Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. Arrow, 2011.
Although I read this book before I read Tanglewreck, I find myself writing this post after reviewing the Winterson novel. Ready Player One has now been made into a movie which has been enjoying box office success and some criticism for not being sufficiently close to the novel. I have not seen the movie, and I’m not at all sure I want to see it. I should probably also confess that I have very little interest in on-line gaming. One of my fridge magnets reads “I still read books.” I’m not sure I want to commit the time to immersive games, let alone take on the expense of all the extra equipment and band width one needs for a good gaming experience. I do, however, enjoy fantasy.
The question for me is to what extent is Ready Player One fantasy or prophecy. Yes, I know the two genres, particularly when it comes to apocalyptic writing, tend to overlap. In many ways, the novel is very close to being descriptive of the world we actually live in: a world divided between the rich and the poor, a world of urban decay, a world where one’s social media presence defines one. Although not quite a Luddite, I maintain a very low social media profile. My blog is the only space where I appear on line. You may also have noticed that I don’t use an avatar.
In Ready Player One the characters’ avatars and their ability to progress through the game Oasis is more or less essential to their being. The novel ticks all the boxes as it develops a traditional quest theme, and it is hard not to become involved with Wade/Parzival as he makes his virtual journey to find the hidden Easter Egg secreted by the creator of OASIS, James Halliday. If Wade/Parzival finds the egg, he will inherit Halliday’s fortune. On the way, he needs the help of other avatars and has to fight the evil Sorrento of the IOI corporation who wish to take control of the game.
So is Ready Player One just a run-of-the-mill action novel celebrating tech culture and the world of the troglodyte nerd? Not really. It’s a dystopian novel set in the not really too distant future that offers a critique of our own world and the dangers that our dependence upon technology is leading us towards. Whether reading this novel will inspire you to fight for net neutrality and open source software, I’m not sure. In many ways, you have to have been alive in the Eighties to understand a lot of the references; the novel is a celebration of popular culture, especially that of thirty or so more years ago. It also certainly raises questions about our apparent headlong descent into social inequality and squalor. The envisioned world of the stacks seemed to me eminently recognisable, in much the same way that I found the world of the Bladerunnermovies recognisable, even familiar. It also raises all sorts of questions about self-definition and our understanding of reality.
If I were still teaching, I would certainly consider assigning this novel in an introduction to literature course. Think of all the useful discussion and essay questions it might elicit and that students might actually enjoy writing about, if they weren’t more interested in playing Fortnite: Battle Royal.
What I realized as I read this novel, even as I recognised its strengths, was that it was not written for me. I am of another generation. Cline points out the dangers inherent in what I might call video or virtual culture but nevertheless celebrates it. Fantasy has always provided a means of escape; good fantasy brings us back to reality supposedly enriched and more understanding of the real world. Halliday reminds Wade that “reality is real” (364) and urges him to use his newly-gained “powers only for good” (363).
If only it were that simple. Who defines “good”? What is good for a globally dominant tech company may not be good for individuals. But what if those individuals are apparently made happy by their ability to immerse themselves in the resources of the globally dominant tech company? And then I think about other various iterations of the story of Percival, the grail knight. Some are unfinished; others suggest a kind of spiritual enlightenment for the young hero but not for the world he inhabits. King Arthur’s world ended despite the grail quest.
I can’t help but think that most of the great heroes are found in tragedies, and I come back to my thoughts earlier in this post and decide that if called upon to classify Ready Player One, I’d define it as apocalypse. I go back to Kermode and remind myself that “it seems to be a condition attaching to the exercise of thinking about the future that one should assume one’s own time to stand in an extraordinary relation to it. The time is not free, it is the slave of a mythical end (Frank Kermode. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction with a New Epilogue. 1966. 2000. 94). It is this imagined eschatological anxiety about the future even in the satisfactory and expected resolution to the novel that I find its commonality with such writings as the Apocalypse of John, Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” the battle of Ragnarök in the Eddas, and Morte d’Arthur for example. Cline dedicates his novel to “. . . Susan and Libby “Because there is no map for where we are going” (Frontispiece). What apocalyptic literature attempts to do is to make that map. Ready Player One is one such outline for our journey to the future.