Thursday, November 24, 2011

Ready for Easter Eggs

[No major spoilers up front; I will warn you later when I head into spoiler territory so be cautious if skip-reading ahead]

In high school I went on a road trip with my D&D cadre of friends to the 13th Gen-Con (founded by Gary Gygax) when it was in Racine, Wisconsin. Yes, Gary Gygax was there and we heard him speak (I realize this means nothing to most people). We also discovered that the way most people played D&D sucked compared to the way we played it at home. I later found this suck way of playing to be endemic across lots of role-playing games, even up through the 90's when I'd drop in on them occasionally.

But I was not part of that group of friends and acquaintances exclusively, which itself did not fit the cliché at all – football players, straight-laced straight-A kids that were also relatively skilled at hitting on their female counterparts at nightclubs, a bit of juvenile delinquency here and there, Bob-Marley-cassette-toting-weightlifting-vegetarians-in-man-sandals, preacher’s sons, aspiring photographers, talented soccer players (when soccer wasn’t popular), you name it. But I was never wholly in any one niche at that age; rather I had one foot in all of the cliques to one degree or the other.

This man-without-a-country tendency only grew as I moved on from high school though I gravitated for the most part to the fresh textures, raw energy and the wonderful spectacle of the non-mainstream. To me music in the 80’s was much more about Black Flag, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Minor Threat, the Cocteau Twins, Big Black, Sonic Youth, Nick Cave, The Chills, and Brian Eno as it was any of the 80’s musical references made in the book (I can’t even remember the references in the book because most of the names didn’t ring a bell, though the songs themselves irritatingly did once I YouTubed them).

Rush 2112 is different for me though because it and Rush in general is set squarely in the 1970’s for me. I first heard more of Rush than just the radio hits like "Fly By Night" at a friend's house in junior high after a late guitar jam session when he popped the 8-track for "Hemispheres" in as we crashed on the couch and drifted away to that ethereal album. Later, I not only listened to my vinyl copy of Rush 2112 over and over (and had the poster from the album on my wall along with Einstein in a hammock), I actually saw Rush live on the supporting tour for that album. Ouch. Worse still, I can actually play most of the riffs and chords to 2112, excepting the amazing odd-ball meter guitar solos of course. However, I quit listening in 1981 except for what I heard on the radio now and then – Rush had become big enough to be mainstream and so it fell off my everyday cultural radar at that age.

I felt similarly about the TV and cinematic references – he hits the obvious movies but since I did not own a TV for a good chunk of the 80’s all of the TV references went over my head – yes, having never seen a full episode of Family Ties or Eight Is Enough I apparently mix them up and I had no idea Michael J. Fox was known early on for anything other than his role in the Back to the Future movie trilogy. However, I did watch Twin Peaks live, episode by episode at a friend’s house, and to me that is as much a vital part of that era of TV as any of the standard references but then again Twin Peaks hit in 1990, right when Nirvana still seemed ground-breaking and before Teen Spirit came out and heralded the end of the 80’s for good..

So I’m voicing a complaint here about the incongruity of 80’s musical geekdom depth to the game and lit geekdom depth, which itself runs adequately deep for my tastes (or is my rancor on the musical and TV selection of focus just radical subjectivism on my part, Bananasuit?). It can’t be easily answered by emphasizing the “pop” part of the cultural reference frenzy, as the depth of gaming attribution is anything but surface-level.

And that minor complaint leads to a major observation that I am recusing myself from tackling: How in the world does this book read to anyone not already familiar with late 70’s and 80’s American generally-middle class pop culture? It relates to the age-old tension between the philosophical poles of decreeing that art must stand on its own versus that it must be evaluated in the context of its time and place: Putting aside for a moment whether this is a work of art or not, for anyone that knows this cultural era, Cline’s book really forces one down towards the context-weighted end of that spectrum in strong Duke Nukem 3D fashion.

This problem is actually woven into the storyline of Ready Player One itself, where he contrives a social and ultimately economic obsession with 80’s culture as the explanatory mechanism for why so many people would be interested and able to participate in this Willy Wonka style quest for geek glory and riches. I have tried to imagine that I know nothing of this era and how the story would read but I simply can’t do it. I mention some specifics in the self-indulgent post script below. But I don’t have time to play with myself right now. Sorry, had to get more Duke Nukem into this discussion.

Which leads me to my bottom-line review of Ready Player One, including spoiler material, and wherein I explain how I found it a light-weight romp that was thoroughly enjoyable from chapter two all the way through to the last page. It was like watching True Blood - not on par with say, The Wire, but still a guilty pleasure indeed. The title of the book says it all. “Ready Player One” is what blinks at you in the most classic of early video and arcade games as you ready yourself for another run at it. Reading this book is like playing a game. Many readers I've polled say they like the first half better and then are disappointed in the wasted story potential in the second half. But to me it was like playing out the game to the end - and of course Wade is going to triumph over the dark cynical competing interests and of course the unsung hero gets the girl and saves the planet - what kind of a loving homage to the game experience would it be if it were otherwise? I'd fallen in crush with Art3mis by the end myself!

I can’t help but singling out one scene (the prize-winner though being the playing-Joust-with-a-liche scene in a D&D module that my group actually played through at one point!) that didn’t overtly mention a specific game reference but which strongly triggered a game memory for me. It is the floating club scene in chapter 18 where then-celebrities Wade and Art3mis attend the Ogden Morrow 80’s Dance Party at the Distracted Globe. The description of the scene with the suspended DJ pod at the center establishes the feel of it and then the ensuing combat action immediately invoked in me strong sense memories of hours spent playing the video game Descent, though I had to search for the title online since I couldn’t even remember it and it wasn’t mentioned. If any of you played that game about flying spaceships on a remote mining colony with six degrees of control (unheard of at the time and difficult to get the hang of at first but creating a truly liberating feeling once mastered), re-read that chapter and see if there isn’t some resonance there.

As far as the issue of moralizing at the end about “you kids oughtta get outside in the real world and PLAY!” (something I feel strongly about in RL, actually), any preaching on valuing real life rather than playing games would seem like a silly and unnecessary plug-in to this light work but even that aspect struck me as more an indulgent game-play narrative related to getting the girl (and a positive relationship) in the ultimate sense at the end (in real, not just virtual, life) than it did any real finger-wagging, so for me it fit right into the obligatory warm-glow-of-success ending duties - the equivalent of the never-ending hobbit-hugging scene at the end of the Lords of the Ring movies - and I didn't really notice it much or take it seriously. After all, the kid that was supposed to win against all odds had just won the all-time high score – and the kids that were collectively supposed to win against all odds all won, including, again, in reality, not just in the quest, which itself is the ultimate Easter egg I suppose.

While I went into it with a chip on my shoulder and was feeling nothing but disparaging towards it as other readers began to comment on how much fun it was even during the introduction, once I began to view the book as an offering to immerse myself in a video role-playing game extravaganza, I didn’t bother to compare it to the predictive fantastic imaginings of Gibson or Donaldson – those are real science fiction; this is not. But there is enough of a framework there to hang the game questiness on and allow the American pop culture love to shine through in spades and he provided enough hooks for those of us that are culturally predisposed to dive in for the campy ride.



Ready Player One is bizarre in its effect that I assume makes anyone who was young in the late 70's into early 80's feel like a secret club member in one way or the other. Other than the general ensnaring like recognizing video games we played back then or music or movies or TV from the era, here are just a few of the pre-existing specific hooks it leveraged in me as best I can recall:

  • I had not literally seen "TRS-80" in print in decades when I first read it in the introduction. A voice in my head blurted out "the Trash 80!". I discredited the author at that point for not being aware of the popular bastardization of it but lo and behold it is not only mentioned later in the book but plays a role in plot development.
  • I remember using BBS's, Gopher, Lynx, FidoNet, IRC, etc. and the exciting leaps forward in baud rates on dial-up modems, getting bounced offline when a roommate picked up the line to make a call in the middle of a game or download, so forth. Social media has been around forever; it's just that it's far easier to use nowadays and you don't have to actually use your mind to create the visuals. Curmudgeonliness acknowledged.
  • Not only did I used to play D&D for a short stint in high school but in fact for a while I was a DM (no, not a Direct Message). I later sampled Vampire and others, but it wasn’t quite the same.
  • I remember lining up quarters on the metal band across the marquis on arcade games (similar to stacking quarters on a pool table) and also walking through an arcade glancing at lines of quarters to estimate wait times on various machines.
  • I used to watch Ultraman during the early years of grade school in the afternoons when it was on; we used to play Ultraman outside on the playground and argue about who had the beta-capsule and if Ultraman's red warning light had started blinking yet.

As I read through the book, I increasingly enjoyed the orchestrated feeling of belonging to a secret club - I got so many of the references and details it's frightening. I thought I'd successfully repressed most memories from that era. Cline pulled strings like a master puppeteer throughout.

A final comment on the power of gaming - when I was in Santa Monica recently (I'd never been there in my life) the people that were driving the car said "Oh you have to check out the boardwalk and pier while you are here; it's such an icon" and we turned onto Santa Monica Blvd several blocks uphill from the pier and when I saw it stretched out into the ocean with the carnival rides silhouetted in the afternoon sea glare I got the strangest feeling. We drove down and onto the pier and I heard the click-clack click-clack under the wheels and took in more detail and I got a powerful sense of deja vu until it suddenly hit me that I knew this place because I had played a virtual version of it for untold hours in "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas", running through both mandatory scenarios as well as just free-world playing, on everything from cars to motorcycles to bicycles to walking and running. All of this virtual game play and it was positively uncanny how real my memories felt when I encountered the physical location years later. Maybe someday we all really will have haptic gloves and headsets.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Hey, That's Racist!

[Serious spoilers, salty language]

Let me start out by setting something straight. For the record: I really love Ready Player One. This in spite of the fact that I typically go for the same navel-gazing fare that makes bookish bastards like Nog swoon. I don't play videogames. I grew up in the 80s, but fuck if I know much about retro gaming culture. Yet there's something irresistible about Cline's exuberant, dungeon-masterly hero quest, and I loved it til the bitter end.

But Ernest Cline: what the fuck? In the book's last 50 pages, the four characters who've known each other virtually in the OASIS finally meet each other IRL. We learn that Art3mis is beautiful although insecure (we'll discuss that over beers at the Tap). Shoto is the token Asian non-character whose token Asian buddy gets rubbed out halfway through. Or is that Daito? Nevermind, doesn't matter.

And then there's Aech. Let's revisit the scene:
"A heavy set African American girl sat in the RV's driver seat, clutching the wheel tightly and staring straight ahead. She was about my age, with short, kinky hair and chocolate colored skin that appeared irridescent in the soft glow of the dashboard indicators. She was wearing a vintage Rush 2112 concert T-shirt, and the numbers were warped around her large bosom."

OK, so she's got big breasts. And she's also a lesbian, by the way. Whatever. Fast forward to Wade's reaction:
"A wave of emotion swept over me. Shock gave way to a sense of betrayal. How could he -- she -- deceive me all these years? I felt my face flush with embarrassment as I remembered all of the adolescent intimacies I'd shared with Aech. A person I'd trusted implicitly. Someone I thought I knew."

So what's the most egregious sin here: that Aech "lied" about being a girl, or that she "lied" about being black? Both clearly cross a line for Wade, who lives within a privileged framework that gender and race are fundamental aspects of personhood, and that to perform a gender or race other than those you were assigned at birth is tantamount to betrayal. How convenient for Wade, who just happened to be assigned "white male" in the being born lottery.

But oh my god, this is the fucking virtual OASIS! With wizards and cat people and shit! Haptic suits!! Let's remember that Shoto and Daito look nothing like their avatars, but no big deal. Meanwhile, Wade's panties are in a monumental twist just because his best friend is missing a certain manly appendage and tweaked her RGB.

Wade defines and inscribes Aech with the attributes "fat" "black" "lesbian" "chick" because he's invested in the privileged heteronormative assumption that it's "regular" to be a skinny white straight dude. Thanks, Robinson Crusoe. Meanwhile, Aech represents all that is opposite or "other" -- the transient dark enigma that's somehow subverted the IOI's panoptic gaze.

But then Wade decides he's cool with it. 'It's OK dudes, I've got African American friends.' Ultimately, Wade has an enlightened epiphany that allows him to understand why Aech would want to perform white maleness in a Virtual. Fucking. Reality:
"In [Aech's mother's] opinion, the OASIS was the best thing that had ever happened to women and people of color. From the very start, she had used a male white avatar to conduct all of her online business, because of the marked difference it made in how she was treated and the opportunities she was given."

Oh, really. Because at the end of the day, we'd all just be so lucky to pass as straight white men. Nevermind black power, second wave feminism, the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.... the practice of radical subjectivity. Nope, Wade's so right: we'd rather just assimilate and pretend we're all bros. #bitch #please.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Nick Examines One Page

In my copy of Ready Player One, I think page 194 perfectly sums up the entire book. There's an excerpt from Anorak's Almanac - as a matter of fact, it's the only full excerpt from Halliday's journals, and it's about whacking it:
"AA 241:87--I would argue that masturbation is the human animal's most important adaptation. The very cornerstone of our technological civilization. Our hands evolved to grip tools, all right--including our own."

It goes on for another quarter-page, but I think you get the drift. And, when you consider it coupled with the umpteenth instance of reference explanation below (explaining the specifics behind Wade's choice of "Max" as his system agent software), it's the whole book in microcosm. It's a condescending, detailed breakdown of what any reference means -- essentially, masturbation via words.

It fits in with the book as a whole -- namely, that the gunters are super-obsessive people prone to one-upmanship and proving that they know more than the next -- but the unfortunate side effect of all this is to end up with a book that, ultimately, has more in common with fan fiction than anything else.

There are parts of this book (the final assault, specifically) that bear an uncanny likeness to the material offered up as part of Fan Fiction Friday over at Topless Robot (minus the face-melting, mind-raping sexual perversity). Is Cline just a fanboy who got lucky with a book that shows how much he knows about Rush's 2112, or is Ready Player One about the triumph of knowledge over power?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Bananasuit, a Lowly Level 3 With No XP, has Found Her Favorite Quote

"I watched a lot of YouTube videos of cute geeky girls playing '80s cover tunes on ukeleles. Technically, this wasn't part of my research, but I had a serious cute-geeky-girls-playing-ukeleles fetish that I can neither explain nor defend." - p 60ish

What would a great book be without some kind of weird girl fetish, am I right? Ukeleles = totally crushworthy. And now, back to the Liches and Mayan doomsday prophecies.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Nick Logs On, Draws Comparisons

Ready Player One is not the first book to explore the idea of virutal reality as a place to escape the monotony of real life. Neal Stephenson did it with a sense of futuristic, Gibsonesque flair in Snowcrash -- a book which only serves to make his later name-dropping, "look how fucking clever I am" works like the Baroque trilogy seem like exercises in forced cleverness. However, while Snowcrash certainly pioneered the idea of the avatar and online persona, it's a little dievergent from what reality would end up being, as lead character Hiro Protagonist (best name ever? possibly) is just as much an impressive, katana--wielding badass in real life as he is in the digital world.

A more apt comparison would be Bruce Bethke's Headcrash. That work, published three years after Stephenson's, also deals in the realm of avatars and Internet escapism, but certainly more accurately mirrors the reality that would come to be online identity. Jack is an IT guy in St. Paul who likes "Weird Al" and model rockets, but online, is the hacker god MAX_KOOL. The concept of taking the anonymity of the Internet and using it to one's social advantage has been set, and we're off and running.

Cline's book obviously owes a massive debt to geek lit the world over. All those footnotes in the introduction? Totally swiped from Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. It's also continuing the Headcrash comparison, jam-packed as that book is with asides in the form of pop-up-like infonuggets.

Unfortunately, all of the authors/books I've name-dropped thus far have much better sense of humor. Ready Player One is perfectly suited for PBR Book Club, in that the references are more in the vein of clever and smart, rather than funny and witty. This is a book that's desperate to show off that it knows more than you, rather than you marveling at how great it is that you get the references therein.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Richard Completes Level One, Retains Top Spot on Scoreboard

[Minor spoilers]

Halfway through and I'm still enjoying the hell out of Cline's book. If it were solely up to me, PBR Book Club would probably read nothing but ponderous, postmodern navel-gazers, but there's something to be said for a book with momentum (and a quest tale, no less). Thanks, Abby! If ever there's a good time for more folks to join PBR Book Club, it's probably now, since the next two months have been officially dedicated (I think) to Murakami's 900 pager IQ84, which should also be fun, but time-intensive and heavy as a son-of-a-bitch.

Abby's prior post suggests that, despite her enjoyment, Cline's book (at least early on) is largely a mish-mash of sci-fi ideas we've seen everywhere from William Gibson to Tron, combined with a truly impressive command of 80's pop culture. I tend to agree, although I think the recycled nature of the material correlates with the subject matter in clever ways. Since the novel's virtual world, "The OASIS," largely consists of recycled 80's geek culture, it makes sense that Cline would simply borrow from the "canon" to tell his tale (I love the way the characters modify the usage of the word "canon" to refer to any of OASIS-creator Halliday's obsessions, no matter the quality or obscurity: even Ladyhawke can become "canon").

Cline is interested in the deep layers of pop culture embedded in a fan's mind, the ways that a movie memory might trigger a magazine or a video game image, so certain descriptions that may seem, at first, too clogged with references nonetheless enhance his vision. Look at this passage from Wade's arcade Joust tournament (versus an "undead lich!"):

"It suddenly occurred to me just how absurd this scene was: a guy wearing a suit of armor, standing next to an undead king, both hunched over the controls of a classic arcade game." If the passage stopped there, it would seem to be a completely unecessary bit of description: surely we already recognize the absurdity! But it stretches on for one beat longer: "It was the sort of surreal image you'd expect to see on the cover of an old issue of Heavy Metal or Dragon magazine." Even though Wade's virtual OASIS adventures approximate "reality," his mind drifts out of the virtual moment, back into the kinds of images that led him to seek out this world in the first place.

A favorite quote:

"Overall, she seemed to be going for a sort of mid-80's postapocalyptic sci-fi girl-next-door look. And it was working for me, in a big way. In a word: hot."

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Level One: Abby's Honeymoon Phase

Oh man.

50 pages in, and I’m already in love. This may sound a little premature. It is. I have a terrible habit of basing relationships on a shared ability to geek out over stuff like Discworld and the filmography of Rutger Hauer. Those relationships, however, tend to stay shallow and die out fast. I’m really hoping that won’t happen here.

I can’t help but admire what Ernest Cline’s doing here. As far as cultural reference-dropping in books goes, it’s a hard thing to do well. The only other writer I can think of who does it as much as Cline is Brian K. Vaughn. In Vaughn’s case, those references get old fast, because they don’t usually have anything to do with the main story, and really distract from the main action. You like “Miller’s Crossing,” Brian, I get it. You’re cool. Now quit. But in the case of “Ready Player One,” Cline’s managed to make those references something that actually propels the plot forward, and informs us about the inner lives of the characters. There’s a whole two-page argument about “Ladyhawke” in here (more words than I’ve ever seen dedicated to that movie, even in real-life conversation), and not only is it fun to read, it seems like a believable conversation.

But already I’m recognizing that Cline’s story is far from original. It’s basically “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Brazil” and a dash of “The Westing Game,” all put together in William Gibson’s Cuisinart while Gibson watches “Tron” with John Hughes in the next room. Complicated analogy, but you get the idea. It’s a lot of bits and pieces of stuff that’s been done before put back together in a giant homage that feels different enough to be interesting, but familiar enough that it’s not saying anything new or compelling. That’s either a recipe for solid entertainment or a burnout fart in the wind. Whether “Ready Player One” is one or the other remains to be seen, but it’s off to a good start so far. Don’t disappoint me, Ernest Cline. Let’s see if we can make this relationship last.

I have a friend who holds to the belief that we’re living in the Matrix, and that the Matrix is being run by Chris Hardwick. The more I think about it, the more I think he may have a point, because only in a world run by someone like Hardwick would a book like “Ready Player One” get published to general acclaim, snag a movie deal with Warner Bros., and have an audiobook narrated by Wil Wheaton. One day we’re going to wake up to discover that we’re actually living in the OASIS, in the Nerdist quadrant.