I feel a little bit odd that I wrote the first draft of this post by hand, because the book is so technologically bound. (In my defense, I was using a sonic screwdriver pen.) It’s the type of book that might benefit greatly from being re-read on an iPad or Kindle Touch – something that can give you links to the references or have the songs playing in the background at the appropriate moment. It doesn’t need this, of course, but it might accent and enhance the experience. It’s also the type of book that cries out for annotations – again, not that it needs them, but to make the experience fuller. It invites study of the level that it describes. If I get bored or stuck in my unemployment, I might start collecting a database.
But it doesn’t need any of that to be a good book, which it is. It’s a near-future SF, set in about 2044. The world economy has essentially collapsed, thanks to climate change and the depletion of nearly every natural resources. There are two major technological factors in American life: IOI, a corporation that seems to control most of real life, and OASIS, an immersive virtual reality. The creator of OASIS has died by the time the book begins, and has left his immense fortune and control of OASIS to whomever can solve a series of riddles and Easter eggs. The evil corporation wants it, of course – and so do our heroes.
It’s a classic quest story – our hero [real name Wade, avatar’s name Parzifal] has no real family, picks up companions along the way, some of which leave him at various times and for various reasons, and they encounter many obstacles that not only advance the quest but help Wade grow as a person. The corporation tries to stop them (usually violently). And it’s filled to the brim with 80s references: films, music, anime, and video games mostly. (This is why I want annotations!)
As well as being a good plot-based story, it’s also pretty good on some of the deeper themes that come up whenever you talk about technology: addiction, privacy, feminism, identity, to name the major and more obvious ones. But it’s not all a doom-and-gloom, today’s-society-is-wrong message. Parallels with today are drawn, of course, but in both good and bad ways.
Let’s start with the good: OASIS demonstrates, absolutely, the power that technology has to bring people together and to educate. The schools, for those who can get access through financial or meritocratic means, are fantastic if for no other reason than the program won’t let class be disrupted. You can’t leave your desk, you can’t access non-relevant information (like emails, for instance) during class, you can’t do anything non-school related. There are bad teachers, of course – or at least not-great ones (the Latin teacher comes to mind) – but because the teachers don’t have to spend so much energy on discipline, they can focus on actually teaching.
OASIS can also make experiences much more accessible. Money is still a factor, of course, but the lack of it isn’t quite as limiting as it is in the real world. Era is no barrier, physical location is no barrier. If you want to take a class trip to see the Roman Forum, you can – if you want to investigate the composition of the moons of Jupiter, you can. You can experience anything you want.
And because it’s a virtual reality world, interaction between people can be a lot more realistic. Because of the devices and the immersive nature of OASIS, you can actually feel physical interactions with other people. You can see their avatars, not just words on a screen. There is actually less anonymity, in some ways, than in today’s online interactions – you can see people’s reactions to your words and actions instead of waiting for a typed response. I’ll get to this more in the identity conversation, but basically, you can choose to appear however you want to appear: the way you see yourself and the way other people see you can be much closer.
Of course, all of the arguments against technology are there too, especially addiction and isolation. For all the mental connections that Parzifal and the others make, they have very few physical connections. Parzifal spends several months withut ever leaving his apartment, and has to force himself to initiate a fitness program before he turns into Jabba the Hutt (surprisingly, not a reference made in the text). It is acknowledged that it would be far too easy to stay in OASIS and die in the real world. Nothing is programmed in to avoid this, though – it’s entirely up to the user whether s/he wants to commit suicide via VR.
Privacy is also a very real issue. IOI manages to access, legally or illegally, the personal information of every gunter (our hero and his friends), including real identity and home address. The avatar and the human may only be linked in one place, a place that is supposed to be completely encrypted, but that one place is enough to open up everything else. The first clue is blown open because someone else happens to know that both Parzifal and Aech go to school on the same “planet” – that one little detail, apparently unconnected to anything else, becomes the lever that reveals the secrets of everyone else. It’s terrifying, both in the context of the book and its real life implications.
The big thing, of course, is identity, and I touched on that a bit ago. In OASIS, you can be whatever you want to be, appear as anything you want to be. If you want to be treated – or not treated – in a certain way, you can change yourself enough to make that feasible. I don’t want to spoil things, but it is mentioned some in a non-spoilery way near the beginning: Parzifal has developed a crush on a blogger named Art3mis – and expresses repeated concern that she is a middle-aged man named Chuck living in his mom’s basement. Because she so easily could be. In another example, if you are a black female teenager and want to be taken seriously, you could change your avatar into an older white male. It’s sad and unfortunate that that would work (and even worse that when I read about it, I thought, “oh, that’s an effective way to do it”) – I can only hope that one day, people read this book and don’t understand why someone would feel like they need to change their race or gender in order to be taken seriously.
Since most of the book takes place within OASIS, people’s “real” physical identities are never really an issue – even when Parzifal expresses doubts about Art3mis, he follows them up with a sense of “but I don’t really care, because our connection through this is real.” And possibly the best line for this comes from Parzifal and Aech’s first IRL meeting, when they realise that they do already know each other – it’s only the “minor” things like gender and race they didn’t know.
By contrast, IOI takes away the identity of nearly everyone they employ. The IOI avatars have numbers, not names, and even they can be taken over by any of the various employees as needed. Indents (indentured servants) are essentially forbidden from any sort of personality expression, ranging from how they interact with IOI customers to what they watch in their “free time”. It’s an obvious but vivid contrast to the expressions of individuality that the OASIS can provide.
I could probably go on, and I’m sure other people will, and this doesn’t even get into the 80s nostalgia and pop culture references that permeate the book and provide both the rationale and the background for the plot. But I’m at nearly 1300 words – and really, I just want to read it again.