May 8, 2012

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The year is 2044, and the world is in a sorry state. Unemployment is high, fossil fuels are scarce, the environment is damaged almost beyond repair, and most of humankind has been plunged into deep poverty. The narrator of Ready Player One, Wade Watts, is an 18-year-old who lives with his aunt, his only remaining relative, in a (literal) pile of trailers near Oklahoma City. Wade’s aunt doesn’t particularly want him around, but she tolerates his presence because it means access to additional food stamps.

Wade’s only comfort is the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), the virtual reality where he attends school and spends most of his free time. The OASIS was created by James Haliday, a video game designer who grew up in the 1980’s playing classic games. When Haliday died, a video was released explaining that he was leaving his considerable fortune to whoever managed to unlock the hidden “Easter Eggs” in the OASIS. Haliday used his avatar, a wizard by the name of Anorak, to leave a farewell message to the world with instructions about how to begin this quest. However, five years pass before the Gunters (egg hunters) make any real progress towards its completion. And as you surely suspect by now, it is our protagonist who manages to be the first to get his name on the scoreboard.

Ready Player One is nothing if not a 1980’s pop culture extravaganza: because Haliday was a teenager during the 80’s, the Gunters rightly figured that the answers to his riddles might require familiarity with the comics, movies, music, video games, TV series and novels he grew up with. As a result, Wade and his fellow Gunters spent their lives immersed in these cultural products, and references to the decade abound in the novel. Some of these were a little too old for me, but enough of them were familiar than I immediately felt at home in Wade’s world.

One of the things I appreciated the most about this novel was how it effortlessly combined an exciting, suspenseful and immensely readable adventure story with social commentary about the reality of climate change, about our culture’s uneasy relationship with the digital world, and about the current struggles for a free Internet where the interests of corporations don’t trump individual freedoms. Cline’s take on these themes is not as in-depth or sophisticated as, say, Cory Doctorow’s (who, by the way, gets an awesome shout out, along with Will Wheaton, for his digital activism), but that doesn’t mean it’s not thoughtful and satisfying. Ready Player One is a excellent example of how good dystopias are really about engaging with present day concerns rather than about anticipating the future.

I also particularly appreciated the fact that Ready Player One mostly goes for a nuanced approach to the reality and validity of web-based and virtual experiences. There’s a clear element of escapism to the OASIS: people choose to spend time in a virtual environment because they want to avoid a heavily polluted and impoverished world that offers them no real opportunities. However, this doesn’t invalidate the fact that what goes on in the OASIS is meaningful to people; that the experiences lived there and the connections formed are very much real. There’s nothing wrong with virtual reality per se; it just shouldn’t come at the expense of caring for the real world and trying to change it for the better. As a reader who is very much tired of seeing fiction default to portraying web-based connections as shallow and less than real, I thought that this made for a welcome change.

As you’ve gathered by now, I’m ready to join the ranks of bloggers who loved Ready Player One. However, there was a moment that made me very uncomfortable and that I really want to discuss. This moment has little bearing on the novel’s overall plot and themes, but all the same I keep thinking about it and I believe it’s worthy of discussion. I thought I’d draw attention to it not only because I’m generally interested in gender and definitions of womanhood, but also because I’ve particularly interested in the relationship between politics and literature; in how stories shape our perception of the world and of marginalised groups; in how they can both represent and contribute to dominating social attitudes. My discomfort with this passage doesn’t erase my huge enjoyment of Ready Player One (although I do realise that the fact that something like this is not a deal-breaker for me is in itself a privilege), nor is my drawing attention to it a call for this book to be censored or for its fans to be shamed. It’s just what it is – a conversation. What are stories, after all, if not excellent points of departure for conversations?

The moment I mean is a conversation Wade has with his fellow Gunter (and love interest) Artemis on the OASIS. It goes as follows:
Art3mis: How well do you know Aech?
Parzival: He’s been my best friend for five years. Now, spill it. Are you a woman? And by that I mean are you a human female who has never had a sex-change operation?
Art3mis: That’s pretty specific.
Parzival: Answer the question, Claire.
Art3mis: I am, and always have been, a human female. Have you ever met Aech IRL?
Parzival: No. Do you have any siblings?
Art3mis: No. You?
This excerpt from what is a longer game of flirtatious Q&A between the two reveals that both Wade and Artemis appear to operate under a definition of “woman” that excludes trans women and implicitly defines them as not “really” women. I realise it’s possible to argue that it’s realistic to portray two teenagers as operating under this definition, and also that there’s a world of difference between what the characters in a novel say and what a narrative as a whole endorses. Stories are allowed subtlety, after all – there’s no need to be openly didactic or to explicitly tut-tut every wrongheaded thing a character says or does for a narrative to challenge it. To pretend otherwise is to claim that, say, a story like “The Lottery” endorses stoning people to death, which is patently ridiculous.

However, in this case Wade and Artemis’ comments are not even further addressed by the narrative, let alone challenged. This is the only time in the story trans women are alluded to, and there are no transgender characters. To return to the question of realism, these comments could perhaps be read as reflecting the fact that most people do in fact define gender in very rigid terms that exclude trans women (and men), and no, I don’t believe that fiction should ever shy away from acknowledging this. But all the same, it saddens me that the assumption here is that these definitions would still be the default in the year 2044 – so much so that they’re unthinkingly voiced by two sympathetic characters in a way that makes the reader complicit (and yes, making readers complicit in problematic worldviews can be a powerful literary tool, but again I don’t think that’s what’s going on here). There’s no reason whatsoever why these characters need to operate under this limited understanding of “woman”, especially in a novel that doesn’t develop these themes further.

The exchange between Wade and Artemis was especially jarring because Ready Player One seems otherwise committed to progressive values. The novel attempts to be inclusive when it comes to race, gender, and sexual orientation; to acknowledge the reality and consequences of powerlessness, oppression and discrimination in our culture. This only makes me wish all the more that the same approach had been extended to transphobia; that there had been something in the narrative, however small and subtle, that challenged or addressed the implications of holding such a narrow definition of “woman”.

Another reason why this absence was particularly noticeable was because there were moments when the narrative actually came close to erring on the side of after school special-ness: the “don’t forget this isn’t real!” speech at the end, for example, or the conversation between Aech and Wade when they finally meet face to face (I can’t discuss this in detail without spoilers, but anyone who has read the novel will know what I mean). I appreciated the function these moments served in the story, but the truth is that they were overt rather than subtle and could perhaps have been handled with more elegance. To clarify, I’m not arguing that Ready Player One should have veered even closer to didacticism; I’m only pointing out what I suspect is an example of a common cultural blind spot. And needless to say, I’m completely open to everyone else’s thoughts on this.

To reiterate what I said before, overall I very much enjoyed Ready Player One. It was one of the most fun reading experiences I’ve had so far this year, and this is certainly something I value. Furthermore, I’ve always believed that it’s perfectly okay to be a fan of flawed things: it’s how you engage with them that makes all the difference.

They read it too: Medieval Bookworm, You’ve GOTTA Read This, The Book Smugglers, Raging Bibliomania, Fizzy Thoughts, So Many Books, my books.my life, Eclectic/Eccentric, A Librarian’s Life in Books, Bermudaonion’s Weblog, The Written World, Book Nut, Capricious Reader

(This is a very popular novel, so there are probably several dozen reviews I missed. Is yours one of them? If so, leave me your link and I’ll be happy to add it.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.

19 comments:

  1. Oh I so loved this book. It was on my best of 2011 lists...all that 80's meekness just blew my mind. And that little exchange just went right past me. Perhaps it was because I was listening (and incidentally throughout most of it was making hundreds of pierogies) or if I am not attuned to those things. Perhaps it is a reflection of the way teenagers see the opposite sex, especially ones they want to hook up with.

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  2. I've heard "of" this book, of course.But this is the first I've really heard what it was actually about. It really does sound fabulous!

    That really is a shame that such a restricted definition of "woman" is used. It's sad enough that it happens today, so often without comment. But the fact that this book is set 30+ years from now, and still upholds this skewed definition is just sadder still.

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  3. Sandy, I definitely agree that many teenagers think that way, but I can't help but wish there had been something (a different character maybe) offering a different perspective, you know? But yes, very fun book - I loved all the 80's references too.

    Debi: I definitely think you'd enjoy it! And yes - the world Cline portrays still has a lot of "-isms", and although I think that's legitimate (especially in a dystopia), I just wish one of them wasn't presented as an unchallenged default, you know? Wade learns a few things about race and gender throughout the story, so I really wish this had been included too. I hope this makes sense - I've been sitting on this review for months because I'm so awful at explaining what I mean when it comes to these things. But hopefully you understand.

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  4. As I was reading that passage it didn't even register with me. I think I thought it was in keeping with the characters as I saw them. I get what you're saying though, and would hope we would have made strides in that area by that time.

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  5. Hey Ana -

    I'm listening to this book on audio and prior to reading this review of yours I was about to give up. (I'm at the part where Parzival first meets Art3mis in OASIS. Up until this point I've **enjoyed** the book, but felt like it was nothing but an homage to the 80's. I am not sure if the character development would increase enough for me to feel as though it was worthwhile. But, with your accolades, I'll give it some extra listening time.

    Now, to move on to your irk...and I'm trying not to appear shallow because this is such a good convo to have over some coffee (oh why can't I have friends that I can do this with? /sidenote/). I don't see the convo as a slight to trans at all. Rather I think it exposes the unsure identity of online characters and the dialogue is uber realistic. Also just because a teen (or and adult) would/could say "human female" or "complete female" or "real female" **I** don't take it as a slight to trans. In fact I would worry that if it was expressed differently we fall in this obnoxious role of political correct language much like we have (at least in my part of the world/states/community) where my students call it racist to IDENTIFY someone's race. Seriously. And that's a whole topic to begin with but I think the reason why they are misguided with this is because there was such an emphasis on being politically correct with race.

    And I'm excited to tell you that times ARE changing. As you might recall, I teach in a predominantly Hispanic school that's underprivileged. Statistics tell us that the Hispanic culture (and once again, I'm only basing this off of the States and there are already issues with stats but work with me here :)) has a difficult time acknowledging their children as LGBT BUT a most recent example of times are a'changin is the first two lines of one of my girl's poem:

    Boys are girl's lovers
    And sometimes boys are boy's lovers.

    This is HUGE for me as someone who is active in the LGBT community. (Her poem, however, much left to be said. *cringe* for 7th grade poetry!) We have students who are totally out in my school and some who are testing the waters.

    But going back to the convo that bugged you. I don't think that it was implied that a tran would be less human than not. I think it would have been awkward for him to say: were you born a female.

    Okay, I know I wrote a lot. And normally I would re-read what I wrote but I'm now ten minutes late to work and have only had one cup of coffee. Hopefully this makes sense!!

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  6. Kathy: You're right that the characters aren't meant to be perfect - Wade in particular learns so much over the course of the novel. I just hoped there would be an acknowledgement that there was room for growth in this regard as well.

    Christina: I appreciate your thoughts on this, and I was actually hoping to get comments from people who read the exchange differently than I did, because personally I couldn't think of other readings. I don't see it as necessarily implying trans people are not human, but rather that a "real" woman has to have been born as one (which immediately reminds me of the really icky "women-born women" history in feminism, which involved things such as kicking trans women from a music festival in Washington because they were seen as intruders, as you probably know). Wade could be expressing the fact that he didn't believe he would be attracted to a trans woman, but if that's the case I really, really wish this belief and its implications had been explored further, you know? It's not about policing the character's language but about hoping for more depth, because this is something that I believe is hugely important and that isn't usually discussed in much detail. But like I said, I appreciate your perspective even if it differs from mine. Fingers crossed that you manage to get along with the book better in the second half!

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  7. As a follow up to what I was trying to say, here's an article at The F Word about the role transphobia continues to play in modern feminists and why contemporary acronyms such as "FAB" (female at birth) are so problematic. I hope this helps clarify why I read the exchange the way I did.

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  8. I've seen so many reviews of this one and each new one makes me more interested than before. Sometimes it's nice to read one with a few complaints (or wishes that thigns were a bit different) to temper my expectations.

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  9. Except for a few spots that pulled me up a bit short, it was a fun book, wasn't it? So glad you enjoyed it. It's by no means perfect, but it does do a lot of things right, and as you say, it's ok to be a fan of flawed things :)

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  10. I've been meaning to read this since it was released last year, but I'm kind of wary -- I was born in 1990 so I was teenager in the mid 2000s, so I don't know how well I would get all the references. I am a self-professed geek though, so maybe I would get some of them?

    I see why that exchange between the characters made you uncomfortable. A few years ago that wouldn't have bothered me at all, but since taking some courses in uni that deal with gender/queer theory (and meeting and befriending someone who is trans) I've become much more sensitive to that kind of thing.

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  11. Ok, how come I had not heard of this book before I read your review?? 80s pop culture extravaganza sounds fun! Immediately after reading your post I checked my library's catalogue & reserved a copy.

    As I have not read the book I don't know if I'm in a position to comment on the snippet you pointed out for us. I totally agree what you are saying, but my feeling after reading those few lines of conversation between Artemis and Parzival was that his mentioning trans women at all was a good thing (in that he acknowledges that not all women are born female) and that in their world sex change operations are a much more (could one use the word ordinary here?) ordinary or commonplace thing than in ours.
    But as I said I have not read the book, yet.

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  12. This book was so much fun! We read it near to the same time, so I have been curious about your actual review. Was it perfect? Nope! But it didn't take away from my enjoyment of it.

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  13. I have not yet read this, but that is indeed a very bizarre passage since, as you say, it didn't seem to be necessary to the plot. Even if it is meant to say that in 2044 such changes are so common it is something one could reasonably ask another person, I too would object to the phrase "are you a woman?" The second clarifying question is much less offensive!

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  14. I loved this book! Thought light and fun, I still think it's also a cautionary tale of where our world is going with regards to our dependence and connection the internet, social media and the like.

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  15. The political aspect sounds right in my line of interest right now, but...

    I read your linked F word article with interest, so useful and so 'we're not taking no shit in this article' which is refreshing. The passage you quoted irks me in isolation (for the reasons you said, but also because trans-women are implicitly linked with deception in the passage, which I hear from trans commentators is a prevalent misconception that dogs trans people and can lead to them being physically harmed). As you said no one ever really deals with what is said in the passage, gonna say it's likely to bug me in the wider context of the book.

    It's also kind of linking gay dudes with internet deception too, I think. Wade's comments could be related to trans-women, but he could also be asking Artemis is she's really a dude pretending to be a woman on the internet. And that reinforces that creepy and wrong headed idea that gay men are constantly stalking the internet looking for straight guys to entrap.

    You did such a good job engaging with the flaws in media you otherwise really enjoyed here - super cool post.

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  16. Melissa: Yes, I also find it helpful to know that a much beloved novel is not perfect. In any case, I really hope you enjoy it!

    Stefanie: Yes, exactly. I had a ton of fun with it :)

    Michelle: A lot of the references have become a huge part of pop culture (Back to the Future, Monty Python, etc), so I think you'd be fine even if you weren't a geek! And thanks for understanding about that bit of dialogue.

    Tiina: Although I love how positive your reading is, sadly I can't quite see it in those terms myself, for the reasons Jill and Jodie mention in their comments - the fact that the language isn't neutral and the implications of deception if the answer to the second bit happened to be "no". I really hope we'll one day live in a world where it's completely neutral to discuss gender reassignment, but I also think that even in such a world, the moment when such a question would come up would be very sensitive. Something I should have mentioned is that this conversation takes place very early on in Wade and Artemis' relationship, and it seems to me that although it's legitimate for this to be discussed by people who are becoming close, it's a bit intrusive to ask it so bluntly so early on.

    Kelly: First I couldn't post it because of the ILAs, and then there was my being nervous about explaining what I meant :P But yes, very fun book despite everything.

    Jill: I agree; the way it's worded is insensitive at best.

    Mrs B: Oops, I seem to have missed your review - I'll go find it! I also loved the combination of fun storytelling with wider political commentary.

    Jodie: Yes, excellent point about the deception factor! I didn't think of the "oh noes, are you actually a predatory gay man in disguise?" reading, but Mathie said the exact same thing after reading my post. He's spent a lot of time in gaming communities and has seen that creepy assumption pop up a lot :\ I think you're both right - the way Wade wants to get that possibility out of the way so early on in their relationship alludes to that. And thanks <3

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  17. This is already pretty high on my TBR list; I just may have to add it to the stack of books waiting next to my bed! As always, thank you for sharing your insights. That conversation does seem out of place in a book that's trying to be progressive.

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  18. This sounds fantastic - and happily, my library already owns it. Thanks for the heads up. I hadn't even heard of this book!

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  19. Emily: You're welcome! Very curious to hear what you think.

    Darla: Hooray! I think you're going to have a lot of fun with it :)

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.