Breaking the rules with Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

One of the golden rules of writing is ‘show, don’t tell’. It is a rule which allows the audience to discover what is happening through their actions and the interactions of the characters. A trailer for a recent drama I had the misfortune of catch on the tele had an actress saying ‘Ever since we won the lottery, everything has gone wrong’. Oh, really? Not point in letting the drama unfold then? I think of a good story like a wonderful 3 course meal. I don’t want the chef hovering over me telling me how he pan-fried this or poached that in a water-bath. I want to eat the meal slowly (or sometimes greedily), discover the flavours and hopefully think of it fondly in years to come.

Of course, when telling a story, there are times when you might have to explain a concept, especially in science fiction and fantasy, as you can’t assume your audience knows everything. I might need the waiter to explain what ceviche is before I let it ruin my dinner. Or not.

I really, really enjoyed Ready Player One and that annoys me a little. It shouldn’t but it does. I wish it didn’t. I found the first 50 or so pages very frustrating and indeed, a tad patronising. OK, so not everyone knows the history of video games or gets the idea of virtual reality or has watched all of John Hughes movies. However, I don’t remember thinking when I was reading Gibson’s Neuromancer back in the day that what this really needs is pages of exposition and explanation. It was all new and exciting and made me want to learn. I recently read The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. This was set in a fantasy world a little like medieval Italy. What I admired most (and there was plenty to admire) was the world-building. I didn’t need to read pages and pages of exposition. The world explained itself as the plot unfolded and the characters uncovered their adventures. It kept me turning the pages.

Did I mention that I really enjoyed Ready Player One? The plot is essentially the description of a character and his friends who are caught up in a video game, albeit of advanced and epic proportions. It features references to many classic video games from the 1980s, and also science fiction, fantasy and teen films from that era too. I’m guessing Mr Cline was in his formative years during this period, as I was. There are nods to anime and classic cartoons and even the modern world has its place (I especially enjoyed references to Cory Doctorow and Will Wheaton). I smiled a lot when reading it.

I don’t want this to be a review of the book, or a criticism in any way. Maybe I’m saying rules need to be broken. Maybe I’m saying rules are irrelevant as soon as you have the right product. When I started reading this I thought I’d enjoy it as a geek. I’d read the reviews elsewhere and knew the kind of book it would be. I even got my local library to buy a copy as there weren’t any in the county. As I say, I got incredibly annoyed very quickly as I felt patronised and slightly let down by the author. My internal dialogue was shouting at him…I know this stuff, get on with the story. After all, that’s why I read books – well, fiction anyway – to be entertained by a great story. Before long however, the adventures of Wade and his cohorts, exposition and all, grabbed hold of me and I was gone. I was along for the ride. I was turning the pages as fast I could. The chef was standing over me telling me how he’d made the dish and I couldn’t get enough.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who likes video games, films, rock music, anime, or a rollicking good read. Ignore the rules. Enjoy.

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