Read: 15 May, 2015
When the inventor of a revolutionary virtual universe (OASIS) dies, he wills his vast fortune and control over the OASIS to the first person who can find the ultimate easter egg.
The novel is an unabashed ’80s field trip, or “nostalgia-porn” as some reviewers are putting it. If people who were kids/teenagers in the ’80s generally thought something was cool, it’s likely mentioned somewhere in this book (plus a few nerdgasms from later decades). Want to see an X-wing fighting a Firefly? Done. Want to see if a Leopardon could beat a Mechagodzilla? Covered.
Of course, the book was written by the fantasies of a nerdy white boy, which is a shame. There was/is so much more to nerd culture that that demographic seems to have completely missed (and, being the group with the most media attention, they’ve managed to really control the narrative of nerd-dom as being a thing that belonged entirely to white boys in the pure Golden Days, which others are only now trying to infiltrate). Surely, despite the image of nerds manufactured by media like Revenge of the Nerds, Cline could have imaged a distant future where even women would have a place. Instead, the default characters are all white men.
Aside from the default, there’s a Love Interest, two Samurai-obsessed Japanese boys (no surprise there), and three background mother-figures who are dead by the end of the third act (so the MC can have a little angst). It rather struck a nerve since, as a geek girl, the only role my friends could slot me into was the Love Interest. This meant that I had to be perfect – I had to be beautiful, I had to be funny, I had to be completely knowledgeable about every single little piece of trivia, and I had to do it all in a way that never made me “intimidating”. You know, all the things Art3mis is in Ready Player One. Of course, this was impossible. And every time I failed to live up to the Love Interest ideal, my right to membership in the clique was questioned. I couldn’t be a friend, so if I couldn’t be the perfect Love Interest, what was I even doing there? It was exhausting having to put in so much work just so that I could play some games and feel like I belonged for a little while.
(SPOILERS: Yes, I know about Aech. I’m not really counting her/him, though, since the reveal happens right at the end, and it felt like he/she was just a “have POC/Woman in book” achievement for the author. Because Aech is a white male through the entire book save for one small part – after which she/he returns to being a white male – I count the character as such.)
So, fine, that was kind of the reality for the ’80s and ’90s. The geeky girls had to fit that mould, or they had to learn to work their hobbies into their “totally normal, totally not a geek” social circles (which many did, as I discovered far too late for my child-self’s peace of mind). So I can buy the idea that a white guy who grew up in the ’80s just wouldn’t have noticed all the nerdy POCs and women around him if they weren’t love interests, but this novel is set decades into the future. Why is this still the case? Particularly when women and POC gamers are becoming so much more visible now? It’s frustrating.
The off-hand transphobia was rather jarring as well. When Wade is talking to Art3mis about her meatspace identity, he mentions something about hoping she’s really a woman. Then clarifies that he means “a human female who has never had a sex-change operation.” I mean, just, why?
There’s more, of course. It’s the Revenge of the Nerds demographic, where stalking a woman gets her to fall in love with you, where the Love Interest has to be perfect in every way except at the one skill – playing video games – that the protagonist most closely identifies with (lest she be intimidating, of course!), or that the Love Interest must be gorgeous but very insecure about her appearance (but don’t worry, she’s still gorgeous!! That’s extremely important and must be dwelled upon!!).
It’s frustrating, because I really enjoyed the book. I loved the nostalgia (that was my childhood, too), I loved the set up of meeting someone in cyber-space and not being quite sure how to take it offline (my spouse and I met online – in fact, our most recent Date Night was spent playing Ironclad Tactics), and I loved the sheer “IDGAF ’cause this is just cool” playfulness. But at every turn, I felt like I was being written out of my own childhood, and it’s just rather depressing.
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