|Everything you've heard is true... good and bad.|
Now that that's out of the way, though, I want to touch on how the internal consistency of the book sort of falls apart regarding identity, experience, and who is and isn't "real."
Because it sticks out like a sore thumb, and it's a teachable moment.
A Modern View That Doesn't Fit The Sci-Fi Future
For those who haven't read the book, the world of Ready Player One is a crumbling, energy-starved dystopian hellscape where a massive, virtual reality computer world called the Oasis is the main place where people come together. You go to school there, meet people, attend parties, hang out, play video games, become a well-known celebrity, etc., etc. It's a tool that has been fully embraced for at least a generation, now.
Which is why the whole concern in the book about who someone "really" is, and the subtext of, "what if they don't look the way their avatar looks online?" hits such a flat note.
|Because really, who are any of us?|
Our protagonist, for example, was a child when the Oasis first came online. He literally describes it as his first babysitter, keeping him plugged-in and entertained while his mom worked (also through the Oasis by doing cam shows, and similar digital work). He attended in-person school very briefly, but then switched to an Oasis school. The only people we ever see him interact with in-person till the end of the book are his aunt, one of her boyfriends, and a neighbor of his... literally every other interaction he has is online. For a majority of the story our protagonist is actually in a tiny apartment in Ohio, which he never leaves, ordering all his food and necessities from the net, and never so much as going outside. We see him shower once, but even his heartbroken brooding takes place online.
The idea that someone who's lived their whole lives knowing nothing else, and who can count the number of offline people he's had meaningful interactions with on one hand, would consider online friends to be somehow not their real selves is jarring, to say the least. And the over-emphasis on, "Do you really look like your avatar?" is equally weird.
Sci-fi with this amount of emphasis on the freedom and expression of the virtual world is typically used to dip into questions of race and ethnicity, of age, of gender and its expression, and dozens of other areas that it can be used to comment on... and there is a token nod to that with H, whose avatar is an athletic white guy while offline she's, in her own words, "a fat black chick." However, H chose that avatar so people would take her seriously, and so she could avoid harassment... realistic for today, certainly, but in a world where everyone is digital, and you could be a seven foot komodo dragon with a unicorn horn, are there really people demanding to know if their friends and loved ones really look the same offline? And rather than spending the middle chapters going on about the glitched screen in Pac Man's final level, wouldn't a brief moment to lay out some kind of anti-Oasis movement, or subcultures where you must have an avatar that truly reflects your appearance in the interest of some sort of digital code of truth be helpful to smooth out this oddly-placed emphasis on something that feels like a relic of the past?
Think Through The Implications of Your Extraordinary Elements
On the one hand, it could be argued that this book was just an excuse to wax nostalgic about all the pop culture elements of the 80s and 90s; a handy way to fit video games, giant robots, Internet culture, Monty Python, and all the other geek ephemera of the era into the text. And yes, the book does that.
But that doesn't make it a good book.
And, in this case, the world building falls apart because too much energy was being put into deciding which forty-year-old video games were going to be pivotal plot points, and not enough into asking what the culture, norms, and world was actually like after the introduction of such remarkable technology.
Because it's fair enough to say that someone who grew up offline, but who then adopted the online world would still have all sorts of hang-ups and cognitive problems telling physical reality from digital reality. But the book feels like a Gen X individual trying to write from the perspective of a gen Z character, who then goes on this whole tear about the world away from their screens, and their phones, and all these digital devices... things that only appear weird or unnatural to the older generation because they weren't in place when they were younger. To someone born to it, who grew up with it, these tools are just a part of how the world is... and the fact that the protagonist has a whole rant about who we really are offline, and how the world would be better if they could all leave the Oasis, feels like a rant from an out-of-touch grandpa who fell off the technology curve.
For a book series that did this right, I recommend starting with Feed, the first in Mira Grant's Newsflesh trilogy. Short version, zombie apocalypse happened, and now our protagonists who grew up in the next generation are just trying to make a living. And there's plenty of nostalgia for older media (particularly zombie movies), but we see how the world has changed through their eyes, and how what would be bizarre or unheard of is just normal to them.
Like, Follow, and Come Back Again!
That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!