Thursday, March 21, 2019

Review: Ready Player One

I listened to the audiobook version of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline and really enjoyed it. The only hints of the plot I had were from a movie preview, so I assumed the book would be a shallow excuse to revel in 1980's pop-culture. And while the book definitely elevates the 80's, it touches on deeper themes as well. Add to this the puppy-love story, and I found the book both thought provoking and entertaining.

I liked how Cline weaves solutions into the storyline, much like Christian Cantrell does in Containment. Don't give me a Ted Talk on how virtual schools can help level the playing field and reduce the scourge of bullying, show me by having your main character attend and thrive at one. The samegoes for the book's anti-obesity strategy.

Mostly I enjoyed pondering the philosophical questions posed in the book. It's a common theme in Sci-Fi: the Earth has become unsustainable, so we flee to another planet. In Ready Player One humanity has fled online. Is this the equivalent of finding a new planet? Or has humanity locked itself in a cage? If your virtual reality is nearly your entire self, then does it become your reality? The book poses these questions and leaves room for debate. Notably, our main character is both at home in the digital universe, and yet has flashes of pure desolation when he ponders his choices.

I was a kid during the 80's, so I got a number of the references (my older brother would no doubt get more), including some of the game references. I can proudly say I've logged hours of Gorf and used to play on our Commodore 64. With that said, much of the 80's pop-culture references whizzed over my head. And not being a gamer, I didn't really ponder the book through that lens. More than once I thought how crazy the plot device of having the future obsessively study the 80's is. But I stuck with the book, so I guess it works.

I found the pacing of the book slow at times. I kept waiting for it to skip ahead in the contest, but no, it plodded along in no hurry. And I found the story occasionally tested just how much belief I could suspend, as there were moments when the technology and social structure envisioned were just more than I could buy.

Ultimately, the questions Ready Player One raises aren't really some far off future concern. For all of recorded history, there have been those trapped in circumstances that are far bleaker than the book imagines. Using little more than books and letters, one could imagine constructing an alternate reality to thrive in. The Internet has vastly simplified the process, and now I can be so much cooler online than in real life. Should we be embracing these virtual lives even more, or use this as a wake up call to unplug? And what does it mean that I'm publishing these words on my blog, rather than preaching them to friends over dinner?

So many questions.

Update: A thought I've had since posting this reviews: one way to look at 'Ready Player One' is as a sort of super-early prequel to 'The Matrix'. Consider how The Matrix is described:

Morpheus awakens Neo to the real world, a ravaged wasteland where most of humanity have been captured by a race of machines that live off of the humans' body heat and electrochemical energy and who imprison their minds within an artificial reality known as the Matrix.

In Ready Player One society is opting to plug itself in to the virtual reality known as the Oasis. It seems plausible that given enough generations, people will opt to skip the real world altogether and live completely in the Oasis. At some point, the world may simply not know there's a real reality out there.

My point: the dystopian universe of The Matrix need not come about due to vengeful aliens. As Ready Player One hints at, society is more than glad to lock itself in a virtual cage.

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