Ready, Planet One?
Ernest Cline's cringe-worthy cyberpunk novel is the literary dystopia we deserve.
In case you missed it, the Women’s March banned A Handmaid’s Tale regalia from this weekend’s festivities. Apparently, too many white women wrongly think a lack of control over reproductive rights means we’re living in a dystopia, say the organizers, when women of color have had little say over their own bodies for decades.
“This is not a dystopian past or future,” they wrote.
Or maybe we’re just flirting with dystopia, which is why we’re in boom times for projecting the plots of dramatic science fiction novels onto the present. During the Trump Years, we heard we were living in lit like A Handmaid’s Tale, Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle, and Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Talents. Conservatives and liberals alike love to invoke Orwell’s 1984 to warn about the overreach of the surveillance state (or the vaccine state of today, I suppose) or Brave New World to scaremonger about the dangers of “Amusing Ourselves to Death” as Neal Postman once wrote.
Leftist media figure Nomiki Konst even invoked the Bible of all books this week, the OG of apocalyptic literature, to find a parallel to Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin’s stonewalling of the Biden agenda (um, Pontius Pilate, perhaps?). It’s all rather ridiculous, yes, but as long as we’re all doomscrolling together, we might as well pick the most likely dystopian future to match our present moment.
My bet is on an underdog: Ready Player One. Make no mistake—uber-nerd Ernst Cline’s debut novel is one of the worst works of literature in a generation, the equivalent of the Internet writing fan-fiction about itself. Like most entertainment made in the past decade, the book (and Steven Spielberg’s movie adaptation) aren’t original, they’re dumbed down copies of copies. It’s a YA version of Snow Crash for people too old to be reading young adult fiction. But whereas Neil Stephenson’s 1992 novel reads like a satire, a cautionary tale of future technologies gone wrong, Ready Player One often feels like an advertisement for the benefits of living in a simulation.
The main character is Wade Watts, a teen growing up in a world in 2041 marred by energy crises, widespread famine, catastrophic climate change, and war. Watts, who is poor and lives in a trailer park, only finds solace in the OASIS—a virtual online gaming platform that replicates many aspects of real-world life, including socialization, commerce, and entertainment. Sound familiar?
Watts’ goal is to get rich by being the first person to solve puzzles created in the OASIS by its deceased founder James Halliday. To do so, he has to mine all sorts of ‘80s pop culture ephemera, from John Hughes movies to Atari 2600 games, in the hopes of finding clues and winning Halliday’s game before an evil corporation does. (SPOILER ALERT: He does.) In doing so, Watts becomes the OASIS’s new one-man dictator whose only qualification seems to be being the coolest guy at Comic-Con. As such, he resembles a young Elon Musk, a real-life nerd turned tech oligarch with a mastery of memes.
Ready Player One is supposed to be “a love letter” to Gen-X pop culture but it struck me as a death knell for my generation, a tacit acknowledgment that we’ve all been swallowed whole by mass media. Or that even if we’re not yet—wouldn’t it be kinda awesome if we lived and breathed someone else’s imagination?
We may soon find out. Mark Zuckerberg and other titans of tech are currently building the Metaverse. It’s an emerging version of the Internet, a Web 3.0, that resembles the OASIS but with more augmented technology so that there’s no such thing as truly logging off. I wrote about Facebook’s grandiose pet project for a recent feature for Jacobin Magazine and briefly explain why the Metaverse could come to fruition sooner than we think.
Already, we’ve conceded too much ground to the digital life during the Web 2.0 era of the last dozen years. Sometimes I think about how the New York Times published a solemn special section for Gamergate’s fifth anniversary in 2019, something usually reserved for events like, say, 9/11. Opinion writer Charlie Warzel attempted to justify the section’s hyperbolic headline, “Everything is Gamergate,” by noting that “Gamergate’s DNA is everywhere on the internet.” If you read between the lines the conclusion is chilling: everything is the internet.
In the age of COVID, that finally rings true for more than just journalists who write for the New York Times. We sometimes forget that we’re still in the midst of an on-again, off-again 18-month long social experiment marked by quarantines, social distancing, and a distinct fear of each other as virus-spreaders. So far, we’ve prevented a mass extinction event (that’s good!) but it’s come with a steep downside. Essentially, the pandemic has acted as a shock doctrine for an always-on digital society in which work, play, shopping, socialization, and economic life occurs online first and trickles down to “meatspace” second. Zoom parties, virtual conferences, Dogecoin, million-dollar NFT’s, Tik-Tok millionaires, oh my! Hell, games like Roblox and Fortnite are already mini-metaverses onto themselves.
As was also the case of Ready Player One, there’s a correlation between the amount of time spent online and the decline of the material world. This summer, we saw the ravages of climate change on our environment while also witnessing a horrific spike of inequality, homelessness, and crime. According to a recent news report, half a million American households currently lack basic indoor plumbing, which is disturbing to read in a time in which the rich get luxury healthcare and COVID mansions on remote islands.
Even the social fabric has frayed further over the past 18 months of isolation and alienation. People are fighting over masks and vaccines, ignoring traffic laws, and uploading every uncomfortable moment with another person on social media in the hopes of digital mob justice. The tension is palpable: we’re starting to treat people in real life like we do on Twitter—terribly.
Meanwhile, depression and suicide are on the rise, more young people are swearing off dating and sex, and personal identities are fragmenting and beginning to resemble online avatars. I’ve been reading up on the frightening concept of “Otherkin,” people who identify as nonhuman or specifically animals or mythological creatures and “alterhumans”—those who believe they’re not one person but a system, “a collection of entities sharing a body.” The internet, we’re told, fosters these spaces by allowing so-called otherkin to explore how “virtual spaces can help us escape” the rigid norms and rules forced onto physical bodies IRL, wrote the Daily Dot.
Is it any wonder why Zuckerberg is going all-in on the Metaverse while a group of advisers from tech, finance, and video games started an ETF on Wall Street to help fund the Metaverse’s build-out recently?
The foundation for the world of Wade Watts’ dreams has already been laid.
That doesn’t mean life moving to the Metaverse is inevitable. I just think it’s more likely to happen than orgy-porgies everywhere or Trump becoming God-Emperor in 2024. Read it and weep. Better yet, don’t read it.