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In 2011 Ernest Cline released his first novel, Ready Player One. A self-confessed geek, the book is a tribute to 1980s culture of games, films, television, music.

It’s 2045, and everyone spends a hell of a lot of time logged into the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a 3D super-realistic virtual reality simulation and a gamers paradise. The appeal of the OASIS is that it also acts as an escape from daily life for the population, with the world beginning to crumble due to overpopulation, pollution and power shortages.

The plot follows Wade Watts, a eighteen year old boy. He, like everybody else, is hooked to the massively multiplayer online game that is the OASIS; its creator, James Halliday, revealed a contest to the world once he died. The Hunt encourages users to locate several keys and gates hidden across the sprawling OASIS, a trail of breadcrumbs for the ‘gunters’ who idolise Halliday and spend their time researching and reliving the 80s neon pop culture than Halliday loved so much. The winner will need to pass various tests of skill, intelligence and discovery to obtain the Egg, giving the winner the billions of dollars in Halliday’s estate as well as control and management of the OASIS itself.

Along the way we are introduced to several allies and enemies. Aech, Wade’s best friend. Artemis, the love interest. And Nolan Sorrento, the head of the ‘Oology Division’ at Innovative Online Industries (IOI). IOI is a huge corporation hell bent on winning the Hunt and taking control of the OASIS. They have hired thousands of employees to give them an advantage in scouring the OASIS for the Egg, and are deregoratically called ‘Sixers’. These corporate gunters will do anything to gain a foothold in the Hunt, and are they along with Sorrento are the business-like, efficient antagonists of the novel.

Trying to summarise Ready Player One’s plot doesn’t do it justice. Cline excels in the opening chapters, writing rich descriptions of the OASIS, its eccentric creator James Halliday, the real world in its current state and the culture of Gunters and their Hunt for the Egg. There is a lot that needs to be set up and explained, but once it does we join Wade as he stumbles upon the first clue and the book becomes a real page-turner, with the plot flowing rapidly from one world to the next.

I’m more of a 90s kid so some of the references went over my head. I used to be (still am really) a huge video game fan, so I did appreciate the huge amount of effort and skill from Cline to make plugging into the OASIS a really believable gaming experience. Much like DLC (downloadable content) in modern games money, or credits, are king. Credits are key to transporting your avatar through the thousands and thousands of worlds within the OASIS, to buying spacecraft to travel around solar systems, to casual clothing and protective armour, to powerful weapons and more.

I’ve never been a huge fan of first person perspective/narrative. I’m not sure know why – it can lead to contrived writing and I’ve always felt it can be a little ‘cringey’ at times. That definitely got in the way of my enjoyment initially but I had fully embraced it by the end, and the reader forms a real attachment with Parzival of the OASIS and Wade Watts of the real world. As the story progresses the Sixers become more and more ruthless, prepared to do anything to get to the Egg first, putting Wade in danger outside of the OASIS too.

I was surprised to be moved several times in the books closing chapters. Special mention to Wade meeting his bro Aech in the real world for the first time – that was deep – as was the ending and the implications Cline hints at. The passage below really struck a chord with me.

   Once I had the suit on, I ordered the haptic chair to extend. Then I paused and spent a moment staring at my immersion rig. I’d been so proud of all this high-tech hardware when I’d first purchased it. But over the past few months I’d 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.
Standing there, under the bleak fluorescents of my tiny one-room apartment, there was no escaping the truth. In real life. I was nothing but an antisocial hermit. A recluse. A pale-skinned pop culture-obsessed geek. An agoraphobic shut-in, with no real friends, family, or genuine human contact. I was just another sad, lost, lonely soul, wasting his life on a glorified videogame.
But not in the OASIS. In there, I was the great Parzival. World-famous gunter and international celebrity. People asked for my autograph. I had a fan club. Several, actually. I was recognised everywhere I went (but only when I wanted to be). I was paid to endorse products. People admired and looked up to me. I got invited to the most exclusive parties. I went to all the hippest clubs and never had to wait in line. I was a pop-culture icon, a VR rock star. And, in gunter circles, I was a legend. Nay, a god.

It did take me a while to get into the plot. 80s reference are chucked at you relentlessly every few sentences, and we learn that Wade is an uber nerd – there is virtually nothing he doesn’t know about Halliday’s life. I felt at times this felt a little too convenient – there would be a problem or riddle to solve…Wade would spend hours to days to weeks agonizing on the solution, only for the pin to drop and Wade pulls the answer from within his vast, encyclopedic knowledge to lead him to the next step in the Hunt. But I guess this happens to everyone – you often solve a problem because something is triggered in your brain, that you already knew. It happens, but that actually process doesn’t always come across as naturally on paper.

The actual riddles and trials were very well done, and the best parts of the book come from the thrill of the chase, and Wade putting his considerable gaming skill to the test. When a riddle is finally cracked, Wade must travel as fast as he can in his spaceship, the Vonnegut, throughout stargates and across galaxies. There is a sense of scale and adventure that is hugely impressive when you consider the OASIS is only a ‘videogame’.

Ready Player One is unashamedly one of the geekiest books ever written. In fact it displays this proudly, and every 80s reference to film, tv, videogames and music is lovingly descriptive. You can tell Cline had a tonne of fun recalling and remembering his childhood obsessions. I somewhat think the appeal was lost on me; being a child who grew up in the 90s rather than the 80s, but there was still enough about it to make me thoroughly enjoy the ride.

Embrace your inner geek and check it out.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, written by sci-fi maestro Philip K. Dick, was the inspiration behind the film Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott and released in 1982.

Blade Runner is a favourite of mine – a futuristic noir classic, but I want to discuss the novel it was based on. The film is relatively faithful to the book in terms of overall plot but I found the tone to be vastly different.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep introduces us to Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter operating in North California on an Earth that has been ravaged by nuclear war, nearly extinct of all live animals and left behind by the majority of humanity, who have begun to colonise on Mars and beyond. Rick Deckard hunts androids who illegally pose as humans and must ‘retire’ them (as you cannot kill what is not alive).

Animals are the ultimate status symbol – well live animals anyway. To keep and own a live animal is an important societal need. World War Terminus has caused extinction in a huge percentage of animals, and now the humans who remain on earth spend their credits on live animals…or if they can’t afford them, the cheaper electric variety. In the past Deckard owned a live sheep but chose to replace it with an synthetic sheep when it died of tetanus. When he reveals this to his neighbour there is a sense of pity and awkwardness. His neighbour promises not to reveal the truth to anyone, such is the shame of owning a synthetic animal.

The androids Rick must hunt over the course of the novel are the most advanced robots ever created and their intelligence and likeness to humans is eerily close. The Nexus-6 brain module is a technical accomplishment that the creators The Rosen Association are immensely proud of. So much so that they boast their androids are near indistinguishable for humans. Deckard must hunt down and destroy six of these Nexus-6 models who have escaped their colony on Mars and are classed as fugitives.

His only method of identifying these androids is by asking the suspect a series of questions aimed to measure a person’s empathy, the Voigt-Kampff test. Various scenarios are put to the suspect to test their reactions, more specifically their empathic responses as the androids have no sense of empathy.

Meanwhile, a second strand of narration is viewed through the eyes of John Isidore, who is deemed special, derogatively called a ‘chickenhead’, and ultimately viewed as below human life as the vast amount of radioactive dust on the Earth has caused his intelligence to diminish (along with thousands of other ‘specials’). He lives alone in an empty apartment building covered in ‘kipple’ and has little outside contact outside of his job as a driver. As a special with sub-par IQ he is treated with disdain by all other humans who have not yet been genetically damaged.

When one of the fugitive androids Pris Stratton moves into an apartment below his he attempts to befriend her. She is eventually joined by Roy and Irmgard Baty, husband and wife within the group of fugitive androids. Isidore aids them due to the involvement and importance he feels when they include him in their plan to stop Deckard, despite treating him with as little respect as other humans do.
Electric Sheep
Philip K. Dick’s novel contains several interesting themes, one of which seems to be humanity’s struggle for relevance; those people who have been left behind and have to exist on this dying Earth. I want to talk briefly about Mercerism, a new religion based on the life and struggles of Wilbur Mercer. All over Earth and in the space colonies, empathy boxes are used for followers of Mercerism to connect with each other, to share their emotions together. Empathy, compassion and community spirit are the core beliefs of Mercerism, and so both joy and pain are shared collectively in a kind of hallucination that all believers can share together.

Opposing Mercerism is Buster Friendly, a talkshow android who dominates the television with his chatshows, guests and interviews. An upbeat, colourful, chatty distraction from the real world, Isidore notices that the world seems much more lonely when the television is off. This is because Buster Friendly gives an illusion of friendship but no more; after all, it is just a television show. Towards the end of the novel, Buster Friendly announces

“We may never know [who has spawned this hoax]. Nor can we fathom the peculiar purpose behind this swindle. Yes, folks, swindle. Mercerism is a swindle!”

Mercerism is based on a lie; Mercer is portrayed by a down and out actor, and the ‘hallucinations’ the users share were recorded years ago. Buster Friendly and the androids seem to relish this expose, that humans have been deceived into following a phoney. But what Buster Friendly doesn’t realise is that even if Mercerism is a ‘swindle’, the effect it has on people is real. It causes empathy, while the androids who are devoted to Friendly’s type of religion are pulling legs off spiders.

So it is true that Mercerism is fake, but does it matter who Mercer is or whether he even exists? For the likes of Rick, his wife Iran and Isidore, the ideals of Mercerism still stand because they are believed in.

The whole novel boils down to the emotion of empathy. Deckard initially feels no guilt in performing his job as a bounty hunter as he believes that androids are incapable of true human emotion and therefore do not deserve a status on par with humans. But if the androids cannot feel empathy why does Roy Baty scream in anguish when Deckard shoots his wife Irmgard through the door of their apartment?

And so the lines are blurred. Androids are capable of empathetic feeling with each other…and humans are capable of a loss of empathy. Fellow bounty hunter Phil Resch has no empathy at all. He enjoys killing androids for the sake of it, and thus can perform his job easily.

“If I test out android,” Phil Resch prattled, “you will undergo renewed faith in the human race. But since it’s not going to work out that way, I suggest you begin framing an ideology which will account for-”

If this is the case (and Deckard seems to realise that it is) then it makes his job that much harder, leading to his existential crisis towards the end of the novel. Humans are meant to feel empathy, something that androids cannot do. But they are not meant to feel empathy for androids, despite the fact that they are not mere machines but have emotions and are made from living tissue.

“These electric things have their life too. Paltry as those lives are.”

After Rick’s epiphany and fusion with Mercer, he has renewed empathy with all forms of life; he is able to see value in the androids version of a life, and even the ‘paltry’ life of a mechanical toad he found, that he had believed was real. Rick states that while he is disappointed that the toad is not real, he prefers to know it is fake rather than believing it to be a live creature. Just one day hunting these ‘androids’ has completely changed his idea of empathy and compassion and is now similar to Isidore in this respect. Does this make them both chickenheads?

Outside of the various messages which could be discussed in much greater depth, I found the Dick’s writing style through the book to be fantastically simple. We switch from tense, slow and steady scenes to fast paced dialogue and laser tube showdowns. The perspective occasionally shifts between Deckard and Isidore, two protagonists with differing views and levels of intelligence but both were fascinating to me as a reader. We are introduced to so many themes and ways of life that are now the norm in this future, but Dick manages to make them real and understandable.

To end the novel (and this post), Deckard collapses into bed exhausted at his physical and mental battle throughout the day. He dials the 670 setting into the Penfield mood enhancer; the setting for long deserved peace. Yet he doesn’t naturally feel, or feel he deserves, this mood. If our moods and emotions can be affected and manipulated by electrical currents, how different are we to the androids?