Ready Player 1 (Book review)

Having occasion to do much driving recently, upon a recommendation I listened to this as an audiobook. For those who prefer brevity I will answer the question “Was this book good?” No. I doubt this is very surprising to anyone who would come to my site, and not to me either to be honest. I didn’t expect much from it, and did not get much. It passed some time fairly enough and I do not feel regret from the wasted time. I had it to waste. But I can’t say I would recommend anyone else engage the book unless they have an extreme amount of boredom to kill. I will not be looking into the sequel, which perhaps best suggests my attitude.

Generally bad is that just referencing 80s pop culture constantly doesn’t make a good story. I guess the idea is to strum the strings of nostalgia for Gen Xers and perhaps stoke the excitement of the synthwave crowd. I suppose this strategy worked well considering the relative success of the novel. The mass man is an easily manipulated fool. Gen x has been at the height of their expected lifetime accumulated wealth for the last decade or so in which this story has had its limited relevancy. It was apropos of the author to have his cynical and successful take on who had money and might be willing to part with it for dumb reasons during the 20 teens.

The reference bait was mostly tolerable except every now and again it was just lists of references without any substantial in-context, that is in-story, reason. “I liked transformers, he-man, and tmnt. I liked gundam, su-pi-da man, and whatever.” Literally just like that and it goes on for paragraphs. There were regular references throughout, but this egregiousness occurred several times to my exasperation. It was annoying. And terrible writing.

It overall felt pretty cliched. Villains’ were 1 dimensional Snidely Whiplashes. Well, there was only 1 villain character that generously might be called an actual character. He doesn’t get much screen time as it were so is barely developed. He has just barely enough development to fill the “antagonist” hole and not much else. He is more of a vague representation of a boogeyman than a person. Though scarcely to be believed, he also has an army of even less developed mooks to order around. The most we find out about them is what their uniform looks like.

The world has run out of fossil fuels in 2045 and fascist (that is authoritarian) and ruthless corporations basically do whatever they want and whom our main antagonist functionally represents. His name is Sorrento, but that hardly matters. For some unspecified reason, most of humanity has migrated to the outskirts of cities into makeshift stacks of RVs and shipping containers instead of spreading out and returning to farming as would be more logical. In these cramped and desperate conditions, the masses have become addicted to a virtual reality simulation called the oasis which provides an escape from the bleak surroundings in reality.

The oasis is a sort of expanded internet which blurs the line between gaming, commerce, town square interactions and pretty much any other aspect of human life. This VR was invented by a man named James Halliday, a gen Xer whose most formative years occurred in the 1980s. As an autistic recluse, he was a weird guy with no family or children and decided to make the gaining of his inheritance an elaborate game. Basically, you have to become an expert on all he was interested in and decipher cryptic clues. This means 1980s culture. Mostly obscure, but a few popular movies are added in for variety. If you jump all the hurdles before anyone else you get his inheritance which is a lot of money and a controlling number of stocks in the company which runs the oasis. The most profitable and expansive company in the world due to the oasis being the only relief to a dismal life. If I recall correctly, this is where the movie and book diverge most severely. The movie wasn’t very good either and I didn’t watch it again for this review, but they were correct in thinking watching someone playing a pixelated arcade cabinet game wouldn’t be very interesting for the mass man.

The story, such as it is, follows the protagonist Wade Watts, Screenname Parzival, as he adventures through VR, 1980s references, and real world death threats from mega-corps as he attempts to unravel the mystery of Halliday’s game and win a lot of money and stocks. Anyone could potentially win this, including Sorrento and the evil mega ISP he represents so its a matter of beating them to the punch. Watts makes some friends along the way of this journey which introduces all the other characters. Spoiler alert: he wins it. The barely a character Sorrento also gets a bit of comeuppance. Maybe. Its implied talmudic lawyers will get him off without much consequence which may be the most grounded part of the whole book.

Though there was a couple of SJW things, the thing that really stood out was making H or “aech,” the protagonists closest closeted friend, a black lesbian and the lecture we got about how she pretended be a white man cause ma racis nonsense. Besides the fact that fictional characters will never actually make obscure minorities good at coding or whatever since intelligence is primarily genetic, in real life when that kind of anonymity is available these sorts of people go well out of their way to get their special treatment back by announcing all their aggrieved identities. Being treated like a white man means an expectation of rationality and competence, and these groups don’t like having to live up to those high standards. Presented with the opportunity of anonymity and actual standards, they rush to proclaim their identities and gain their lower standards back. See previous link for more detail.

That said, I must give credit to the author. This obviously cynical novel was meant to milk money out of nostalgic Xers. A token reference to progressive politics was perhaps needed to get past all the spiritual HR cat ladies and achieve success. It did this fairly minimally, just enough to satisfy the true believers so they would leave him alone and not so much that a sane person couldn’t ignore it for a short time. I can at least respect the acumen of a cynic; I can’t respect the insanity of a true believer. The author Ernest cline spent a few paragraphs to disparage pedophiles so he isn’t all bad.

The greatest potential of the novel would probably have been the exploration of the growing isolation and alienation in our culture. The growing lack of community we all feel as the programming and conditioning takes effect and makes us distrust and dislike our neighbors. The loneliness that is only magnified by growing mass of individuals which surround us but who are unlike us and thus share little in common. Alone in the mass of man, as ironic as it is despairing. As in the novel, in real life more and more people are retreating to the internet to salve the isolation they feel. I can’t say I myself am immune to this phenomenon. Yet this potential was not met. A few paragraphs in the late middle and a few sentences at the very end address it. So not much. Overall this falls very flat as a consequence of needing to (attempt) to make the world seem interesting to the reader. Its difficult to spill volumes of ink making your world interesting, and then after that say “oh, by the way this is a shitty world” and have a significant impact however true that might be. There were conflicting intentions and the financial interest of being more interesting (loose interpretation) was selected. As I said, I can respect a cynic and shooting straight for the goal of financial success and achieving it deserves a mild respect. An author who had aimed for profoundness would have been profound and unheard. I know this as well as anyone.

This reminds of a passage mentioned in my moldbug’s onion article from “odyssey of a liberal”:

No doubt one gets what one wants most in life if one tries hard enough, but one cannot have everything. The cost of freedom comes high and one cannot expect to enjoy it, least of all in the world of letters, if one desires fame or security more. Of course, one always goes on hoping to enjoy both. There have been times when I railed against my fate and considered myself ill-used because the world failed to award me fame, fortune or influence and I found myself reviled for expressing my deepest convictions regardless of the consequences. On one such occasion Edith Hamilton, who died in her 94th year in full possession of her faculties, gently reproved me for feeling sorry for myself following the failure of my 1949 book. The High Cost of Vengeance to win a wide circulation. “My dear Freda,” she said, “don’t expect the material rewards of unrighteousness while engaged in the pursuit of truth.” Nevertheless I often did, continuing to yearn for the success which I occasionally glimpsed but never quite achieved. Even when one of my books was a success I went off on another quest.

The only goal of our protagonist is to get a lot of money. And indeed, that was the only goal of writing and publishing this novel. It is in fact rather appropriate. The theme of the novel matches the goal of the author. Is it good writing? It is not profound, and thus useless to any higher minded individual. We learn nothing of the value of community and in-person interactions despite a feeble effort in that direction. There is no food for the soul here. No lesson to be taken with us. But the book is effective in its goal, however unworthy. In a way its very honest about what it wants to do. What it wants to do is absolute shite, but its honest about it. I can respect it to a certain degree. But its impossible to walk away with any other idea than “this is trash.” I respect this trash, its trash that parted retarded gen Xers from their money. And they fell for it. There is an effeteness and understanding there that can only be seen by looking between the lines.

Lastly, I will say that the narrator for the audiobook was Wil Wheaton. The oft unfairly maligned actor who portrayed Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next generation. The character of Wesley Crusher, being an attempt to portray the idea of the indigo child to the mass man, was massively flubbed. Maybe it couldn’t have been any other way. Regardless, the child Wil Wheaton is not responsible to any great extent tfor he character he was asked to portray in that series. The adults around him wrote the scripts and directed his actions. If they did it poorly it wasn’t his personal fault. Though the material, that is the book ready player one, he worked with was quite poor, his reading of it was absolutely excellent.

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