By Juan Haines
For someone who has never experienced 21st century technology, understanding new technologies, like the internet, can be challenging. But placing these new developments in the context of a world from which you are separated while incarcerated is even harder.
Ernest Cline explores these elements in his book Ready Player One (2011), in which he touches on themes of individuality, coming of age, and technology.
Set in 2045, the story revolves around a future internet called OASIS. Its creator, the reclusive and wealthy bachelor James Donavan Halliday, passes away, leaving behind his entire $240 billion fortune to anyone who can solve a puzzle he has built inside the internet.
Wearing a virtual reality mask, the main protagonist, Wade Watts, enters the digital world as an avatar named Parzial and plays a game to solve the puzzle.
Parzial wants to solve Halliday’s puzzle, get the money and become someone of importance, while the girl he cares about, Art3mis, wants to be the person to chance the world for the better. Parzial’s sidekick, Aech, is on the quest for himself.
The characters in Ready Player One bond together in an effort to beat the powerful corporations.
Cline’s use of gaming is an important element in this futuristic fantasy novel.
It creates two distinct worlds: the virtual world of OASIS, and reality. Cline’s characters struggle with this dichotomy, but come to the realization that reality, and the people in it, matter more than the circumstances of the game.
Nevertheless, Wade finally understands reality:
I come to see my rig for what it was: an elaborate contraption for deceiving my sense, to allow me to live in a world that didn’t exist. Each component of my rig was a bar in the cell where I had willingly imprisoned myself.
Some San Quentin inmates are also gamers who, like Cline, have created their own avatars in images seemingly in perfect rehabilitative form. Everyday San Quentin gamers sit around with their thick reference books, making up fantasy worlds that have all-imaginable technology, defined magic they know and understand. Their avatars have superpowers that include force-fields and invisibility.
They lay their cardboard worlds on tables and go on adventures that get them away from the stale life of incarceration; an activity easily understood, looking from the inside and out. The most interesting thing about these convicts, seeking adventure: every one says their quest must be based on finding solutions to anti-social behavior. They want to be do-gooders.
Two classic stories—As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner and Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne—also use well-developed characters to discuss social conflicts through adventure and quest.
The premise of Faulkner’s story is quite simple: after family matriarch Addie Bundren dies, the father, Anse, and his children want to honor her dying wish to be buried a long way from home, Jefferson City.
The character interaction in As I Lay Dying holds onto a dysfunctional Southern world view that draws sympathy for all the Bundrens. The long journey gave Faulkner apt opportunity to dissect family values. Readers learn the Bundrens, in spite of challenges, are a family that sticks together, no matter what.
In Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne combines quest and family by probing into a willingness to be open-minded while journeying into the unknown.
This is quite different than Cline’s characters who leave the “real world” in order to immerse themselves into a make-believe place.
Hans in Journey to the Center of the Earth contemplates the quest toward the center of the earth with his uncle:
It must be that a man who shuts himself up between four walls must lose the faculty of associating ideas and words. How many persons condemned to the horrors of solitary confinement have gone mad — simply because the thinking faculties have lain dormant!
These interesting works of literature seem consistent with Cline’s theme that is a rich and layered storyline of social responsibility.
Ready Player One takes on global warming, corporate greed, and poverty in a way for readers to identify. Even though the story occurs at a time and in a place unfamiliar to most incarcerated readers, it earns a “read it” mark because of its fast pace that keeps the mind working.