Sunday, January 3, 2016

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

"Going outside is highly overrated."
-- from Ready Player One, p. 267

I've been on such a tear, immersed in prior centuries, that I thought I'd bring some balance to the Force and do something crazy, by reading a really contemporary book. As long as I was tweaking my Classics Club anyway. Something I'd heard talked about as an "instant classic" in its genre. While I was musing on what that would be (and rejecting various recent best-sellers and book club favorites out of hand), I saw this in the store, and made a snap decision for Ready Player One -- certainly a book I've heard that kind of talk about.

This 2011 s-f novel is set in an extrapolated dystopian future, where resources are scarce, and the few  haves are mostly aligned with ruthless corporations, while the have-nots, the vast majority of the population, live in bleak and crowded conditions. The Internet has morphed into a massive virtual reality environment called the OASIS, and it's commonplace for most people to spend the majority of their days there: working, going to school, and making friends, while remaining isolated in their limited "real life" time.

When the inventor of the OASIS dies, he wills his fortune to whoever can win a complex online game, with clues spread out throughout the almost infinite virtual multiverse. Because he was obsessed with '70s and '80s pop culture (peaking about the time of the early arcade videogames and home computers), the players amass a vast knowledge of the era's movies and music, even though most of them, like the protagonist, Parzival, were born many decades later.

I found this this to be very imaginative, with a page-turning storyline, and a prose style that gets out of its way. It's not "bad," like I find much of modern writing, although a lot of people online disagree with me. Amusingly, although I've heard nothing but good things about this, and the reviews are mostly very positive, the comments are all about how terrible it is ... so who can even tell? A lot of people are really turned off by the '80s nostalgia thing, which is fair enough, but since I'm always surprised by the existing '80s nostalgia among young people who weren't even born yet, it seemed like a plausible premise to me! And also, it represents the last gasp of a "simpler time" before the Internet culture it birthed, which seems important, since the book does explore a chicken and egg premise. That is: the online world is a consolation for the harshness of reality, allowing people to do things they couldn't otherwise afford to do. However, the very existence of the more comfortable online world may have prevented them from making an effort to improve upon that reality.

One thing I noted, about the style, was that it's so straightforward. Now, there's nothing wrong with using language to tell a story and impart creative ideas. But I do tend to like words that I can roll around in. When I was reading Benighted, the only thing that stopped me from underlining a sentence on every page was the fact that it was a library book. I bought Ready Player One, and didn't underline anything. So this probably won't make my upper echelon of later-20th-century-plus s-f books (Snow Crash, Mona Lisa Overdrive, and, especially The City and the City).

Because of that, and now knowing that there isn't as much consensus as I'd thought about this book's status as a contemporary classic, it makes me ponder the whole idea of classics. There's no way to tell if this book will stand any test of time. Come to think of it, a lot of the books I love haven't stood the test so well either. Even if they're available, many of them are out of print, or obscure. Years ago, when a city I'd lived in was tearing down a beloved corner bar, there was a letter in the newspaper from someone sniffing that just because something was old, doesn't mean it was historic. And I was like: yes, it does! On the other hand, all the really badly written books being published today won't be "classics" in a couple of hundred years. Or will they? Maybe they will make good windows into their time, and be valuable for that. Who knows?

I guess it's good to shake up my complacency that I know what a classic is.

Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. New York: Crown Publishers, 2011.

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