Yeah, you’ve said it before- “Alexander, this book is old news Spielberg made a movie about it. Put it back on the shelf and read something else.”
Well you’re right, I’m about a couple years late on reading this one, and even later on reviewing it. And no, I don’t think I’ll be watching the movie- I saw a trailer and thought wow, that looks like a 1980’s circle jerk. And yes- yes that’s all I’m going to say about that, Spielberg.
The book jumps stands out with a compelling and interesting setting. It’s the 2040’s (that’s 12040’s for nerds like me) and the world has crumbled to a mess of poverty, global climate disaster, an obsession with 80’s fashion, and absolute economic collapse. The setting is far more dire than most traditional dystopians- in that not only does society still exist, but it sucks in every sense of the word. in some cases, travel is done in armored buses because of rural hooligans and the US government is inexplicably out of control.
To cope with this, humanity has tapped into the Oasis, a MMORPG-VR system that simulates life in all of its perfection and uses virtual money that is more stable than the currency of the real world. For the main character Wade, and those around him, there is an obvious conflict between using the oasis to escape the real world and actually surviving outside of VR. Wade however is not playing the game to escape.
Wade is a gunter, which is Cline’s way of saying that he’s trying to win a videogame competition for ownership to the rights of the will of the Oasis founder, Holliday, one of the richest men in the world at his time of death.
Holliday, a 1980’s obsessed ASD suffering genius, created an easter egg hunt within the code of the Oasis that he designed as a way to shave off the responsibility of finding an heir, and maybe to make death a bit more fun. When our story begins, Holliday had passed five years before and no one has yet made any headway towards the first clue. Wade, however, is determined to win.
Ernest Cline is a great author and a total geek- he obviously spent either the time doing an insane amount of research about popular 1980’s culture or he spent so much time playing 1980’s games and watching 1980’s movies that he was able to put everything in this book from wrote memory.
That heavy 1980’s influence has its up sides, but it has detractors that- instead of making the book “the grown-up’s Harry Potter” (Huffington Post)- it had scenes that read more like a YA novel with outdated references and forced jokes. BUT for every forced joke there was ten that felt perfect, for every outdated reference there were seven that had aged just fine- and all of them viewed under an overview perspective actually enhance the reading. Take this paragraph as me saying- I didn’t get or really appreciate all of the jokes, but having them there made the book just that much more interesting.
Wade himself, is a teenager, and so much of what happens in this book is really geared toward a reader of about 18 years. What it seems, is that the book is a way to bridge the gap between Gen Z kids and their Gen X/early millennial parents. And that works, I know more about vintage videogames and 1980’s movies now that I’ve read the book than I really ever cared to, and considering how explosive the 80’s were in terms of culture in the US and Japan I can agree that it deserves more attention in popular culture. It is true that some of the best aspects of our modern culture came from or started in the 80’s, but when I’m an old 90’s kid I’m sure I’ll feel that nostalgia too for my childhood decades.
I do take some issue with the dystopian future Cline presents. Wade lives in a camper in a skyscraper made of campers. They travel in armored vehicles between cities because anarchic behavior outside of metropolitan areas. The super wealthy are so much richer than the poor that indentured servitude is the resolving punishment for extreme debt.
I have mixed feelings about these ideas for several reasons. Largely the idea that indentured servitude would be the punishment to debtors. Incarceration or even punishment against debtors has decreased in our culture (Pinker, 2011) and I do not personally expect even political crisis to stop this trend in the Americas. While these companies do have more money than the government or at least more regional power, I highly doubt that the entire world would be willing to subject themselves to such treatment.
Next I have some doubts about the structural stability of the camper-scrapers. They’re really cool, but would that even work? If it will please let me know and I will not only retract this petty complaint, but share their functionality with the rest of you.
Lastly, the anarchy and climate issues. Look, the world is definitely going to shit- I don’t need to give you a detailed research paper to explain that the climate is changing and it will have drastic consequences for humanity. Action needs to be taken or else climate refugeeism will be a new norm. However, I very highly doubt that anarchic hillbillies will roam the desert like 1980’s teen vampires or Alex in a Clockwork Orange. I feel that Cline himself thought this prediction was weak, as it’s only briefly mentioned and openly contradicted when we find that cross-country travel by car is still relatively safe as there is a point where it occurs in the book some time after the armored public transport. Maybe I misunderstood something- if I did let me know.
So, what was good, then?
Well, though it sounds like a contradiction, everything about this book was good. Cline knows how to hook an audience and keep them involved in the story. As a kid raised on the internet it was easy not only to relate to Wade but to actually get into his mind, like being 18 all over again- in a good way. His characters are rounded, largely dynamic and believable. And while I don’t believe indentured servitude will ever resurface in the Americas, Cline paints a world that is completely understandable and honestly terrifying. I do not want to live in that future.
If I had to sum the book down into one sentence I’d say “Look, you’re gonna laugh, you’re gonna have days where you don’t want to put the damn thing down, you’re gonna read it on the toilet.”
Any book good enough that you can read it while on the toilet, is good enough to share with your friends after you wash your hands and buy them a copy online without touching it at all.
Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature. London: Penguin. Can be found here or at your local bookstore
I do not own nor do I claim to own the rights to any of the works of Ernest Cline or Steven Pinker. The links I have provided are for the convenience of the interested reader and are not the only path to finding the works described. Ernest Cline has not given me permission to write this review nor has he solicited it from me. That said, please read his books they’re pretty damn good.
Book finished 12019/03/03
In Reviewniverse and Featured Writers posts are Thursdays following my finishing of a book/series or a qualifying submission. Want to be featured? Send me your work! Starting in April, there will also be ABKaffe podcast critiques of writers who submit their work for the podcast.