an exhaustive quest for keys to the imagined kingdom (something our culture also relentlessly seeks online and on TV these days), the novel suggests that happiness can only be found by returning to reality, not believing in something for nothing.  (A non-fiction companion to this novel might be REALITY IS BROKEN by Jane McGonigal.)  

Kudos to Random House for allowing something undefinable into print, and although Wade's intimate familiarity with every movie and book and game from the 80s is hard to believe, given his youth in 2044, (when does he have time to study in school?), the overall goal of the plot is simplistic enough to attract more than just those who remember the 80s fondly.  While not as literary or deep as the prose of genius writers like Neal Stephenson and William Gibson, who inspired the book, if you add Willy Wonka into the matrix, as it does--along with an always believable narrator--this is certainly entertaining and worth your time. Cline's new novel is ARMADA, which is even more exciting!


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