Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Cory Doctorow for President

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is a very amusing book about the state of the world in 2044. Because the planet has run out of fuel, most people have to live in packed dwellings, such as trailers stacked one on top of another, each tiny bedroom housing a whole family. Their concerns: "The ongoing energy crisis. Catastrophic climate chage. Widespread famine, poverty, and disease. Half a dozen wars." (p. 1)

In 2044 America and other parts of the world, most people. at least most young people, spend the majority of their time in a role-playing game called OASIS. Wearing high-tech gloves and body suits, and "seeing" via retinal displays, they experience virtual reality and in many cases have no direct contact with fellow humans.

At the beginning of the book Wade, the narrator, describes the death of the creator and owner of the OASIS game and corporation. The most important fact: his will left his wealth and power to the winner of a virtual game to find an "Easter Egg" inside the OASIS. By page 9, Wade explains that he, "an eighteen-year-old kid living in a trailer park on the outskirts of Oklahoma City," was the first seeker to solve the beginning of the riddle. And thus we are launched into a fast-paced tale of virtual, and eventually Real Life, adventure. Or if you like, a quest which focuses on the game-designer's obsession with 1980s geek culture including early video games, early home computers, popular tech-oriented movies, and other pop culture of that era.

Each of Wade's successive wins becomes known immediately through a public "Scoreboard" reporting his score and the scores of his competitors -- just like a video game only serious. This enables him to live a little better: he makes money by endorsing products, both virtual and physical, that people can purchase despite their terrible living conditions.

My favorite part of the novel, besides the suspense, was the description of his isolated apartment, entirely controlled by a very advanced computer, which he created for himself when he had advanced far enough to have a chance at winning the big prize. Without any contact with humans, he lives only to continue his quest. Food and new high-tech devices are delivered through an air-lock. To avoid obesity, he has his computer monitor his "vital signs" and keep track of every calorie he eats and every calorie he burns throughout the day; the computer forced him to exercise on high-tech treadmills. It only allowed him to eat "a preset menu of healthy, low-calorie foods. ... This was some sadistic software." (p. 196-197)

The most wonderful virtual reality device in his high-tech apartment was the Olfatrix smell tower, "capable of generating over two thousand discernible odors. A rose garden, salty ocean wind, burning cordite -- the tower could convincingly re-create them all. ... A lot of jokers liked to code really horrific smells into their simulations, just to mess with people who owned smell towers, so I usually left the odor generator disabled, unless I was in a part of the OASIS where I thought being able to smell my surroundings might prove useful." (p. 193)

About the politics of the era, Wade wrote that he didn't vote in the US government elections: he didn't bother because "I didn't see the point. The once-great country into which I'd been born now resembled its former self in name only. It didn't matter who was in charge... now that everyone could vote from home, via the OASIS, the only people who could get elected were movie stars, reality TV personalities, or radical televangelists." (p. 201 -- note: the book was published in 2011.)

Wade continued that electing the leaders of the OASIS government was different: "It was also time to elect the president and VP of the OASIS User Council, but that was a no-brainer. ... I voted to reelect Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton (again). There were no term limits, and those two geezers had been doing a kick-ass job of protecting user rights for over a decade." (p. 201)

I think the most impressive feature of Ready Player One is the conclusion. Unlike most dystopian or futurist novels, the plot does not fall apart, and though there's a bit of moralizing, it has a very satisfying ending -- which I will not spoil!

1 comment:

Evelyn said...

I listened to the audiobook which is read by Wil Wheaton. I almost dropped my phone when I heard that the narrator had been elected Vice President - considering that the book was written before they found a narrator.. It broke that 4th wall in quite an alarming way!