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Ready Player One is an ode to geek culture

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: Review

Here’s the most important thing you need to know about Ready Player One: it’s a celebration of a geek culture. So if you know about video games and Star Trek and, yes, the Japanese live-action Spider-man show with the giant robot, this novel is for you.

It was the dawn of new era, one where most of the human race now spent all of their free time inside a videogame.

Welcome to the OASIS which is, in effect, what would happen if the Internet, World of Warcraft, and virtual reality all had a bizarre three-way love child. It’s a virtual video game where you can be whoever you want and do whatever you want. You buy virtual currency to travel, buy items, and you can even level up. The protagonist, Wade in the real world, Parzival in the OASIS, even goes to school there. And here’s the conceit: the creator of the OASIS has died and left control of his creation to whoever can solve his Easter egg hunt, resulting in a hunt that’s entrenched in 80s geek culture.

I was watching a collection of vintage ’80s cereal commercials when I paused to wonder why cereal manufacturers no longer included toy prizes inside every box. It was a tragedy, in my opinion. Another sign that civilization was going straight down the tubes.

The conceit means that Ready Player One would make an excellent drinking game, if such a game could be played whilst reading a novel. The number of games, books, films, TV shows and people named in this book is staggering, and they’re all written about with real love. Even things that get slated (Ladyhawke springs to mind) are done so with real love. Cline has squeezed in everything he loves and it’s nice to read a novel that loves the same things you do.

Being human totally sucks most of the time. Videogames are the only thing that make life bearable.

Unfortunately there’s a reason I used the word ‘conceit’. The truth is, the plot really is a conceit Cline uses to write about the things he loves and to vicariously do the things he’d love to do. And the story suffers. In fact, Ready Player One was, at times, downright disappointing. There’s no character development. No surprises. No twists, no turns. Just a straightforward normal-guy-becomes-a-hero-and-gets-everything-he-ever-wanted tale. Worse, because he overcomes his first obstacle so easily, it undermines every obstacle thereafter. I didn’t believe he wouldn’t clear any and all hurdles with ease. And I was right. Plans go without a hitch. Everything he hopes for comes true. It is, to be brutally honest, a boring story.

For a bunch of hairless apes, we’ve actually managed to invent some pretty incredible things.

But here’s the incredible truth. Despite the fact the story is boring (and it is), Ready Player One is compelling. Once I was finished I couldn’t put my finger on why, until I realised that the novel is as much an Easter egg hunt as it is about one. I loved picking up on the references big and small, the in-jokes, the little exaltations. For instance, I really enjoyed seeing Supaidaman get a reference. As Wade/Parzival goes hunting through geek culture, I found myself hunting along with him, looking for games and films and books I recognised.

But over the past few months, I’d come to see my rig for what it was: an elaborate contraption for deceiving my senses, to allow me to live in a world that didn’t exist. Each component of my rig was a bar in a cell where I had willingly imprisoned myself.

So can I recommend Ready Player One as a novel? No. But would I recommend it anyway? Yes. It suffers from the same problem as Austin Grossman’s You in that the headlong dive into its geeky world leaves behind things like solid plots and character development. But the dive is such an enjoyable experience, you’re willing to forgive.

Because sometimes we all need to sing a little ode to geek culture.

Has Amazon Ruined Goodreads?

It’s a burden being right all the time. Not too long ago I wrote a post stating that Amazon needs to embrace social media. And what happened? Amazon bought Goodreads, the leading social media site for book readers. Did I call it or what?

Well, not really. I had imagined Amazon introducing some homegrown social solutions. But I forgot the Golden Rule: when you’re as big as Amazon, you don’t have to make your own products; you just have to buy other people’s. So Amazon saw what Goodreads had created and got them some of that. But is this a good thing for readers?

Otis Chandler, one of the founders of Goodreads, claims that he sold the site to Amazon for three reasons:

• Greater reach – Amazon can extend Goodreads services to all of its customers now;
• Ereader integration – Amazon can now bring social interaction directly into the reading experience;
• Independence – Amazon will keep their hands off the wheel.

Yeah, I’m not buying that last one.

That Goodreads was an independent entity was what made it so great. It fostered a truly open environment and encouraged free discussion. Goodreads was somewhere you could go to talk books online without a salesman taking notes over your shoulder. But now it has a vested interest in making you buy from Amazon. Cue heavy advertising, links aplenty and pretty soon features will be exclusive to the Kindle. And Goodreads will exist solely to build up Amazon and break down its competition.

Are there any upsides to the deal? I’m not counting all these social reading ideas; reading will always be a solitary experience no matter how many buttons you add to the ereader. But Amazon will bring money and resources to the party. That might help Goodreads develop their mobile app, for instance, or improve the online interface. And it’s unlikely that Amazon are going to mess much the site, other than channeling buyers to their site. So the Goodreads we know won’t go anywhere any time soon.

But the data belongs to the Mighty Zon now. That will be a bitter pill for some people to swallow.

But perhaps I’m being too negative. What do you think? Is Amazon going to break Goodreads or can things only get better?

Truth, Justice and the Soviet Way

You have to wonder why no-one had thought of it before: what if Superman had landed in Soviet Russia instead of America? In ‘Superman: Red Son’, Mark Millar’s answer is simple: he becomes a champion of communism.

In the hands of another, this could have been a polemic against socialism. But Millar is a Scotsman with no particular axe to grind. What emerges instead is a story of a Superman who can make the world a utopia, but at the cost of choice. Security for the price of freedom. This is a very obvious post-9/11 work, a little too obvious at times, but still an excellent observation of the times.

But social commentary aside, this story stands up because of its protagonist. Superman has long been as American as hot apple pie and a curiously large number of guns in the closet. So you would think making him a Russian would take away everything recognisable from the character. But the best thing about Millar’s story is that Superman, at his core, is the same as he’s always been. All he wants to do is help people. Only, as Stalin’s right hand man and successor, he chooses to do so with both his power and his politics. It takes an interesting idea and turns it into, I believe, a classic graphic novel that sits comfortably in my top ten.

In fact, I think I prefer the Superman as a Soviet. He just seems more believable as a man trying to change the world than a big blue boy scout.