Thoughts on “Ready Player One”

So, I finished reading “Ready Player One”, and overall found it … okay. I’m going to talk about it in detail, and even though the book isn’t that recent the movie is so I’ll continue below the fold:

So, the overall premise of the book is that there’s a huge online world where you can do almost anything, play almost any game, experience almost any world, which thus is essentially the biggest MMO ever made. People even go to school in the MMO world. When the creator dies, he reveals that he hid an Easter Egg in the game that will give the first person who finds it his entire estate, and thus control over the MMO world itself, which then spawns lots of people to run around the digital world trying to find it.

So far, this looks like a less dramatic version of .hack.

Of course, the real world is much worse than it was in .hack, with huge economic upheaval and massive unemployment. The protagonist in fact has a terrible life, with his parents both dead and living with an aunt who only keeps him around to draw the food benefit that he provides, and almost no one caring at all about him, which is one of the things that spawns his search for the Easter Egg, as well as the fact that the only good thing in his life is the MMO world, as well as his only friends. The overall plot is kicked off by his managing to figure out the first clue — after five years of trying — and managing to solve the first dungeon, starting the rush to solve all the clues and win.

The biggest issue I have with the book is that the premise suggests something really interesting: an Indiana Jones-style adventure in a digital world where all of the research and dungeons aren’t based around ancient times, but around 80s pop culture. But the book only touches on these things superficially. Despite the dungeons being based on Tomb of Horrors, Zork and Dungeons of Daggorath — which is on my list of favourite games — the book only lightly touches on the puzzles and situations in them, hinting at some of them but not taking advantage of that and using them to generate the adventure. We don’t get even a semi-detailed runthrough of the games, and so we don’t see the protagonist solving the game and facing down the dangers the games provided. I’m not sure if this was because the author didn’t want to do that or was worried that taking that much of those games would violate copyright laws, but a huge opportunity was lost.

The book then has to generate drama and tension through other means, and mostly fails at it. The big “villain” of the piece is Sorrento and the corporation he works for, but both of them are complete and utter cartoon villains, doing evil it seems, for the sake of evil, so much so that their villainy isn’t very emotionally affecting. Their first really evil act is blowing up the protagonist’s home in an attempt to kill him so that he can’t work against them — of course, he isn’t actually there — but this doesn’t really have an emotional resonance because there was only one person in that entire complex that we at all cared about, and even the protagonist isn’t that bothered by it himself. Later, they do the same to another person who solved the puzzle early — this time directly throwing him off the roof — which sets up the final battle as his online brother seeks revenge against Sorrento … but we had barely met that character, so again it just comes across as cartoon villainy rather than anything emotionally impacting. Thus, when the protagonist finishes off Sorrento in the virtual world, it comes across as less of a heroic triumph and more of a plot point that the author wanted to address. And this is only further heightened by the fact that they explicitly comment later that he hopped onto another avatar to be the first of the corporation to complete the final gate if the protagonists don’t solve it first. He doesn’t provide anything beyond cartoon villainy, and all of his defeats follow from events that aren’t very emotionally affecting and are mostly temporary, except for the last one, which would have been precisely as dramatic a victory if he hadn’t ever been in the book and the protagonist had just won against every other person and guild out there.

As for the pop culture references, they were indeed spread liberally throughout the book, but for the most part they were relevant. A long list of things the protagonist researched serves to show just how obsessed he was with the contest, and of course the dungeons and gates had to reference them as they are what the contest is based on. Yes, Cline does slip a lot of them in where they aren’t really required, but for the most part while at times it’s a little bit self-indulgent it’s not egregiously so.

I should make a comment on the politics. It’s hard to say that the book is in fact apolitical, because it takes for granted — and builds its plot on — a number of liberal/progressive/whatever talking points. The big crisis that spawns the real world being so bad is global warming. All of the corporations are just evil. And a character reveals that they built their avatar as a white male because, being a black, gay woman, they would get taken more seriously that way. Except for the last one, though, I will forgive the book for them because the book treats them as things that are true in that world and things that happened, which makes it come across less like proselytizing and more like things that the book uses to build the plot. If you don’t think that global warming is going to have that bad an effect, you can pretty much simply go with the fact that this is a work of fiction and that this is something that is true of that world, even if you don’t think it true of this one. And the last one comes towards the end of the book and has no real impact on anything, so it’s mostly harmless.

One political note that struck me, though, and highlights some of the struggles with this book is the discussion of indentured servitude that the big corporations use. If you go into debt, the corporation can impress you and make you work for them until you pay it off. The impression is given that no one ever actually pays their way out of debt, due to interest and extra fees and what not. But the book then comments that due to the problems in the world many of these debtors are actually happy to be in that situation, because while they’re working off their debt the company gives them food, shelter, some forms of entertainment and luxuries if they do good work and work hard. So what immediately struck me was that if that was the case, a smart company would decide to offer these sorts of benefits to people whenever they had openings. They wouldn’t have to offer that much more — if any more — than they offered debtors, and they’d get to choose the best from everyone available. And if they made the contracts renewable year over year, they’d give everyone a reason to keep working really, really hard and could get rid of anyone who wasn’t working out (whereas under this system the only way to do that would be to forgive their debt). It seems like a no-brainer for any half-way competent company.

The book at times does suffer from that, by making comments and asides in trying to build the world that don’t make sense when you think about it. But then again the book doesn’t seem to be one that people are supposed to think too hard about, so it’s something that can be ignored.

So, my assessment of the book overall. Let me start from the personal assessment first, and use my standard criteria: would I read it again? I have to admit that, yeah, I might read it again. It wasn’t the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s entertaining enough that I might read it again at some point.

Now, given that I couldn’t say that about the Hugo Award Winners that I read, there wouldn’t seem to be much point in comparing it objectively against those works. Except that my own personal preferences aren’t relevant here. As a written work, is it better or worse than those are, whether or not I personally liked it better? So let me try to assess it that way:

I think it is certainly better than Seveneves. But it would be hard to find a book that is worse than that one. If people enjoy the book, then I am genuinely curious about what they liked about it, beyond the obvious massive technical explanations. While the technical explanations could be of interest to people, as a work of fiction Seveneves is just terrible. Ready Player One, for all its flaws, works far better as a work of fiction even if the pop culture references are of no interest to you.

I think it’s better written than The Fifth Season, too, but this can get complicated. You can judge The Fifth Season lower because it tried a non-standard narrative style and failed at it, or judge it higher because it tried a non-standard narrative style, even if it mostly failed at it. And the big issue with both is giving us little reason to care about the big events, but we get more of a clear personal link with the protagonist in Ready Player One, and the problem is with the villains. I’m not sure who the villains are in The Fifth Season, or if there really were any, and the split narrative makes it harder to relate to the main protagonist as a person until the very end when that they are all the same person is revealed, which is a bit too late.

I think that Ancillary Mercy is a better structured work, but the heroine is too powerful for the drama to really work there, while in Ready Player One the hero is often too weak and has to win through contrivance. At this point, we’re probably talking about works that are definitely in the same ballpark here.

As should be obvious from my assessment, the same thing holds for Uprooted. Novik is a better writer, and so has a better structure to her work, but she doesn’t really produce more drama, nor does she express the idea of needing to co-operate better than Cline does in this book.

I think that The Aeronaut’s Windlass is, overall, a better book, in terms of literature. The characters and plot are all better than they are in Ready Player One, and the writing and structure is far superior. I just don’t find it as entertaining, personally.

So, that’s my view of Ready Player One. Reading the preview did not make me interested in Armada, so I’m likely to stop the series here. At least I’m not going to sell this book off like I did all of the Hugo winners …

One Response to “Thoughts on “Ready Player One””

  1. Thoughts on “Repo Men” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] the people have and that they have a wide range of skills, it would make more sense for them to do something like was done in “Ready Player One” and simply press them into indentured servitude.  Since the organs are artificial, they should be […]

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