There is a halfway decent adventure novel tucked into this patchwork jumble somewhere. I came to this book with glowing recommendations of almost everyone I knew, and the movie trailer looked fun. To say that I was greatly disappointed in this novel does not begin to cover it.
The first half of the novel is a mess, to put it politely. Wade Watts is a stereotypical “nice guy,” akin to a Ted Mosby or a Leonard Hofstadter. This is not a compliment. A true nice guy does not comment on how great it is that a woman’s body is not conventionally pretty and how he’s totally okay with her being “curvy.” HE’S STILL OBJECTIFYING HER. Further, the way he, Aech, and I-r0K use homophobic pejoratives so casually as a way to insult each other (especially in light of second-half revelations) is reminiscent of the kind of toxic masculinity that pervades the internet, fan culture, and sci-fi culture. I wondered if Ernest Cline was setting this up as some kind of commentary on toxic masculinity, especially since we’ve seen the fallout from GamerGate, but no. The characterization of Wade is tired and boring, and we see too many examples in real-life culture for me to find it smart or innovative.
[ALSO: I am sick to death of the trope of a woman being a “prize” for a man’s questing and/or good behavior. I AM NOT YOUR TROPY. A romance between two consenting adults involves so much more than Andy Bernard wearing you down with his singing and guitar. The other person should be just as excited about kissing the pursuer. I am done with the woman-prize trope and want to burn it to the ground.]
Once we get to the quest narrative, Cline finds much more solid ground. I love a good puzzle-box story, and there are many potential avenues for enjoyment. While I am not a super-huge fan of the 1980s, I do enjoy a good quest and mystery, and there are moments where I tore through the story waiting to see how the search for the keys and the egg would go. Cline is familiar with Joseph Campbell’s hero narrative and he adheres to major arcs that make sense.
And yet I am giving this a two-star review (and contemplated taking a star off), because I found the writing to be unbelievably lazy and shallow. Cline is banking on his readers to be as obsessed with the 1980s as he is, and yet he writes Wade to be an annoying mansplainer (seriously, folks, anyone knows what it means to be “canon”) who finds himself unpacking very basic 80s cultural artifacts for us (anyone over the age of 30 knows what Family Ties is, and most under the age of 30 are not going to be coming to this book because of the 1980s). The sign of good writing, or at the very least, a good story, is a trust in the reader. I felt insulted that Cline was constantly telling instead of showing. I also felt like Cline was micro-managing the story and a curation of the 1980s music, film, and videogames, instead of allowing 80s throwbacks to reveal themselves in clever and referential ways (like the entire vibe of Thor: Ragnarok). I do not think this book is going to age well at all.
This novel had every reason to be interesting and instead mirrored what it is like to be a woman on the internet, in academia, and in politics. If you want a book that involves an immersive VR experience, I recommend reading Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age instead (with thanks to my sister for putting the title in my TBR).
Cross-posted to my blog.