I have been turned on to Earnest Cline’s first novel Ready Player One (Amazon) by the hosts of Outlandish Podcast who have praised the book as having a lot to offer pop culture-savvy geeks currently in their 30s. Their podcast has the same appeal. Supposedly, references to 1980s movies, music, TV shows, and video games abound throughout the story that supposedly ends up being a satisfying read. While there are many generals and specifics of ’80s culture that I absolutely hate, I do have some fond memories of my childhood which began in July 1980. Ellis’s American Psycho* and overnight videos aired on VH1 Classic between 2002 and 2005 helped me identify and ridicule a lot of the sources of my bad feelings about that decade just after I graduated college. Since then, I no longer avoid artifacts from the era and I have happily surrounded myself with things that remind me of the good times. Although, I do not idealize it like folks I know that are currently in their 20s. Anyway, I got the Ready Player One audiobook read by Wil Wheaton who looks about as good as I do with a beard (I.e. bad).
*note: I have read the American Psycho novel and seen the movie. The book has a whole lot more in it and is better than the movie, but I can’t recommend it. There are certain things that an serial killer does with a hooker, a plastic tube, dissolving acid, and a hungry rodent that I believe most people can live without having explicitly described to them.
By way of disclaimer, I majored in English Writing with a fiction emphasis. Consequently, when I read or even hear about a writer’s first novel, jealousy and hate roil violently beneath my crust as a reflex. If that first novel in question falls under the speculative-fiction genre, the reflex is intensified 10-fold. But I am a rational, reasonable man who is also a 5-time world champion bile-swallower. All the diffused rage will probably give me cancer some day.
I have only gone through the first chapter, not nearly enough to comment on the story; therefore, I am only going to bring up the writing. To wit, the central law of fiction that bleeds into every aspect of writing craftsmanship is
Show, don’t tell.
But telling sneaks up on a writer. It is impossible to show utterly everything, so a writer will have to do some telling unless he or she is a master of the craft or a poet. Furthermore, the only way for a writer to know if they are telling offensively is if they realize that what they just now wrote down would have been better if they gave an example of the behavior rather than telling the audience that the protagonist clears her throat compulsively. Ideally, if you let the reader draw their own conclusion about a setting, a character, a theme, an event, or whatever from what you give to them, it as an infinitely more compelling experience for them than spelling it out. Creating a compelling experience for an audience is what art craftsmanship is; purpose and meaning are irrelevant at that level.
Getting back to Ready Player One. My standards aren’t so high that I don’t expect the very beginning of the story to include some telling. My standards are pretty damn low. Nevertheless, Cline has in one place told me something insufficiently. Then in another place, he has told me something and also shown it to me. These are just two minor points that made me cock my eyebrow and wonder what I was in for.
On the first flag, I understand how tedious it would be to show an ’80s dance move with text (without ASCII art), but can you not name check a dance or two rather than say a character is executing 80s dance moves? I know for a fact there was dance back then called the roger rabbit and another called the cabbage patch. I don’t really know dancing because dancing is never not stupid. Yet, in a book full of specific references, you would think Cline would throw something specific-sounding at the reader even if the references went right over the reader’s head. Additionally, I will bet that the dance in the author’s neighborhood was different from the dance from the Washington, D.C.-area neighborhood that I grew up in. So what the hell are we talking about? Sometimes giving a specific detail shows the audience more than a generic description.
In another place in the first chapter, I am explicitly told that most people in the world of the story think that a rich recluse is crazy before I am shown that the rich recluse is an eccentric geek. Perhaps, the author is setting a up a juxtaposition between what most people think and the reality of the situation, but I do not know what the first-person narrative voice thinks and at this point, the narrative voice is authoritative and reliable. My imagination was working to cover the contradiction, but my “theory” was never confirmed by the narrator. The author would have been better off picking a lane and driving in it rather putting on his hazard flashers at a 4-way stop.
I am not really criticizing the work; I’m still on board. I am only considering what he has done while trying to imagine what I could do better in my own fiction. It is what I have been trained to do. And I’m a self-centered parasite. Whatever. I have read in themost trustworthy source for knowledge on the internet that Cline’s first successes were as a screenwriter. I have to wonder how the experience helps or hinders him in novel writing. The function of words on the page when writing a screenplay is to give other people compelling ideas to build upon and carry out. When writing shorts stories or novels, the author has a direct connection to the reader’s imagination where the collaboration is much more immediate. The mediums must have different approaches. I guess I could ask him about it on his website.
As I said earlier, I have not listened to enough of the story to comment on it. However, it involves the near-future, an MMO with worldwide popularity, and a treasure hunt. I am eager to see how he handles it all.
longer than I thought it’d be