Publisher: Random House
Author: Ernest Cline
Recommended? Probably? Just be prepared for 80s gender politics nostalgia.
It’s midnight on a Monday. I’m logged into no less than 9 different social media/email accounts, with a browser holding 12 open tabs. It’s a calm day. I’m not sure if I spent most of the evening distracting myself from reality in the OASIS of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, or if it was the other way around. The book follows Wade Watts, a poor nobody of a teenager on a virtual adventure in the ultimate video game, fighting against the evil multinational corporation, IOI, competing to win the largest company in the world and save us all from their corruption. A real rags to riches story, complete with a token queer black woman, an underdeveloped and honor obsessed (cliché) Japanese sidekick, and a beautiful (but not too beautiful, she’s got a birthmark) love interest who uses her superior knowledge and ability to help our hero win the game, because what’s a nerdboy story without the manic pixie dream girl? Especially in a world where one’s best friend’s dead wife should OF COURSE be the password in the game winning puzzle. Duh. It will teach the boy to tell the girl he likes her in real life so he doesn’t wind up pining for her in the virtual world for the rest of his days.
There’s something compellingly realistic about the future we’re drawn into. A world in which the planet is crumbling – climate change has destroyed ecosystems, fossil fuels have all but run out, the wealth gap has expanded, and exponential population growth has turned trailer parks into crime and drug ridden cityscapes called “the stacks”. The only escape is the OASIS, an extensive, open world, VR game that has taken the place of the internet. Our protagonist, Wade Watts, lives in the abusive high-rise wasteland future of all the friends I had in high school. I’ve been to that trailer park, with the sweet, grandmotherly neighbor, the drunken and abusive family, and even the secret escape of a laundry room window. I know the quiet, resilient boy who survives that existence. I’ve always been friends with him, so it’s easy to want to like him and let myself get transported by the immersive nerd culture in the book (despite that he and his heroes act like women are an alien species).
The book isn’t just stuck in 80s nostalgia, it’s drowning in 80s gender politics.
I’m part of the older generation of Millennial – those of us folks keep thinking are GenXers because we played our first games on original Nintendo and came of age before the internet was a household idea. Old enough to remember the 80s, but too young to have suffered through enough of the bad hair and bad ideas parties to lose the nostalgia. And if it is nostalgia you’re after, this book is chock full of it. James Halliday (aka: Anorak), video game nerd and OASIS creator, designs the ultimate quest, secretly hiding three gates and an egg somewhere in the OASIS multiverse. The first to find it inherits his entire fortune, including his company. In order to solve the puzzles, gunters (egg hunters) must become more versed in 80s games, music, and culture than anyone who lived through that era could ever possibly be. But, in a book that fills paragraphs with lists of influential nerdom – could anyone discuss ANYTHING made by a woman? Seriously? Besides a passing reference to Le Guin?
Also, fellow readers, were you not just a little disgusted by our hero’s romantic prowess? Seriously, he saved EVERY screenshot Art3mis ever posted of her avatar? No, don’t worry creepy stalker nerdboys, that’s totally normal. When she says don’t write to her, of course she means email her every day until she gives in. That’s what all women mean when they say no. The book isn’t just stuck in 80s nostalgia, it’s drowning in 80s gender politics. I feel like I’m supposed to glaze over pg. 173 and the fucked up transphobia of “Are you a woman? And by that I mean are you a human female who has never had a sex-change operation?” I’m sorry, is this not 2045? Have we seriously not moved passed this notion that sex and gender are the same thing, and that trans women are not real women? (Fuck you, every first reader, professional editor and asshole friend who let Ernest Cline put this in his book. And particularly, fuck you, Ernest Cline.)
At least the female avatars in OASIS don’t all have to be big breasted, scantily clad Barbies (everyone’s favorite part of video games, right?) – and hey, the book even kind of makes fun of those avatars. But, nerdboys do like to congratulate themselves on liking the girls who don’t quite fit society’s model of “pretty” – how many times does Perzival describe (read: objectify) Art3mis, concluding with a very proud moment of liking her birthmark, because he cares about her on a deeper level. Of course, she doesn’t ever get a back story – but she couldn’t be his manic pixie dream girl if she did, could she? Besides, it’s more important that she makes him feel good about himself. And that she solves puzzles for him. Look, isn’t she so smart?
I think this book wants to have good politics – the mutual aid, the need for a team, the belief in the importance of a future in which access to information and communication be open to everyone.
The OASIS is nerdboy utopia — a place where you can craft yourself into anything you want to be. Too much acne? Erase it! Want to be taller/shorter/thinner/stronger? Poof! You can be anything in the OASIS — aliens, mythological creatures, fictional beings… But if you want to be taken seriously, better be a white boy. Which is exactly what Perzival’s bestie, Aech, does, donning a hetero white male avatar to hide her identity as a queer woman of color. And while her reveal seems like a terrible but almost redeeming moment (because at least the story ACKNOWLEDGES the sexism and racism written into this future world and she does get to be the only female character with a real backstory), the book is still nostalgic for some incredibly problematic ideas. There’s a hesitant moment where Wade realizes her gender doesn’t change their friendship, and in a complicated sequence, Perzival tries to parse out whether to use male or female pronouns for her in the game. Because she’s using a male avatar, he uses male pronouns in the OASIS. But not consistently. And really, he’s only fully comfortable with Aech being a girl because she likes girls, too. Then it’s okay. It’d be terrible if she liked him, but had a male avatar – because, you know, we live in a world where gay and trans panic is still a valid legal defense.
Despite all this, the world is intriguing. I got sucked in and really emotional when I read, and had to stop every few chapters to return to reality. A reality in which my news feed is a barrage of posts about net neutrality, complete with numbers to call and pleas for action and frightening predictions of a future without it, an IOI future, where the bad guys win. I think this story has something to offer us. I think it wants to have good politics – the mutual aid, the need for a team, the belief in the importance of a future in which access to information and communication be open to everyone.
But seriously, I’m so tired of narratives about hetcis nerdboys with fucked up gender politics and stalker-like behavior. Where is the book about Aech? Maybe they’ll make it right in the movie… But given how far in the credits you have to go to find a team of women involved in the production, I seriously doubt it.