1 December 2016
In the past couple of months I listened to the audiobook versions of Ernest Cline’s two novels. They are of a common piece, and so I opt to review them in tandem. There is a feeling I have that I am increasingly at odds with the students I teach in terms of cultural references and common interests. On a field trip recently, I made a joke that referenced Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and it fell utterly flat. Probing for why (I have no shame), I learned that NONE of the students on the trip had seen ANY of the Indiana Jones movies. These films were touchstones for my youth and worldview. Only Star Wars has a higher position in the Bentley pantheon. Another angle: I read a lot, and I don’t get the sense that my students do. When I was in high school and college, I read voraciously outside of class, and many of my friends did too. In the calm, organizational moments before a class began, many of my peers would be reading books. Nowadays, it hardly needs saying, the students are paying attention to their smartphones instead. What books could possibly bridge this generational cultural chasm?
My money’s on Ernest Cline.
Ready Player One, his debut, is set in a dystopian future where most people spend most of their time online in a simulated universe called the OASIS. The creator of this ne plus ultra virtual reality dies, and sets up with his will a competition for his accumulated riches that’s based on exploring the OASIS with a thickly-cultivated sense of 1980’s music, movies, TV, and games. I’m not a gamer myself, but I watched a fair amount of TV in my youth, and I’ve been a constant cinematic consumer throughout my life. And I’m familiar with most of the music referenced, though none of it comes close to the Talking Heads for me. Bottom line: there were a veritable gigatonne of 1980’s pop cultural references that were woven into integral plot developments in this novel, and they are so much fun to revisit in the context of a new cut-throat competition for the biggest pot of money on Earth. Poor boy Wade invests his passion in mastering every little detail of Steven Spielberg*, Atari, Rush, and Japanese monsters. When various trials are presented to him, he has the skills to succeed. Along the way, there’s a fairly traditional romance subplot, but call me a sucker for that sort of thing – it’s just like all the movies I watched in the 1980s!
So what else has the guy written? That was the question as I closed out Ready Player One. It turns out, there’s only one other option at this point: Armada. I checked it out from my library, and just finished it yesterday. I think I liked Armada even better. It’s set more or less in the present day, and the plot hinges on the notion that all of the science fiction movies and video games we’ve been enjoying as a culture are in fact intentionally preparatory. More specifically, two massively multiplayer online games, “Terra Firma” and “Armada,” are specifically designed to train Earthlings for a forecast alien invasion (ground combat and space ‘aerial’ combat, respectively). The protagonist, like that of Ready Player One, lacks a father but discovers that before his father died, he had clued in to this massive cultural conspiracy. The protagonist, Zack, is really good at playing “Armada,” and soon discovers that his dad’s nutty old journals were right, and now he too is being folded in to this effort to fend off Earth’s annihilation by hostile aliens. As with RPO, there’s a ton of pop-cultural tie-ins, though this time the connective tissue runs in the other direction. Star Wars, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Independence Day – those were all propaganda to get everyone up to speed. Fun: Carl Sagan got the funding for the original Cosmos by virtue of his involvement in the cover up. Brief cameos by Seth Shostak, Stephen Hawking, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Twists and turns in the plot, and another cliched romance sub-thread, and it’s all good. Overall, a rollicking good time.
I should note that both audiobooks I listened to were read by Wil Wheaton, which is perfect, since the Stand By Me / Star Trek: The Next Generation actor is an exemplar and advocate for geek culture across the decades.
* Spielberg is directing the movie adaptation of Ready Player One, which I predict will be awesome. Due date: 1.5 years from now.