by Ernest Cline
This book came to me in a Loot Crate, a monthly box shipped to suckers without enough crap in their lives, which contains (typically) a totem, a shirt, some sort of reading material/catalogue, and maybe a mug or whatever, all roughly themed around some aspect of nerd culture.
Well, I used to be a nerd, when being a nerd meant a lot of devotion to something technical, like computer programming (back when that was a big deal), math or actual science/engineering—the boring kind which involves getting excited over the mass of an electron or traffic patterns—but these days, I can’t keep up, since being a nerd these days involves copious amounts of TV watching, which is not something I can abide.
Significantly, though, I was a nerd back in the ’80s, so I figured this book would appeal to me, and when the guys from Rifftrax started their 372Pages book blog reading this, I thought it would be fun to read along with them. The nature of my “reading all my books” project pretty much excludes group efforts because, honestly, who else is sitting on a copy of Berserker or The Daily Newspaper In America that they picked up at a garage sale for a quarter?
At first, I was just shocked at how childish the writing was. It wasn’t child-friendly, like Roald Dahl or, say, Sir Machinery where the author is trying to express things poetically, but in a way that a child can understand. It felt a bit more like はたらく魔王さま! Hataraku Maou-sama! : A Japanese light novel, which is almost like a screenplay. Also, translated from Japanese, with lots of repetition to make sure you really got it.
Then, as I read it, I began to notice that the ’80s references were of two types: One that was used as a crutch to keep the author from having to describe anything; and the other, which was also a crutch, but a different kind: One that allowed the author to describe something other than his actual story.
As an example of the former case, Cline might evoke a sound effect from an ’80s cartoon (or ’70s) by saying “it was just like that cartoon”, rather than saying “the low ringing of the bell vibrated in my very soul, awakening the dark horror of The Wonder Twins…”. If you’re not in on the reference, the “description” does you no good. If you are in on it—well, I’ll get to that in a second.
As an example of the latter case, there is a lengthy description of Blade Runner. This description literally does not matter. It leads to a sort-of gun battle against hordes of enemies (of which there are none in Blade Runner, but there are in The Matrix, interestingly enough) wherein the narrator explains off-handedly that he was never in any real danger.
I had already gotten an eerie, creepy feeling as I was reading. Now, I remember the ’80s. In fact, except for a few of the Japanese robot cartoons, the references were all familiar to me. I have reasonably fond memories of the era. I’ve revisited some of the movies recently and found them better than I remembered, some of the music holds up pretty good, and I’m still up for a game of “Nethack” or some interactive fiction.
But after a while—well before the third invocation of “42” that seemed like a reflexive lack of imagination than a clever reference—I began to wonder if Cline wasn’t actually writing a nostalgic potboiler but a scathing commentary on contemporary society.
Like, why would anyone proudly decorate their super-secret virtual lair like “The Family Ties” living room? One could speculate that our hero, Wade, found comfort in the (now presumably defunct) idealized nuclear family—but one would have to speculate that, because the author remains silent. But if it’s not that, why is it there? Because the audience finds comfort in it, just like they find comfort in games of Joust and Pac-Man, in movies like WarGames and Red Dawn, Rush’s 2112 and…uh…Cyndi Lauper—the book is especially weak on musical references, which perhaps devalues its work as satire.
I started to cringe at every little bit of trivia I knew—which was a lot of it. I knew of “The Tomb of Horrors” for example, though I’d never played it. I can sing (and play) all the “Schoolhouse Rocks”. I just finished reading Mother Night so I—no, I never could figure out where the Vonnegut reference fit in. I began not only to wince at the book’s references but also at the remnants of ’80s culture that I encountered floating around in my daily life, like hearing Sheila E. or seeing a showing of Ghostbusters playing at the local bijou.
I realized then that the ’80s is, itself, the perfect decade for this sort of satire. Society, having been hollowed out by the cultural revolution of the ’60s and ’70s, was trying to make a comeback—but the people who knew and appreciated traditional values were long gone, so we got pallid echoes of older culture. Instead of rock ‘n’ roll, we got the ’80s version of rockabilly—which is three chords plus irony. Our action heroes traded upright behavior and grit for muscles and quips. Instead of sci-fi with pro-human visions of the future, we got corporate-run dystopias where people lived their lives in virtual realit—oh.
So, what Cline seems to be saying: We’re subliterate morons utterly stuck in a past that is itself a subliterate echo of an earlier past, much like this novel is itself, only an echo of classic SF about virtual realities. Our current imagination is so poor, we will actually endorse a vision of the limitless possibilities of VR where the highest form of action is someone playing “Tempest”. His contempt oozes when Wade (Cline’s obvious alter-ego) triggers his own corporate kidnapping, and we discover that Wade is completely without empathy for fellow victims—and for virtually everyone else in VR he has to deal with.
Hence, one star. This is just a way too vicious attack on one’s own readers who were only looking for some fun and a few nostalgic references.
I look forward to the author’s future, scathing appraisals of modern society, however.
UPDATE: Just looked at the author’s second book, and it’s exactly the same, so, no, he’s just really into the ’80s.
UPDATE 2: Canceled my Loot Crate.