Top critical review
Unapolagetic pulp just misses all significant moral lessons
Reviewed in Canada on August 13, 2019
I'd never heard of Ernest Cline; Amazon sent me here after a PKD binge which has led me to two main findings: 1) Amazon's recommendation system is a bit off and 2) After a quick search, I found out Cline is _not_ a teenage boy himself, which undoes the most generous theory I had about the author.
Just gonna touch on the character set-ups and the conclusion here, and point out all the ways the story's morals could have been more interesting and deep, instead of the one-dimensional mass market status quo they represent.
The main protagonists: Five obsessive teenagers outcast from traditional family life and obsessed with winning this competition for their own various motives, charitable or otherwise. There's an actually interesting lesson in Art3mis' dedication to spending her winnings on charity. You should question why a social outcast would have any sense of charity towards the society that both rejects her and has literally nothing to do with her existence. Really, you're going to spend your money helping people who you have nothing in common with in a reality that you don't spend any time in? Yes. Because this is an allegory for post-globalism altruism, and the "simulation" is really the middle class western world. Otherwise, the protagonists all share this obsessive reject arc that highlights Moral Issue #1: Obsession isn't a product of being a social reject, its a cause of it, and its something we need to stop glorifying in prominent figures (read: Nikola Tesla). Being cast out of society and having sh*t living conditions are less likely to lead you to lone-wolf fantasy herodom than an unstable life teeter-tottering in halfway houses. Want to inspire teenage rejects? How about let them know there’s a whole community willing to accept them, and that they don’t have to try to prove themselves to society by going off the deep end, only to find out that society actually doesn’t care about these obsessions that are now eating them alive and giving them nothing in return, that all the money they weren’t going to win anyways wouldn’t have filled that hole left by the flight of family and friends, that Tesla’s bankrupt “wireless energy” idea would have done more harm than good, etc etc. In general, if an author chooses “obsession” as her protagonist’s main personality trait, she’s a shallow writer sidestepping character development and hedging on a social norm of glorifying that kind of thing.
The villain is a Very Evil Bad Guy Sorrento from Globalist Monopoly Incorporated who wants to ruin everything by putting up ads everywhere. Want to really drive home that the system is evil? Make it capitalist AND monopolistic. Moral Issue #2: Capitalism hates Monopolies and in the real world you we don’t know who the bad guy is. I’m going to give Cline the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s using the IOI “monopoly” as a stand-in for “dystopia” here, because the snowballing world issues the book describes have nothing to do with monopolies. That's the problem with _global_ institutions: There’s a lot of them everywhere and they’re all doing bad things cooperatively with local governments and people, and we don’t know how to resolve these issues in a way that preserves the power structures we’re familiar with and our standard of living (if you’re reading this you’re in the HDI top 20%). But if you just want to evolve from “edgy” to “edgelord”, you rail against the capitalist monopoly.
The final main character is another obsessive type, but this time is a huge narcissist. Moral Issue #1b: Nerds/outcasts can be narcissists too, and their genius doesn’t redeem their narcissism. I actually see “crazy inventor archetype guy” as bad guy #2 who set up a lottery for a reckless amount of wealth and power, with none of the redeeming virtue to direct that wealth/power towards solving (understated) global issues and push the pointless red button (aside: “gunters” and other obsessive consumers are the whole reason internet lotteries need more regulation and why Happy Meal sweepstakes come with so much fineprint). Instead he commits an inordinate amount of energy towards designing a way to make millions of people think and act like him. At least in the real world tech moguls are superficially philanthropic.
There were two conclusions at the end of the book: The conclusion of the love arc, and the conclusion of the competition. Both are problematic.
Moral Issue #3: You can love someone for their personality as long as they’re only a tiny bit physically unattractive. When Wade and Art3mis finally meet, Art3mis is self-conscious about her discolored skin but since our boy protagonist is in love with her personality it’s easy for him to overcome that monumental barrier to physical affection, and the reader learns that true love surpasses all challenges. Here’s a quick exercise to prove how lazy a writer Cline is: Swap the reveal scenes of Aech and Art3mis. “You mean my best friend is actually a hot, witty lesbian? And my crush is a heavy black woman?”. This would force the reader to confront the intended moral of overcoming physical attraction. Instead Cline’s just giving that message lipservice. The actual events weren’t chosen to stimulate the reader’s brain, they were chosen to stimulate his crotch. Challenging the status quo interferes with the story’s masturbation potential, which interferes with the story’s potential sales figures. Guess we know who the real capitalist is now.
Moral Issue #4: Nothing got solved. Between the “good guys” winning some cash and the half-as*ed red button reveal, nothing really changed for the better about the world. At some point the global scope of starvation and poverty and climate disaster transitioned to a very personal problem of Wade’s video game addiction (?), which he was able to resolve after getting $50B and a cute, hetero, cis, conventionally attractive, white girlfriend. But the pursuit of money is what caused the world its problems in the first place, and escapism works really well (>300 pages of this book testify to that), and scapegoating individuals like the Madoff/Sorento guy is how the system continues to grind forward by throwing crumbs of justice to the sheep. Evidence that Sorrento’s arrest wasn’t a happy ending but a sad one, did you know that Bernie Madoff was the only person tried and sentenced in connection with the 2008 financial collapse that ruined so many peoples’ lives? If thats what your villain coming to “justice” is based on then you’re sending the wrong message.
The main fixtures and tone in this book were so convincingly teenage fantasy-like that I actually looked up Cline's name to find out whether he himself was a teenage boy. But besides the storyline itself and all the characters involved, the 80’s trivia was on point and the writing style was really transfixing, which earns it back a star. 2/5