I absolutely, definitely, most certainly want to read books that explore how pop culture affects modern day consumers. I love to see bits of media that look into how we as a culture have shifted, how we engage in communities, fandom, and nerddom, exploring how elements of books and movies and music and gaming have become embedded into our daily lives until they’re indistinguishable from life.
I read two books this summer that dealt explicitly with pop culture and how we embrace, use, and interact with it. The first was The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak by Brian Katcher. The story follows two basically strangers-but-also-classmates as they try to navigate a sci-fi convention in search of Ana’s errant brother. I hated it. The story is described as a “long, crazy night, which begins as a nerdfighter manhunt” but “transforms into so much more.” This was completely insufficient warning for what actually awaits readers of this book. The plot was completely off the wall, it was condescending more often than inclusive, the story jumped the shark like three times, and there were otherwise very few enjoyable elements.
The second is Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, a novel that has taken the nerd community by storm. The immersive search for Halliday’s Easter Egg was both fascinating and original in concept. Nerds all over swarmed to this tale of full geek immersion and the search for happiness–and in this case wealth–within the virtual world video games have grown to provide. As game technology expands, so does the way we interact with the virtual and how that affects our everyday life here in the “real world”. RP1 jumps into the fray with gusto.
In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade’s devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world’s digital confines—puzzles that are based on their creator’s obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them.
But when Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade’s going to survive, he’ll have to win—and confront the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.
Full disclosure: I had an incredibly difficult time pushing myself through the first 100 pages. I actually temporarily ragequit a book, an unprecedented occurrence (I eventually pushed myself to continue and was glad that I did). I have honestly never broken out into angry tears of frustration whilst reading before, so thanks for that new experience, RP1.
But the plot is GREAT. The world Cline has created is thorough, interesting, and immersive. I was so into reading about this kid’s experience as he stumbles upon the first key and the subsequent rat race that ensues. It’s an amazing concept that deserves an amazing story to accompany it. And Cline manages it, mostly. The plot is strong. Sans eye-roll worthy references, the novel’s pace is excellent, the characters are well conceived, the action is reminiscent of the gamer experience, a level of heart-warming kinship is created, and the logic is sound.
The one redeeming quality of The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak is how cleanly Katcher manages to slide references into the story. While there are relatively few moments during which this novel captures the average con-goer experience, the constant stream of nerdy culture that pervades the chosen setting for this tale–which ends up having a lot more to do (SPOILERS) with illegal drug cartels than attending a convention–never feels forced or false. We’re treated to references from all corners of geekdom, sometimes in rapid fire succession, but Katcher doesn’t feel the need to stop and explain the origin of every reference. If we get it, cool. If we don’t, well–that’s what Google is for.
At one point, one of narrators finds himself in quite the pickle and thinks Ruh roh, Shaggy. That’s it. We don’t need to be told that he’s quoting the main character of a beloved children’s cartoon popular since the 70’s called Scooby Doo. We’re trusted to understand that reference based on our own nerd merits. I never realized how much I appreciated being trusted with the ability to understand until I experienced how Cline doesn’t grant us that kind of trust in the least.
Ready Player One force feeds you references until it feels unnatural, forced, and completely annoying. You’re no longer nodding along like “oh yeah I LOVED that game as a kid” or “oh man I used to stay up past my bedtime just to catch that show”, it’s oh dear lord shut up shut up please not another one. And I thought name dropping was just for celebrity.
Instead of giving fellow nerds a slight nod and trusting their intelligence to kick in so they understand the reference, RP1 employs extensive lists to make sure every possible nerdy niche is explicitly named off. No one’s denying the narrator’s nerd cred, last I checked. Instead of pulling me in and granting a feeling of kinship, each forced reference pushed and pushed and pushed. I’d stop reading for minutes at a time, distracted from the story with the inclusion of yet another ill-timed mention of an outdated movie title.
And therein lay the issue: it’s a conglomerate of titles being recited to readers as opposed to in-the-know references that would be fun Easter Eggs (ironically enough) for fellow fans reading the novel.
Readers hoping to settle in with a nerdy pick are instead treated to pages of like, like, like. “My surroundings made me feel like I was in a low budget sword and sorcery flick, LIKE Hawk the Slayer or The Beastmaster (Page77)”. Not one, but two drops, entirely for the purpose of name dropping. This is not referencing. It is not a “wink”.
At first, it just seemed lazy.
“Stop hitting yourself like Rain Man, OK?” quips our main character at one point, in a clear attempt to both be witty and make a precious pop culture reference at the same time. It’s that damn like again. It’s not as though it’s difficult to avoid. “Settle down, Rain Man, OK?” “Yo, Rain Man, don’t beat yourself up about it.” Anything. It’s seriously not difficult. I love the word like. I use it like all the time. But I’m also pretty sure there’s a lifetime limit to how many times you can use the word, especially in that “kind-of-introducing-a-metaphor-but-really-just-can’t-reference-cleanly” manner, before you’re banned. Cline shatters that glass ceiling with ease.
The further I read, the more I got the impression that it wasn’t laziness–Cline just has a hard time differentiating between referencing, listing, and straight up name dropping.
For example, Ready Player One boasts a two and a half page long brag sheet of all the nerdy culture the main character is familiar with. Like, you watched every Star Trek ever made and Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull sucked, thank you I get it. Stop “referencing” and get on with the story.
I can post a two-page spread from this novel without ruining the plot since it is literally a list of popular movies, TV shows, books, games, and music that adds NOTHING to the plot.
It’s like me walking around my entertainment room and pointing out each and every figure we own while explaining what it is referencing and adding “because like I’m really into this stuff” every so often. And then reading through the authors on my bookshelf, titles and date of publication included, before starting over.
The penultimate example I can provide comes towards the end of the novel, at which point we’d mostly settled into fast-paced, unobstructed awesome plot, making this horrific excuse for a “reference” come as an extra unexpected jolt.
“Directly ahead, a steep cobblestone staircase at the edge of the runway led up to a grand, floodlit mansion constructed on a plateau near the base of the mountain range. Several waterfalls were visible in the distance, spilling off the peaks beyond […]”
I tend to think that readers, especially readers who would choose to read a book of this nature, are reasonably smart. We’re very capable of picking up on descriptive clues, especially when they clearly evoke imagery that is extremely well known within the fandom being referenced. But I get it, sometimes people need a little more explicit information.
“It looks just like Rivendell,” Aech said
Just in case we weren’t sure. Now the reference has been clarified explicitly. Not particularly necessary, but fine. Not overbearing.
I nodded. “It looks exactly like Rivendell in The Lord of the Rings movies.”
WOW GEE THANKS. Not only is this further clarification repetitive and obnoxious, it has no relevance within the narrative of the story, seeing as only two characters are present during this exchange and the second (Aech) has already demonstrated that the reference is clearly understood. We’re left to assume that the narrator, Wade, is still obsessed with being a stupidly unnecessary showoff. I guess.
Maybe you’re not a LOTR fan, so you’d skim over that reference and be none the wiser. This is apparently unacceptable to Cline, who seems to simply be attempting to shove another list at casual readers to make sure that no reference is missed.
Despite the angry tears of earlier pages and my stream of complaints, I really, really liked this book. Most of the time, the writing was witty and engaging, and the plot was beautifully crafted and executed. Crazy dystopian societies are an automatic point of interest for this girl, and the exploration of our dependence on the widespread and instant connection of the modern world and how the escapism of gaming introduces a whole new virtual element of the Big Brother syndrome was thorough and managed to shift seamlessly between the virtual world and the real-world implications of losing yourself to the virtual reality.
The plot was great. The world was well wrought and fascinating to explore. The attempted murder of geeks didn’t seem completely absurd as it did in the travesty that was Improbable Theory. I would have been happier with less “wow omg this girl is so hot except it’s just an avatar so I can’t forget that it’s probably actually a 30-year-old man” bullshit, but I’ve decided to focus on one element of this book that makes me unhappy and the glaring misuse of references definitely wins out.
Overall, despite being referentially challenged, Cline crafts one hell of a story. The adventure within an enormous virtual reality, as well as how that Utopian version affects and bleeds into the real world, is fast-paced and captivating. Not only is the premise interesting, it holds up throughout the novel, building in intensity and scope as we move deeper into the plot. The central ideology of the book never falls apart, ensuring that readers aren’t disappointed with the resolution.
The plot itself is more of a tribute to gamers and geeks than all of the so-called references, since it beautifully captures the emotions of our own gaming experiences. When Wade manages a particularly impressive victory, figures out the puzzle, or unites in nerddom with fellow avatars, we identify. We draw on our own moments, victories, and co-ops. We remember how certain movies, books, or games got us through some of the toughest moments in life. This simple, mind-numbing entertainment has huge emotional value for so many of us, and this book really delves into how we cherish the escapism and seek something otherworldly to explain our own lives. We’re given a chance to reflect on how and why this virtual world is so inviting, what makes it rewarding, and why we too would be willing to commit ourselves to a virtual utopia while neglecting the physical world we inhabit.
The Improbable Theory Of Ana and Zak, on the other hand, had a terrible, over-complicated plot that lost sight of its supposed intention of exploring pop culture and fandom–and by lost sight I mean Cline probably winked at it. I finished it out of sheer will, despite the growing horror as we got further and further off track, into a world I had no interest in reading about. But the pop culture references were well placed, natural, and always welcome. They fit the narrative comfortably, whereas Ready Player One failed spectacularly. Cline could have spent some extra time at the crafting station, tweaking and polishing those references until they gleamed seamlessly within the narrative instead of creating jagged peaks wherever they were clumsily hammered in.
Am I excited about the upcoming movie? Hell yeah.
As I furiously texted during one of my particularly rage-filled quit moments, “I take solace in the knowledge that the movie at least will not be able to extrapolate so disgustingly because I am actually interested in the plot that is buried somewhere deep within this referential hell. Can’t spend five minutes listing off the names of every movie you’ve ever seen onscreen, asshole. Gotta get a little more creative than that. Show, not tell.”