Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, a novel about a futuristic America wracked by poverty and severe energy shortages where most people spend the majority of their time inside an extremely sophisticated video game world called OASIS, and the billionaire inventor of the game who sets off a treasure hunt within it on his death, came out last summer and I finally got around to it last weekend. It’s not a perfect book?Cline does a lot of telling when he should show, as when he introduces us to a blogger and tells us what her style is like at length rather than letting us see it for ourselves in sample posts. But it’s an engaging story, and I think worth comparing to both Reamde, Neil Stephenson’s novel about a similar video game empire though set in a time closer to our own, and The Hunger Games, which features a similar teenaged protagonist?and in a similar way, prioritizes romance over political engagement.
Ready Player One‘s main character is an isolated teenager named Wade, who lives in extreme poverty with his aunt in the stacks?a name for tightly packed and deeply unsteady complexes of stacked trailers. Wade goes to school in OASIS and after the game’s founder dies, Wade becomes a deeply dedicated participant in the scavenger hunt that the man left behind?and that guarantees the winner access to his fortune. As Wade advances further in the quest, a corporation that wants to take control of OASIS starts stalking Wade and his counterparts, killing his aunt and one of Wade’s fellow gamers in an effort to coerce them into turning over the clues that lead to the treasure. In that respect, the book is a lot like The Hunger Games?both books feature a poor teenaged protagonist struggling to maintain his or her integrity in the face of a murderous and seemingly unalterable system, whether it’s a corporation that’s more powerful than any government, or a government that’s taken control of the economy. And like Reamde, Ready Player One features a game founder with a near-unkillable avatar who is an unpredictable free agent in the game.
But all three books have slightly different perspectives on how their main characters should engage with the world outside of the games they’re playing. At the end of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen, who has been turned into a political symbol and used for purposes contrary to her values, quits altogether: she commits a symbolic act of political violence and returns home, marries, starts a family, and gets as far away from engagement as possible. At the end of Ready Player One, Wade’s victory ensures him not just tremendous wealth but tremendous political power?the reward for winning the scavenger hunt isn’t just the billionaire’s fortune, but his OASIS avatar and the ability to self-destruct the game, driving everyone back into their real, and very broken, world. But the book treats that power, and the possibility of a massive intervention to change the fate of the American public, raised by another character, as if they’re simply not very interesting, at least in comparison to Wade’s reconciliation with his first love. In Reamde, by contrast, getting out of the game and into a world where they go head-to-head with some very nasty terrorists and a mountain lion, is reinvigorating and rewarding for the characters. They get major personal rewards for acting in the world?there doesn’t have to be a tradeoff.
Now, not all novels have to be social novels. And not all heroes have to change the world?nor is it realistic to expect that all heroes will be in a position to kill the hell out of an Osama bin Laden stand-in while also helping ensure the marital happiness of their favorite niece. But there’s something very odd about setting up very clear dystopian conditions, enumerating how they affect the characters, and then suggesting that engaging with those conditions and working to change them isn’t very differing. Both Ready Player One and The Hunger Games are grounded in more explicit social critiques than Reamde, but Reamde‘s far more interested in engaging with the world than they are.