Ready Player One and the world of things beyond our control. (14 minutes)

“Successful artists believe success is a matter of skill; aspiring artists know it is a matter of luck.”

I really wish I could find out who said this quote, or if anyone said it, and if not, why it’s in my head. Almost certainly it was said by an aspiring artist, and presumably that’s why the quote appeals to me also, as I am certainly more aspiring than successful. The closest I could find, though, was actually said by a fairly successful gossip columnist, Earl Wilson.  “Success is simply a matter of luck.”

(Technically I don’t believe in luck.  We’ll get to that later).

Of course, a successful artist would disagree, and wouldn’t they know more about what’s involved in success? Yes and no.

See, there’s this thing called ‘Survivorship Bias,’ which is best illustrated by the Navy’s policy toward improving airplanes in WW II.  The engineers looked at airplanes that had returned to the carrier after getting shot up, and marked down where they’d been shot, so that the Navy would know where to armor their planes.

The problem, as statistician Abraham Wald realized, was that the Navy was looking at surviving planes, and thus missing what holes actually caused planes to crash.  He argued that instead, the Navy should armor the least shot-up portions on the returning planes, as their survival in that area had clearly been what allowed them to return to the airfield.

The red dots illustrate where the Navy engineers wanted to armor the planes. The purple circles were where Wald argued the planes SHOULD be armored, which considering one of those was the engine, should have been kind of a no-brainer.

The difficulty with a successful person talking about the trials they overcame and how they achieved success is that there’s a strong chance that the trials they overcame were not the truly fatal ones that would stop more people, and that their achievements might in part have just consisted of being in the right place at the right time.  If someone were to give a talk on how they won the lottery, the information would not be terribly helpful.

Here’s where I’m going with this: I don’t understand how Ready Player One is so successful.

Full disclosure–there are many popular, even critically acclaimed, books, that I think are not great. I still don’t think Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is actually a good book.

The book has many strong points. I did catch myself reading longer than I should have (though honestly I’m starting to suspect that’s just how I read things) and thinking about the book in my off times (which is less often the case).  It does a good job of ramping up the suspense and the action. The 80’s references, which mostly bored me, nonetheless serve as a useful world of information to underscore the difficulty of the characters in discovering what specific reference is needed to proceed. The main character’s voice is very realistically like that of an introverted gaming nerd, which many people—even myself—identify with. As an overweight nerd trapped in what’s become a pay-to-win virtual reality simulation, he makes for a very convincing underdog character.

The movie, which I haven’t seen, is said to fix most of the book’s issues, but bewilderingly, they chose a skinny teen actor for the role, ruining the whole point of him being a socially ostracized nerd.
This is not overweight, Hollywood.

However, after losing his underdog status at the beginning, he randomly gains a series of new skills and extremely lucky magic items. This is hardly unusual for protagonists—one could almost consider it a staple of male heroes like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, or Peter Parker (or indeed my own Chad Dickson). But usually we are shown the process of the character working hard to master or gain those new skills.  Wade suddenly and magically gains super-hacking skills (how is never explained), in part with the aid of a series of acquired passwords that we are told about at the moment they become useful. With the exception of the arcade-token artifact, which is foreshadowed nicely, many of the plot points depend on super-skills and super items that come out of nowhere.

Wade’s emotional progression is not much more developed than his skill progression.  His character development is inconsistent, and jumps around in large steps rather than developing naturally.  It seems to have occurred, as his goals at the end are notably different from those in the middle, but why or how is unclear—unless it is simply to impress his love interest.

The romance, too, is very underwhelming.  It begins in a promising way, with a cute yet awkward first meeting between the two characters, but then skips the entire romance to go straight to the breakup, which remains in place with little change, even resentment, before going a sudden turnaround for little apparent reason other than the protagonist winning the game. The two have approximately three private conversations. Apart from that, the romance is more described than shown.

(Apparently people were disappointed with the movie’s portrayal of Artemis, saying she wasn’t as “dynamic” as the book, but honestly in the book she’s only nominally “dynamic,” like a coy maiden in a period novel.)

Off-topic, but Austen hilariously subverts this in the excellent Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Collins assumes Elizabeth is being coy. She responds that she doesn’t “torment” men.

In fact, the book’s tendency to tell instead of show is one of its major problems.  The book is heavy on exposition.  Literally the first three chapters are near-solid “this is the state of the world in which we live” essays, and the book takes frequent asides to add onto this already-hefty exposition, telling instead of showing. Some of this is necessary, describing larger events taking place in the Oasis community, but much could be conveyed more organically or dynamically through conversations, or even omitted entirely.

Worse than the beginning, in some ways, is the ending. The leadup is very good—a massive battle that involves all the gamers of the Oasis, followed by a depowered Wade having to make his way with none of the abilities or special gear he’s acquired—but the final showdown just… doesn’t happen. After having to pass the (oh so thrilling!) challenge of reciting the movie Wargames word-for-word (a game that we’re assured is enormously popular, because everyone loves to lip-sync entire movies), Wade must guess the correct password to a gaming console.

And that’s it. He wins, gains massive powers, and magicks away the bad guys from the game.

I kept waiting for the big bad to interrupt, for some final crisis to insert itself at the moment of triumph. When Wade enters the final challenge room, the game tells him “Ready Player One,” and I was certain, certain, that at some point in Wade’s triumph the game would suddenly say “Ready Player Two” or “A new challenger has entered the arena” and Wade would have a final, face-to-face confrontation with his nemesis. Instead we are again told, instead of being shown, of his rival’s side-by-side race with him.

And then Wade logs out and is told that his girlfriend is waiting for him in the garden upstairs.

As I’ve already said (and hopefully as I’ve fairly indicated amongst my criticism), the book has some very strong moments.  And undeniably, it scratches that “just plain fun” itch that I noted as a key feature of Throne of Glass. I’m not going to make the case that Ready Player One’s success was entirely and utterly a matter of luck—without these strengths, even the luckiest twist of fortune would not have made it the success it was.

But especially the weaknesses of the beginning and ending make it hard for me to understand how this book was so incredibly popular. All books are wish-fulfillment fantasies on some level, yet this one is so unabashed in the way it concludes with the hero being a multi-billionaire video game monarch with a suddenly loving girlfriend. It’s the sort of thing that irritates an aspiring artist. So much of it reads like an extended game of Trivial Pursuit in the “80’s Culture” category.

(An interesting point to consider sometime is if a work’s obsession with a particular niche topic, like art history or crytography, can actually be an asset, allowing the writer’s love for said topic to shine through).

It should be said that most artists are jealous of other artists’ success. (Hilarious example, though crude language) There’s constantly a sense of “I could do better.” My old university roommate and I would freely admit, even as we congratulated each other, that we were jealous of the other’s success. I actually have a similar mindset toward The Maze Runner, which I discarded in disgust after the first chapter of inconsistent characterization and excessive use of invented terminology.  Likewise I can’t understand how I Am Number Four manages to succeed with what amounts to a succession of lectures from the wise mentor character. Quite frankly those were worse than Ready Player One and not even very fun.

This is basically Maze Runner and I Am Number Four. Ernest Cline at least uses recognizeable terms.

Percy Jackson is good though.  And Ender’s Game is the absolute bomb, as is Ender’s Shadow and Shadow of the Hegemon.  Haven’t read Hunger Games, but I liked Divergent (the sequels were… mixed.)

But that sort of makes my point. By rights, Divergent ought to have been more popular than Ready Player One. It wasn’t. Ender’s Shadow ought to have been more popular than either. The Strange Adventures of Alfred Kropp, though weakened by a long road trip sequence, should have knocked I Am Number Four out of the park.  There are some reviewers who called my book better than many mainstream offerings, though obviously people have differing standards, and two people are more likely to be wrong than several billion.

So what determines success? Talent or luck, or some combination of the two?

Some successful people are more circumspect than others. No less a successful man than Napolean Bonaparte said “Ability is nothing without opportunity,” (I imagine he said it in French). William Shakespeare was not even the most popular writer of his own time, and said “Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered.” Even Donald Trump—a man whose level of success is certainly dubious, but who nonetheless also certainly rose very high—is famous for saying: “Everything in life is luck.”

A more mundane example: Jordan Watson, the famous Dad of the “How to Dad” viral Youtube series, has given a TED Talk on how to make a viral video.  Except really, 90% of his talk explains that he has no clue how to make a video that will go viral, and that in fact no one does.  His initial viral video was just a dumb skit he put together for a friend, and his follow-up videos met with very little interest initially.

What, then, was his recipe for success?

He simply kept making videos. He made a point, in fact, of posting a video every weekend, regardless of how refined or “ready” it was.  And his next viral success, that catapulted him to lasting fame, was actually a video he expected to bomb horribly, a video where his daughter utterly refused to cooperate with his planned depiction of her being impossible to put to sleep.

This too is a thought of successful people.  “Chance favors the prepared mind,” said Louis Pasteur.  “Diligence is the mother of good luck,” wrote Benjamin Franklin. And Seneca, the great Roman philosopher, wrote: “Luck is what happens when Preparation meets Opportunity.”

It seems, then, that the best answer is that it is some blend of the two—that perhaps luck is important, but luck will mean nothing without hard work, and more importantly diligent and persistent work, especially because luck doesn’t last, and once it wears off, can leave the person with nothing but their skill to keep them up. For instance, Armada, Ernest Cline’s subsequent offering, was widely panned by critics for being self-indulgent and overly reliant on cliches—odd criticisms when that was also true of Ready Player One.

(Short aside: Perhaps the re-use of an introverted video game nerd character caused critics to realize that the very genuine “voice” of Wade was not skillful writing so much as a self-insert character. Many authors can get away with self-insert characters—King is famous for re-using his “alcoholic writer from New England” character. However, most are more circumspect and conscious of their flaws as such.)

A confession here: I do not, as I said, believe in luck, or in chance.  As a Christian (particularly as a Calvinist), I believe in forces beyond man’s control before which all the talent and hard work in the world means nothing. But that’s not luck or chance.  That’s providence.  It’s a distinction that frankly has little impact practically on one’s approach, because the Bible itself freely admits that wicked people often do very well, and we have an entire chapter about how a good man undergoes terrible “luck.” I don’t understand providence; no one does, so God’s favor is as unscrutable and overpowering as an amorphous sense of “luck.”

The best part of this joke is that when you tell it to Dutch Calvinists, nobody laughs; they just sombrely nod in agreement, like “Yes, that is exactly what one should say.”

But that doesn’t mean you don’t prepare, or work hard, or work diligently. You should always do that, not necessarily for success, but more to bring glory to God.  And there’s nothing wrong with following practical methods and recipes while doing so, so long as one also realizes that success ultimately comes from God.

I’ve been saying, for the past couple months, that my new book’s going to be released at the end of August.  Then I said that it’s more likely to be mid-September.  Kinda irritated with myself for not meeting the original deadline, but actually, even August was a major concession.

The first book, I went through like 20 revisions over the course of two years. I asked for beta readings and suggestions from anyone who would listen. I appealed to any agent I thought would be interested.  I sent out ARC’s (which in fairness, did make up most of my reviews), hired a discount editor for more money than I spent on any other part of the book (for all the good it did—lots of reviewers noted basic problems with the text that an editor should have caught). I paid for ads and messaged book vloggers and bookstagrammers (most did not return my messages). I knew I wasn’t likely to make much on the book, but I wanted to make an effort.

I made like 40$ on sales. 

I don’t regret it.  (Well, not all of it. Useless editor.) I look on it as a person who hunts a deer and then stuffs the carcass to mount over their fireplace. Is that an expensive process? Absolutely. Do you get anything back from it? Nothing… except a sense of pride and accomplishment.  A trophy. 

(And honestly, I needed a trophy last year, because man searching for a new job was rough.)

And that’s what I’m viewing this second book as.  I sent it out to maybe two agents; I’ve gone through three major revisions; I didn’t send it out to many beta readers; and just started rewriting long before they could have reasonably finished reading the rough draft. (Partly because I realized I ignore a lot of feedback and just went “Ah, they don’t understand my vision” with feedback from last year)

Which is definitely a flaw, but a flaw I share with my hero, so I’m good with it.

I don’t plan on pestering (many) people for ARC’s; I don’t really have the money to waste on editors who miss easily visible errors. I am doing a free book promo (Tuesday / Wednesday!) because it was one of the few things that got books into hands last year, but aside from that, I’m not going to go all-out trying to get mentions. And at the end of this week, regardless of where I am with my revisions, I’ll just publish the thing like I planned.

Oh sure, I still dream of becoming a millionaire author, but it’s more likely it’ll just be another feather in my cap, a sign of hard work, an accomplishment of persistence and (hopefully) a certain amount of creativity. If it becomes a success, that will only be through the grace of God. And I might as well lean on his good pleasure instead of throwing money at useless ad campaigns.

IN THE SPIRIT OF NOT PROMOTING MY BOOK, HERE’S AN EXCERPT FROM THE HOSPITALLER OATH, RELEASING THIS MONDAY! (ON SALE ON TUESDAY BECAUSE AMAZON WON’T LET YOU PROMO IT BEFORE IT’S PUBLISHED FOR SOME STUPID REASON!)

As we enter the garage, Faith and Levin come crashing through another entrance.  “What happened?” Levin asks, as I come hurrying forward. 

            “We need to go,” Freyja says.  “Do you guys have a car or something?” 

            “The valet took it… I don’t know where he parked. And Wart has the keys, anyway.”

            “My sister has one… some sort of Lamborghini or other,” Freyja fumbles in her purse.  “She gave me the keys… here…” She tosses the keys to Levin, who grabs them out of the air.  He presses the button and there’s a chirp chirp.

            Oh wow. That is a nice car.

            “This way!” Freyja calls, running for the gleaming vision of red and black.  She glances back. “um…does one of youknow how to drive this?”

            “What?” I nearly grind to a halt.  “Don’t you?”

            She does come to a halt, right next to the car. “Well my one hand can’t really grip the steering wheel properly…”

            “I’m 14. I never took driver’s ed.” I say. My life got up-ended before I could. “Levin?”

            “I fully intended to instruct myself in the ways of driving next month,” Levin says, panting slightly.  “Wherefore did your sister provide you with keys when you cannot drive?”

            “I don’t know!” She throws up her hands.  “She said… something like ‘in case you want to take the party elsewhere.’  And winked.  I just don’t get her sometimes, okay!?”

            Faith snorts. “I can drive,” she says, pushing past us.  “Come on.” She presses the side door and it swivels upward, which makes her recoil a bit, allowing Freyja to slip past her and squeeze into the back.  Levin follows, and I dart around the car to drop into the passenger front seat.

            “Right,” Faith says, looking at the dashboard.  The speedometer goes up to 360. “Driving.  So… where’s the ignition?”

            There’s a crash from the side, and we all look over to see masked figures spilling out of the stairwell.

            “Um, it’s that button there…” Freyja points.

            “A button? Huh, how about that.” Faith presses it, and the car roars into life.  She hits the gas, and we shoot ahead—almost into the next car.  Faith wrenches the steering wheel and we skid left just in time, but not enough to avoid the back end slapping into the other vehicle, sending shivers up through the seats.

            “That’s a very sensitive gas pedal,” Faith says, her voice a touch higher than normal.

            “Push on it again!” I shout at her.  The skid has brought us facing directly at the helmeted attackers.

            Faith’s grip tightens on the wheel, and the car jerks forward.  Some of the attackers dive out of the way—one doesn’t make it and the car gives a terrific jolt as it slams into his midsection, sending him flying. The gate doesn’t get out of the way in time either.

            “Good good good, maybe slower though!” I shout at Faith, as we careen across the road, nearly smashing into the opposite building.  “A little slower!  Just a little!”

            “Do you want to drive?” Her voice is frighteningly calm, totally at odds with the way we’re shooting down the street.

            “Ah, Lady Faith, from whence comes your driving experience?” Levin asks, hesitantly.

            “The farm.” Faith says. “Same principle as a tractor, though, right?”

            Something EXPLODES just behind the car.  I’d say Faith swerves to avoid it, but I think she’s just freaked out. Maybe. Hard to tell with her.

            “What the shit?” I crane my neck around, trying to see.  “Do they have a tank or a helicopter or…”

            “No,” says Levin, his voice tight.  “Something worse.”

            There’s not really a back window on this thing, but the monitor in the middle of the dashboard has a camera’s view of the back.  At first I don’t notice anything—until something tiny, almost like a monkey, leaps off the Norjavik Industry building and lands in the road behind us.  A person.

            I piece that information together with the explosion next to the car.  “Oh we’re screwed.”

            “Language,” says Levin.

            I look at him.  “Seriously? You’re going to—”

            The flying person raises his hand and a strange, blackish blob comes racing down the street, headed straight for us. Faith swerves just in time and it streaks past, crashing into a parked van.  The van explodes in terrific fashion.

            “What are those, gasoline?” I ask.

            “That wouldn’t explode on contact. Must be part nitroglycerine,” Faith says. 

            “We’ll be away from him pretty soon—” I say, then notice the man is crouching down. Explosions erupt under him, and he comes sailing through the air in a wide arc.  Just as he’s about to touch down again, black blobs spill from his hands, explosions blossom, and he keeps going.  He’s flying at us. One hand comes free and flings forward a new blob—headed straight for us oh shit…

            The blob seems to splatter against something three feet from the car, exploding in a blinding burst of light.  My vision comes back just in time to see the shimmer of something in the air.  I glance over at Faith.  Her eyes are glowing.

            “Oh.” I blink.  “You can do that?”

            “Not for long,” Faith says.  “I need my focus on the road right now.”

            Another fireball explodes against the shield.  Then another.  A third crashes and I see Faith wince visibly.  The car is swerving alarmingly.

            “There’s a red light up ahead!” Levin shouts, pointing.

             “You cannot be for real.” Faith says.

“We cannot afford an accident!” Levin shouts.  “As Hospitallers we… Just turn right!”

Faith grunts and swings the steering wheel. The tires screech alarmingly and I could swear I feel the left side of the car lift slightly off the ground, but we swerve around, just as another blob comes sailing past to smash straight into the intersection.  An enormous fireball rocks the street.

“So glad we didn’t cause an accident,” Faith says, in a dry voice.

“We must bring this to a speedy conclusion,” Levin says. “We cannot allow our quarrel to bring harm to non-combatants.”

            I don’t answer.  The Nephil has just flown into sight behind us, using a ring of explosions to counteract his momentum.  He’s good. 

I unhook my seat belt and twist around in my seat, gathering my legs under me as I scramble up, toward the sun roof.  I don’t see a latch.  Eh.  I punch the glass and it—doesn’t exactly break, but the whole frame of the window goes flying off, and I clamber partway out.

            The Nephil sees me. He’s lining up an attack.  If I try to deflect it with my sword, is it just going to explode? 

            Hang on.  Idea. “Drop the shield!”

            “Are you crazy?”

            “Do it!” I can see him lining up another strike.

            My arm snaps forward just as his does, sending a flaming dagger straight at his black blob.  I worry for a moment that I’ve missed—but that’s a pretty big blob of oily-whatever.  My fiery throwing dagger disappears into it some 30 feet from the car.

            BOOM!

            The shockwave rocks me against the car.  Faith is swerving all over the road like a drunken lunatic.  I shake my head in an effort to clear the ringing from my ears, and look back down the street.

            The windows on both sides of the street have been utterly blown out.   Glass is everywhere.  I can’t see the guy.  Did he die?

            “Chad!”  Faith is yelling up at me.  “Get back in here!”

            I duck back in.  “Where now?” I say, dropping into my seat.

             “The Hospitallers have a Grand Consul in town, we’ll be safe there!” Levin says.

            “Those guys totally got a good look at us,” Faith points out.  “That’s the first place they’ll look.  Anyway, doesn’t rich girl here have a heavily secured penthouse with lots of security guards or something?

            “Um, maybe not,” says Freyja suddenly.  She’s looking over something in the back seat.  “Could we, maybe, head downtown?  I know a place.”

            “…if you say so,” I say.  I realize I’m not wearing my seatbelt and quickly fasten it.

            “Oh, good idea,” says Faith, reaching back to do her own.  The seatbelt makes a very loud click in the sudden silence of the car.


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