May 11th, 2015

Good Omens

Mean business ("Ready Player One")

I liked Ernest Cline's debut novel Ready Player One. Thing is, I thought I'd love it, based on the reactions a lot of my peers have had to the book. It creates a well-drawn society a few decades from now that I can imagine developing from this one; it's often genuinely heartfelt, as well as funny; and it uses 1980s pop culture, the pop culture I grew up consuming, in surprising and neat ways.

Fair warning that I'll describe a major turning point about a third of the way through, as it was the reason I couldn't love the book. I also bring up the end of a major 1980s science fiction novel.

A few decades from now, around 2040, a man named James Halliday -- think of him as a cross between Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Howard Hughes -- dies, and the world learns that he has left his huge fortune to whomever can solve a complicated riddle he'd embedded in the OASIS, an immersive online world of his design. It's basically an Internet you can live in, and most people do, using virtual reality gear to interact with the online world and with other people. The novel's from the POV of Wade, a high school student who goes by the online name Parzival and who is looking back at how he won the fortune.

The book's first third sets up Wade's online and in-the-flesh life: he lives with relatives in a literal tower of stacked mobile homes, as so many people have moved from rural areas to cities that mobile home parks needed to go vertical to accommodate everyone. He's jerry-rigged a place to enter the OASIS via a well-hidden abandoned van in a giant trash pile near his home -- about the only real-world privacy he gets. From here, he goes to an online high school, hangs out with fellow geeks, and explores the OASIS... ...where he's the first person to start to solve Halliday's puzzle. His online persona becomes famous, and a company called IOI contacts Parzival: work with us and help us solve the puzzle. He's dubious, and doesn't want IOI to win the fortune (and, by extension, the OASIS), but takes a virtual meeting with the head of IOI's unit devoted to Halliday's riddle. The IOI rep makes a great offer, then an even better offer, and, after Parzival turns down both, says:

We know where you and your family live, and we will kill you and them if you don't work with us. He shows him an infrared surveillance image of his home. When Wade/Parzival still says no, assuming and hoping they're bluffing, IOI blows up the tower where his family lives. They have just been willing to murder hundreds of people. It's sheer luck that IOI didn't know that Wade wasn't in the tower. His remaining family and neighbors: not so lucky. And, to IOI, acceptable collateral damage for doing business.

I'd happened to take a break from reading during that scene, just before the third, um, "offer" got made, and when I re-started and saw the turn the scene had taken, I got (UNDERSTANDABLY) concerned. I kept reading, and tried to imagine how wrecked I'd be by the knowledge that stakes were so high, someone would willingly kill others and try to kill me.

The book changed for me. But I feel it didn't really change for Wade.

To me, as he hides to keep IOI from learning he survived, he only intermittently seems to be hit by the attack's aftermath. It doesn't feel like Wade's ignoring it in order to avoid the sheer weight of horror over the event; contrast that with Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games showing well-realized signs of PTSD from what she's witnessed.

I feel this should've been enormous, and a game-changer for the novel. Writing this made me realize: I wanted the impact on Wade to be like the impact of the climax of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, where a game has catastrophic real-world implications for someone who is absolutely not ready to handle those implications. (Card has said he wrote Ender's Game as a novel, expanding it from a short story, because he needed that novel's events to set up Speaker for the Dead, a book which is so much about living with and atoning for huge consequences.)

I don't think the relative lack of reaction Wade has to the attack is, say, some comment on lack of empathy in online worlds. He's no troll, running roughshod over others' feelings for his own amusement or self-aggrandizement; he seems like a nice kid, who I think would and should have a tough emotional reaction. And his not having a bigger reaction: that kind of flattened the book for me. I still enjoyed it, but not to the level I'd hoped.

There. Liked, didn't love. And I want to love books, but I can't love all of them.