Book Review: Ready Player One

Note: This article is very long, was not written using WordPress, and reads better in a traditional layout. While I have taken some time to reformat the work to suit this page, viewing the direct (sans-serified) copy of the original ODT file on Google Docs is recommended for the most comfortable reading.

On the way home from registering with a new dentist one afternoon, I passed through Hillsborough’s shopping district and thought I would chance at some cheap books in one of the charity shops there. The one I entered was selling books for a pound apiece, which is not bad at all assuming you like genre fiction and celebrity tell-alls which were most likely written by someone other than the person on the front cover. As I was browsing through the two-a-year romance novels and massed Rankins, I happened upon Bram Stoker’s Dracula, one of those classics I had not yet had the chance to read. It was a Wordsworth edition, from a time before they had started putting pictures of models in garish period costume on the front, one frilly elbow or a feathered tricorne poking out of the frame and into the matt black surround. A few minutes later I found Hyperion, a highly regarded science fiction novel by Dan Simmons, a sort of space opera version of the Canterbury Tales. I’d been meaning to widen my reading away from “literary” fiction out to genre stuff for a while, so that was an easy pound to spend also. Almost immediately after that, my eyes fell on what I would come to know as “the atrocity”. This was Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.

Before the Spielberg blockbuster there was a book, and in that book there are words. And oh, what words! “Imagine the WORLD AT STAKE,” the back cover implores me. Given the state of the world right now, and forever, it would take more effort, and possibly be more enjoyable for me to imagine something else. But an “EPIC STRUGGLE” to complete the “GREATEST QUEST in human history” is perhaps a little bit more enticing. So, who’s struggling epically to complete the greatest of quests? Why, it’s Wade Watts! Wade Watts is a pale pasty overweight nerd and ain’t that just so gosh darned relatable? Well, let’s hope so, the book really depends on you relating to this character on pretty much that basis alone, because fuck if he has any other qualities. Oh wait, I’m sorry, he’s good at video games. And he watches a lot of TV. But I’m getting ahead of myself, first we need some history so that we can properly establish who Wade Watts is. Both of his parents are dead, so he’s kind of like Batman. Batman is a comic book character who debuted in 1937, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger for Detective Comics. Is that information useful to you? Of course it is. Like Ernest Cline, when I namedrop something I have to give a brief paraphrase of the introductory paragraph of the relevant Wikipedia article so that people can know—though never as deeply as I—what I’m talking about, because I am possessed of very specialised knowledge and I can’t expect you, the average reader, to have heard of such obscure things, and I certainly don’t expect you to look them up because then I wouldn’t be able to pad this out to such a length that I might fool myself, and apparently a long list of others into believing that I have achieved something in writing it.

So, Wade Watts. He lives in a stack. A stack is a multi-level tower of scaffolding with caravan trailers on each level. These were implemented as an alternative to building high-density projects for poor people. Since his parents died he has been living with his aunt, whom he does not like, and her boyfriend, whom he likes even less. He has his escape in an inconspicuous van, within which there is a heater and a computer which he uses to connect to the OASIS, an MMO that combines Second Life style trade of virtual and real items for real money with more standard RPG mechanics in a vast virtual universe comprising thousands of planets, each of which has a particular theme or pays homage to a particular game, movie, or whatever else. In the virtual world you can attend school, access pretty much any book, TV show, film, game, music etc. that you want, and also visit planets full of dungeons and grind for levels, but the big news right now is that, in the wake of the death of James Halliday, creator of the OASIS, a contest has begun. Halliday, in a video called “Anorak’s Invitation”, reveals that he has placed three secret keys and three matching gates in the OASIS, and once these have been found and unlocked, any player to do so will have a chance to find the Easter egg. Upon finding the egg they will inherit the creator’s fortune of several hundred billion dollars, control of his company Gregarious Simulation Systems (GSS), and the OASIS itself.

The contest adds another layer to Wade’s refuge from the outside world. By day he is Wade3 at one of the generic high schools in the game. By night he is Parzival, gunter. Yes, gunter. As in “[eg]g [h]unter”. Don’t look at me, I didn’t make this shit up. The gunters are at war with the Sixers, employees of the “Oology Division” of Innovative Online Industries (IOI, which Cline helpfully informs us is pronounced “eye-oh-eye”…), a generic faceless megacorporation of evilness that uses underhanded tactics to try and solve the mystery so that they can turn the OASIS into an ad-ridden corporo-fascist hellhole that will make them a whole lot of money. Wade tells us that gunters call the Sixers “the Sux0rz. (Because they sucked.)”, and if that doesn’t blast your sides into orbit, hang on, because there’s still 340 pages to go and they just keep getting funnier and more charming. But don’t worry, I’m not going to provide a page by page running commentary, mainly because who has the time, but also because one of the things this book likes to do is repeat itself, if not literally repeating paragraphs wholesale then repeating the forms in which the action, such as it is, takes place.

Throughout the book, Wade—or, let’s be honest here, Ernest—just loves to list things, and especially he loves to list names of things. Take this passage for example:

    “When it came to my research, I never took any shortcuts. Over the past five years, I’d worked my way down the entire recommended gunter reading list. Douglas Adams. Kurt Vonnegut. Neal Stephenson. Richard K. Morgan. Stephen King. Orson Scott Card. Terry Pratchett. Terry Brooks. Bester, Bradbury, Haldeman, Heinlein, Tolkien, Vance, Gibson, Gaiman, Sterling, Moorcock, Scalzi, Zelazny. I read every novel by every single one of Halliday’s favourite authors.
    “And I didn’t stop there.”

He does not stop there.
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Some Thoughts on “The Name of the Rose”

Umberto Eco’s first novel is my second Umberto Eco novel. Originally published in Italian as Il Nome della Rosa, it was Eco’s response to a request to write a short detective story for a small publisher. He had responded to the call for stories by saying that if he were to write a detective story it would be 500 pages long. His proposal was rejected on that basis, but he gradually came to work on it as an independent project. The book, which is indeed 500 pages long, mixes Eco’s love of the paranoia that leads people to believe in grand conspiracies, his deep knowledge of Mediaeval history, and his own innovation, in the form of the field of semiotics, into a rigorously researched historical fiction, which is a philosophical yet entertaining murder mystery.

The story is set in a Benedictine monastery in northern Italy in the year 1327. Pope John XXII clashes with Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV; debates rage over the poverty of Christ; mendicant monks are branded heretics; the spectre of Fra Dolcino looms over Italy; and a young Benedictine monk has just been found dead—an apparent suicide. William of Baskerville, a worldly Franciscan and former inquisitor from England, and his assistant, the Benedictine novice Adso of Melk, who also narrates the story, arrive at the monastery to take part in a debate on Christ’s poverty between the soon-to-arrive legations representing the Empire and the Church, but are soon tasked by the abbot into investigating the circumstances of the suicide.

In a nod, one of many, to Borges, one of Eco’s heroes, the book in fact begins with the discovery of Adso of Melk’s manuscript by an unnamed scholar, perhaps Eco himself. Eco was a noted bibliophile, and his collected library at the end of his life amounted to some 50,000 books, for him not a conquest or a boast, but a symbol of all the things he didn’t know. The book is written in that bibliophilic vein, and is in fact about books, specifically the quest for knowledge, and whether knowledge is to be attained or merely to be preserved. The librarian of the monastery presides over a labyrinthine library, with secret rooms and an esoteric indexing system. It is his job to retrieve books for the monks so that they may study them in the scriptorium, but more importantly, it is his job to refuse to do so. The monastery is as much in the business of keeping secrets as it is in the business of devotion to Christ, and the library labyrinth is its beating heart.

The secrecy surrounding the library and its contents is one of William of Baskerville’s most pressing obsessions during the investigation. With the coming of Matins each day at three in the morning, more monks are discovered dead, it is quickly established that all of them are linked to the library in peculiar ways. As the story progresses, it turns out that a lost work of Aristotle, the second book of the Poetics, which, since it really is lost, Eco takes some licence in imagining as a work extolling the virtues of laughter, seems to play an important part in linking the victims further. Does the Philosopher’s mythical lost work reside within the library? If it does, does it contain something so dangerous that someone might be driven to kill to keep its secrets? Is it just one of the many red herrings and side alleys, plots real or imaginary, lingering like the ghosts of dead monks in the Ossarium?

The concept of preservation vs. attainment of knowledge is perhaps the book’s central theme. Almost every episode of the story depicts this central conflict in one way or another. Jorge of Burgos believes that all necessary knowledge is contained in scripture, and that everything else is either superfluous or heretical. William is much more of the belief that books are to be read, and that knowledge can be found not just in the divine revelation of the Holy Bible, but in the writings of the Arabs, the Romans, the Greeks, and others. To that point, much is made of William’s use of reading glasses, possibly a defiant act, for did not God make it so that he would not be able to see text clearly enough with the naked eye? This is contrasted with Jorge, who has the novices read aloud to him, he is also a masterful preacher, as shown by his performance during one Compline service. For him it is enough, and perfectly so, that Christ could speak. All is oration, the spoken Word, in Jorge’s world.

Eco takes much inspiration for his characters and events from the real history of the time. Bernard Gui, who really was an inquisitor for John XXII, arrives at the monastery to investigate the murders, and in his piety drives confessions out of heretics who may not in fact have anything to do with the real crimes taking place. Meanwhile, Michael of Cesena, and Ubertino of Casale, two leaders of the Spirituals, the most strict followers of the rule of Saint Francis, take part in the debate on poverty, the Pope’s side of which Bernard Gui has also come to represent. With these examples I scratch the surface of a history I do not know, but one which Eco knew well from his academic studies, and which he researched further in preparation for writing the book itself. His grasp on the intellectual life of Mediaeval Europe is astounding, and the theological and political debates and their corollary plots form a rich backdrop against which the action takes place. There is also much made of technology of the era, William of Baskerville being a proponent of the “magic” of Roger Bacon, who was mentor to him.

Another source of inspiration is of course literature, and Eco delights as much in pulp as he does in “serious” fiction and philosophy. William and Adso bear much in common with Holmes and Watson, and Eco lays this out from the start, with Adso’s description of William’s physical features being very similar to Watson’s description of Holmes. William’s methods of deduction are also quite Holmesian, and rely on his extremely keen observational skills and logic to support what is, as he frequently admits, more or less educated guesswork. There is also something of Occam’s Razor in his approach to the investigation, and he does indeed cite William of Ockham, the originator of the concept, as a good friend. Elsewhere, Eco delights in referencing Borges. The character of Jorge of Burgos is a wise but intensely pious old monk, blind for half of his life, who takes a special interest in knowledge and is a central figure in the book’s dialectic between attainment and preservation. The library itself, and the many books found in the scriptorium, give Eco, through William, plenty of opportunities to show off his wide reading and knowledge of ancient manuscripts.

Though they are a Holmes and Watson, and though the official relationship between them is merely monastic, the young novice acting as assistant to the learned Franciscan, William and Adso also display something of a father-son bond, and often become teacher and student, mentor and protégé. Eco is often criticised for writing flat characters, and I suppose they are not the most richly defined in all of literature, but I feel that there is more to these two than a simple Doyle homage. But Doyle provides skeletons on which Eco can layer sinews and flesh. Maybe it ends up being a bit thin, but then maybe that fits the austere world of the monks and their ascetic, ritual-bound lifestyles. Entering the murders into that world and breaking up those lifestyles, shaking the certainty in which the monks have lived until then to its core, is how Eco bares that flesh.

Quite apart, however, from being a straight murder mystery, much of the book deals with debates on the nature of various things, and is as much at home discussing the writings of Aquinas or the philosophy of the Mediaeval Muslims as it is herbalism, the logic of navigating a labyrinth, and other things I don’t understand. It is as much a philosophical mystery as it is a pulpy whodunnit, as much a portrait of a time and place in history and theology as it is an excuse to indulge in a world of literature. One of the great things I have gained from this book, beyond an entertaining narrative, is an interest in learning about the history of the Holy Roman Empire, the Catholic church in Europe, and a reinforcement of my so far half-heartedly followed up on commitment to get to grips with philosophy.

I had a lot of fun with The Name of the Rose. Like Foucault’s Pendulum, which I read some years before, it presents riches which are open to you if you know how to access them, but the puzzles to which you don’t have the solutions are just as tantalising. This book is less grand and all-encompassing than its follow up, but it drinks deep of the literary and cultural history of Europe, and weaves an exciting mystery through it. Perhaps best of all, it has succeeded in interesting me in reading the real histories of these times and places. But still, there is something puzzling in how it has been so adoringly received since its first publication. On the one hand, with its Holmesian double act of William and Adso, and the compelling mystery that seems to insinuate itself into every part of the life of the monastery, I can see why it was such an international success; on the other hand it seems, with its theological debates and deep symbology, like it would be something far less palatable to the general public, who would enjoy the murder mystery were it not for the impossibility of disentangling it from the philosophical questions that drive it. It is a story of books, written for people who love books, and I am one of them.