Crown, 2011, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0307887436
The rise of geek culture may not be new (if you’re looking for a watershed date, February 29th, 2004 will do nicely as it was a leap day that saw The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King win the Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year) but it continues to astonish me. How did descendants of the things that made me a social outcast in the eighties and nineties end up becoming a good chunk of today’s mainstream pop-culture? Now that geekery has won over the mainstream, are we core-geeks poorer for having birthed the dominant culture? Does being a geek even mean anything now that it’s a lucrative marketing category?
I may feel those questions even more intensely than most given how, in a few short years, I went from outcast to mainstream, from a single geeky technician to a married father knocking at management’s door. The last videogame I have played for more than a few minutes was 2011’s Portal 2. I’ve gone from attending ten SF conventions a year to one. I’ve stepped into movie theatres only three times in the past two years. I’m more interested in home improvement projects than zombie walks. Frankly, I’m this close to dissociating myself from the geek label when it’s used more as a way to sell useless things than as a secondary marker for a shared world-view.
This is relevant to Ready Player One in that I was not exactly primed to enjoy a science-fiction novel that delights into celebrating eighties geek nostalgia. I’m not an exact fit for the eighties-obsessed geek for a number of reasons (I was born in 1975, meaning that my prime geek years were the 1984-1994 decade; my household had Commodore-64/IBM computers rather than Atari/Nintendo gaming consoles; we didn’t have cable; and since I wasn’t speaking fluent English at the time, my personal culture wasn’t as dominated by the American standard) and while I’m still sympathetic to many of the things that typical geek culture includes, I’m increasingly reluctant to spend either time or money on the matter. I am not, in a few words, nostalgic for the eighties.
But Ready Player One is almost entirely about eighties nostalgia. It’s a novel whose Science-Fictional nature exists merely as scaffolding to tell a story about video-gaming and eighties ephemera. It’s about a future world in which a deeply influential innovator has died, leaving behind a virtual treasure hunt based on his love of the geeky eighties. Partially structured as a video game itself, Ready Player One begins with one of the lowest of the lows: an orphan teenager trying to piece together a living in a dystopian future where the only escape is through virtual reality. Our hero is a self-described Gunter (as in: Easter-Egg hunter) obsessed with eighties trivia. A lucky flash of insight, some good friends and a bit of luck eventually cause him to discover the first breakthrough in the treasure hunt and from that moment on, the novel seldom pauses for breath until the big-boss finale.
But the overarching plot isn’t quite as remarkable as the density of Ready Player One‘s deluge of geek references. From video games to (rather fewer) movies, music and books, this is a novel that delights in nerdy nostalgia. Being reasonably familiar with the subject matter, I’m happy to report that I didn’t find any glaring misuse of references or terms: Ernest Cline is the real deal, a geek-king-among-geeks who has internalized the language he speaks.
It’s that kind of honesty, combined with an entertaining prose style and some savvy page-turning tricks that make Ready Player One quite a bit better than just a simple nostalgia-fest. It’s about the eighties, of course, but it’s also about how the eighties charted the way pop-culture evolved into today’s shape, with video games taking up such a cultural importance, and how the ideals of personal computing as developed then have led to the decentralized anarchy of the Internet. The eighties may not have seem like much at the time, but they definitely set the stage for what followed and Ready Player One may be most interesting in tackling just what it did introduce into mainstream culture, sometimes decades later.
But of course, such socio-thematic consideration don’t amount to much compared to the actual text of the novel itself, a furiously readable page-turner that exists in its own reality. Cline writes good characters, and if the foundations of his premise don’t bear much scrutiny, it’s a novel that chooses forward narrative momentum far above structural integrity. It’s, perhaps even more importantly, extremely successful at what it does. While it’s aimed at eighties fans, it should work roughly as well (absent extra flashes of recognition) on readers with more tenuous relationships to the eighties. I was a bit surprised to like it as much, but the speed at which I tore through the novel speaks for itself. Geekery or not, this should be a great read for everyone.