[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.
SELF-INDULGENT POST SCRIPT:
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.