My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Ok. I would have loved this book even if it didn't remind me that the old Atari Joust video game existed. I had entirely forgotten about it but as soon as Cline described it, in all of its oddity, I gasped. Man! I LOVED that game! I haven't thought about it since 1983 but suddenly there I was in an arcade in a mall in Miami, my braces newly tightened and my pockets stuffed with quarters. Later I would go to the Camelot Records to grab 45s of the Billboard top 5 to pack in my suitcase and haul back to Jamaica, where I was living at the time. Our American culture came shipped in duffle bags when any of us went to the states. No satellite TV, certainly no internet. Music on vinyl smuggled through customs, hidden along with our M&Ms and our soft toilet paper. NPR in the mornings over shortwave radio. A VCR as big as an ottoman on which we would watch tapes of movies pirated from HBO while someone was in the states (I still get giddy when I think of the feature presentation flyover intro; that music meant something NEW, something exciting! Cannonball Run!) D&D games played on someone's veranda. Epic sword wars and treasure hunts waged through the hills and dales of our fenced-in ex-pat compound. Once, when lighting struck near the pool we were swimming in, we all scrambled out and then my pal Jocko pulled his dice out of the pocket of his swim trunks and rolled to see if we were dead.
This book took me right back to those years. It made my heart warm. It is a deftly crafted combination of dystopian search for justice and hard-core nostalgia, all wrapped up into a cohesive package by a creative and wholly original story line.
Of course, these kids of 2044 know more about the 80s than I ever did, or ever will. I'm no expert. But I lived through it, just like the nice old lady Wade knows, so I've got cred!
I do worry about something like OASIS becoming our actual future. I worry about complete immersion in a world that isn't real. I see the possibility of it very clearly; Facebook is a primitive version of where I fear we're going. On FB, we create a version of ourselves that isn't quite honest. It's an entire online community of people attempting to find meaning by narrating and documenting their meaninglessness. It's only a short step to finding meaning by creating a new person to live in a different world where we might do better than we're doing in the real world. That idea is attractive. It's addictive. But it isn't real. As Groucho Marx once said, "I'm not crazy about reality, but it's still the only place to get a decent meal."
But that alternate unreality also lets people overcome physical disability, racial stereotyping, and gender stereotyping. Wouldn't it be nice if we could present a physically perfect version of ourselves for people to know? Because if we can control everything about how we look, we can all be physically perfect. Then what creates difference, what creates depth and connection, is what we say. What we do. Who we are. Cline plays a bit with this part of it with his characters. None of them are what they seem to be online. But the best parts of themselves still show through. And the best parts of themselves have nothing to do with what they see when they look in the mirror. Or what they look like online.
I wish Cline had been a little less pat with the ending. It seemed like an easy way out. But maybe he did that because he's going to use a sequel to dig into the unanswered what ifs. I hope so. Because I want to know what happens next.
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