Friday, September 7, 2012
WHY 'READY PLAYER ONE' is the Most Culturally Relevant Book Ever Written (for Generation X at least)
Let me begin by saying that I was born in 1974 and knew what it was like to live in a world where the only available technology worth owning at the time (for most of the population) was a console television set that weighed 500 pounds.
That was it.
Okay, sure, we had a few devices that were out in the late seventies/early eighties that hinted at the technological breakthrough coming at us in the next couple of decades: Channel F, Atari 2600, Intellevision, The Odyssey 2, ColecoVision and, of course Merlin, but it wasn’t as if every household would own one of these (that period would come during the 90s with the fourth generation consoles SNES and Sega Genesis battling for supremacy).
In fact, during this infancy the first hardcore gamers were starting to come into their own, creating weekend leagues and tournaments, running the risk of bricking expensive consoles to run other, sometimes self-created, games and drinking gallons of carbonated beverages. It was a new world, and as part of the generation that began our first tentative steps within this new tech, there is a certain nostalgia for those days when one could get lost for hours in blinking green pixels.
And that is why Ready Player One (written by Ernest Cline) is an extremely important book.
If you are unaware of the premise, here’s a synopsis: The world as we know it (in 2044) is a giant shithole. Humans have managed to wreck the economy and the environment in such a way that a vast majority of the planet’s population lives in poverty.
Basically living sucks balls.
Which is why most people spend their lives in a virtual world called the OASIS (Once a MMOG, it slowly became the only place humankind wanted to spend any time in). It was created by a man named James Halliday whose obsession with 80s pop culture would be a driving force within the OASIS.
When Halliday dies at sixty-seven, the lifelong bachelor left no heirs to his fortune or to his creation, but what he did bequeath to the world was an Easter Egg Hunt in which the winner would inherit everything belonging to him, including the OASIS.
To get started you just had to solve the riddle:
Three hidden keys open three secret gates
Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits
And those with the skill to survive these straits
Will reach The End where the prize awaits.
And there begins an epic story of one Gunter (someone who is actively trying to find the Easter Egg) named Wade Watts- as well as his friends, who are not only after the Egg but also trying to defeat a real life Boss; an evil corporation named IOI who will stop at nothing to control the OASIS.
So what, exactly, makes a sci-fi/gamer novel worthy of being called The Most Culturally Relevant Book Ever?
Simply because the amount of 80s references, television and movie quotes and video game discussions make it so.
Like James Halliday, the Gen X members have been molded by the decade in which they grew up (the 80s).
As a group of children who learned, in the quiet afternoons spent alone without parental supervision, television and video games were our babysitters, best friends and siblings. Left on our own, we watched TV and played games, our brains absorbing graphics and references until they were sated by information those previous generations would have assumed to be as disposable as paper towels.
But for us, the minutia of what we watched or played became as important as air (ask a Gen X member their favorite technique in Centipede and you will hear at least 15 minutes on how to jimmy the joystick with a particular denomination of coin so that it continually fires). As we grew older and became obsessed with various entertainment time sucks, we spent days dissecting the inner workings of television shows like Head of the Class or dropped the equivalent of a semester's worth of college tuition into the bellies of arcade games like BurgerTime simply because it felt important to do so (and who was to say it wasn’t).
In the book when Wade has to recreate all the lines that Matthew Broderick said in War Games in order to complete a task, a Gen X’er will automatically hear the automated, scratchy voice of “Joshua” the WOPR computer as he asks David (Broderick) “Do You Want to Play A Game?” because the image has been burned so deeply in our collective unconscious. And when David, a hacker, decides to play a “new” game called Global Thermonuclear War we cheer, not because we want the world to end, but because a member of the tribe was able to get access to something once hidden from him.
Halliday’s obsession with 80s pop culture is not simply a nostalgic look back at a time when technology began to grasp us. It is also the first time when an older generation was left behind so completely. Our parents may have had the cultural movement of the 60s to separate them from their parent’s ideology, but we had something less abstract, a bit more tangible. The moment we slipped in a cassette tape on a TRS-80 computer, picked up a joystick or managed to hack into a cable box so that we could see free pornography, the differences between generations created a massive fissure.
Tech and pop culture defined us as a group and, as Wade Watts and his friends learn throughout their quest, it is precisely those obsessions that created the very world they inhabit.
Reading Ready Player One is like having all those tiny pinpoints of information that we gathered through our evolution printed onto the future like old analog computer cards where they remain unchanged and beautiful.
Tempest in the book is exactly the Tempest we played at the arcade. Playing a perfect game of Pac-Man gets rewarded with the very coin it once took to play it in the first place and recalling the lines in movies in the way they were said will move you to the next level (whether it garners you a key, or the accolades of your friends).
And, most importantly, reading the book is like pulling your obsessions through your gut and examining them again like an innocent child who is seeing them for the first time instead of hearing about it from their now old-time parents.
For those of us encroaching on an age that is so foreign and distant to how we see ourselves (still able to maneuver quite happily with the tech and culture of our children), Ready Player One reminds us that once we were ahead of a curve and filled with a particular predilection for a deeply held belief system that was built upon bits and bytes and thematic grandeur.
And if you don’t cry at the end of the tale, well, you never really were one of us.