April 17th, 2012

Life online

In the Future, There Will Be Robots

Tonight: two startling visions of the future! One is interminable and boring, and the other is exciting and awesome. See if you can figure out which is which!

Feed, by M.T. Anderson—recommended to me by a cute girl on BART—has a good, interesting concept to work with: in the future, everyone's brain is linked to the Feed, so what we've always dreamed of is a reality—we are literally on the Internet ALL THE TIME. What this means is that the Feed is always learning about you and your preferences and recommending things for you to buy, you have the whole Internet's worth of information at your fingertips, you can cyberchat with people without having to type anything, and, oh, your brain is full of ads. The audiobook impressively creates what are essentially fully produced radio ads that appear in between chapters or, sometimes annoyingly/distressingly, break into David Aaron Baker's narration unexpectedly. When characters chat, they sound different than when they speak aloud, presumably recreating different fonts/formatting in the text. I would definitely like to experience more creative audiobooks like this one!

If only Feed had compelling characters and a story to go along with the worldbuilding. I was reminded of Little Brother in that it seemed like M.T. Anderson had a good idea and wanted to make some social commentary, but he didn't really bother to tell a story. Some of the satire is pretty funny, and the social commentary is pointed and clever, but the main character is not likable at all, nor is anyone else in the book besides Violet, the girl he meets on the moon who opens his mind to maybe not being a sheep who relies on the Feed. Everyone talks in idiotic futuristic Valley Girl slang, and perhaps Anderson is making a point about how language will devolve into nonsense, but it sure makes for an annoying, frustrating read. At least Little Brother was entertaining. I wanted to give up on this book after the first few chapters, and it was a struggle to make it through most of it, since nothing really happened. The book focuses on the relationship between Titus and Violet, but Titus is so dull that I didn't really care. The book improves in the last third, but by that point, it had already lost me, and I wanted it to be over so I could move on.

In the near future, most people spend their time in the OASIS, a highly sophisticated MMO comprising hundreds of different worlds. Using haptic gloves and visors, people can interact in these fully rendered worlds as easily as the real world. The man behind the OASIS, James Halliday, is a huge fan of classic video games and '80s pop culture, and these loves pervade the virtual world he has built. When he dies, however, he reveals that he will leave his substantial fortune—and the entire OASIS—to the person who can decipher his riddles to find the keys to unlock the gates that will lead them to an Easter egg within the game itself. And so the Hunt begins.

Welcome to Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline.

Our hero is ubergeek Wade Watts, a.k.a. Parzival, an elite gunter, or "egg hunter." His sole mission in life? Find Halliday's Easter egg. He and his best friend, Aech, devote the majority of their time to brushing up on their classic video game skills and '80s pop culture knowledge, not knowing what piece of obscure trivia could be useful in the Hunt. Also, there is this cool female blogger named Art3mis. Obvious love interest is obvious. What do all these gunters want? To find the egg before the megacorporation IOI and its horde of Sixers seize control of the OASIS, monetize the game, and RUIN EVERYTHING. DAMN THE MAN. DOWN WITH THE EMPIRE.

Ready Player One is a flawed book, so let me get a bunch of criticisms out of the way. The book is hugely frontloaded with exposition, and even when the plot finally kicks in, expositional infodumps sometimes arrive to bring the story to a grinding halt. There is no artful integration here; Cline is just providing information about the extensive world he's imagined or explaining something about a game or a movie or a band or a TV show to a hapless n00b who's never heard of Family Ties. The book tries a little too hard to appeal to a broader audience, when this is clearly a niche book. The writing in general lacks a real style; it mostly tells you what's going on (Cline was a screenwriter first, best known for Fanboys). Cline can sometimes get caught up in the whole "Oh my God, I'm referencing something geeky, look at this geeky stuff I know, holy crap, aren't you geeks loving this geeky stuff??" aspect. The issue of online identity versus real-life identity has been dealt with better in other works.

This book is flawed. I recognize that. Truly, on literary merit, it only deserves four stars.

But I experienced this book as read by geek icon Wil Wheaton (who, hilariously, is actually mentioned in the book), which immediately gives it bonus points. And once the plot kicks into gear, shit gets real, and the book becomes an insanely fun thriller that is essentially geekgasm after geekgasm. Once it becomes clear that the leaders in the Hunt all have giant targets painted on their backs, competition becomes fierce and dangerous. This book is about a fucking puzzle hunt inside a video game; how could it not be awesome? I was positively giddy listening to this book. There were honestly times when I wanted to go out driving just so I had an excuse to listen to more. It's only appropriate that a book about video games is just as addictive as a video game, after all. The puzzles and clues and quests and trials are imaginative and creative—since it takes place in a virtual world, it sure isn't bound by the laws of reality, and you are not prepared for what Cline has in store for you—and, again, always rooted in some sort of gaming or pop culture reference. This is a book in which the geeks are heroes for knowing the third sentence on the fourteenth page of the Dungeons and Dragons manual or whatever. It is a point of pride, not shame. It's impossible not to root for Wade and his friends, and, of course, we also want him to get the girl. Basically, THIS BOOK IS SO MUCH FUN AND IT IS FULL OF AWESOMENESS.

This book is a must-read for gamers, pop culture fiends, and nerds in general. So basically everyone I know.
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