Ready Player One and The Problem with Geek Media
Much like over 10,000 people on Amazon.com, I really enjoyed "Ready Player One" by Ernest Cline. The concept was fantastic, the geeky references were abundant, and I fell in love with the world it was set in. Even the dystopian atmosphere of the world outside the OASIS had a nice charm to it. I could barely put the book down and even when I did, I was still thinking about it.
There are, of course, issues with it because no book is perfect. As many critics point out, the writing is very flat. It's mostly pages and pages listing out obscure 80's geeky stuff with character development and dialogue limited to cliche interactions. Characters and plot both suffer from an author's favorite tool: the unlimited bank account and unlimited time. For example, we're supposed to believe an 18 year old kid has managed to find enough time within five years to watch and read an entire decade worth of pop culture enough times for him to be able to recite entire movies from memory without fault.
But the book is still fun enough with these issues that I could care less about them. No, the issue that I have with this book is with the main character: Wade.
Wade Watts, also known as Parzival, is the epitome of a white male savior. He's bland, he's had next to no training but he's still gifted enough to be better than everyone else, he's bland, despite his rough upbringing and subsequent tragic story he still manages to be a good person, he's bland, he manages to win the heart of the unapologetically kickass Art3mis even though he's more bland than a toothpick....
Really he's the perfect hero for a 80's themed book about geeks and video games.
There were moments where I actually liked him and wanted to pinch his little cheeks because he was so precious. His first trial for the Copper Key where he took a moment to shake the villain's hand after the game, when he showed genuine affection for some of the video games that shaped him instead of just spouting out facts about them like a walking Wikipedia, and his automatic acceptance of Aech's true identity were all moments I remember fondly of the character.
But for the rest of the book, I was really rooting for Art3mis to pull him to the side and say something along the lines of:
But of course she never does because Wade is the perfect hero for geeks. In fact, Wade is so perfect for the role that the significantly more qualified and competent Art3mis even falls in love with him by the end of the book. The chemistry between them is as sizzling as salt and boils down to "Wade had a crush on her blog", but they still manage to share a kiss at the end dazzling enough to make Wade quit the computer world he lived in his entire life.
Now I will give "Ready Player One" some credit. It's surprisingly diverse and includes more than one girl in it. Of our main four heroes: two are female, two are POC, and one is LGBT. That's pretty good for a dork novel. It's the bare minimum for diversity, but for a dork novel it's pretty impressive. What isn't so impressive is that out of these four heavily qualified candidates to win the entire game, guess who wins?
That's right. Our favorite white male savior of the geeks Wade Watts wins the entire thing on, essentially, the fact he's a Good Guy. Sure he shares the winnings equally with his companions afterwards because he's a Good Guy and Good Guys share, but Art3mis was more qualified than all of them and all she got was the consolation price of the Good Guy's girlfriend, which is essentially more of a prize for Wade than for Art3mis.
This is a reoccurring issue in modern geeky media that has gone beyond leaving a sour taste in my mouth and is now just....boring me. Ant-Man (2015) has the infinitely more qualified Evangeline Lily training the bumbling Paul Rudd on how to save the day only to be rewarded with a relationship with the doofus. But at least she gets her superhero costume and a chance to share the title of the sequel with her bumbling boyfriend, right?
It's even seen in the kids' movie Lego Movie (2014) where Wyldstyle has been training her entire life to be The Special only for the super ordinary Emmet to bumble in and take not only her dream job, but her heart as well as they end the movie holding hands, which I'm assuming means they kissed in Lego.
This kind of media is discouraging for women. It's telling us we can play the boys' games, we can beat the boys at their game, and, in the end, if we do everything right, we might get to date the boy who is not as competent as us, but he's a Good Guy so we should be happy. There's nothing wrong with falling in love, of course. But, creators of geek media, I have a news flash for you:
Women can fall in love and still be successful.