Autonomy and Otherness in Ready Player One

"The lines of distinction between a person's real identity and that of their avatar began to blur. It was the dawn of a new era…" - Parzival

When a book begins with a stark anger toward organized systems, governments, and religion, typically the author has an agenda. And subsequently I typically get turned off to the book. But there’s something differentiating that brash crudeness from what might be considered as the Existential genre (e.g. Dostoevsky, Gogol, and Macarthy), though. A good existential author works skepticism and angst into character regeneration. Although Ernest Cline's Ready Player One starts out with a bleak tenor, seemingly detached from any accountability, it develops into something reminiscent of the authors mentioned.

The most concise statement I can make about the book’s ethos is that Ready Player One is a story about transcendence. Confined to a dystopian society that exudes desolation and death, all of humanity, including our hero, Parcival, logs into a virtual reality everyday to conduct their business and enjoy their entertainment. The online world (named the OASIS) is the new reality. It is now the real world. At first, it was a way to pacify humanity’s anguish, but has slowly become their entire paradigm for encountering all things.

This new, seemingly “open-world” reality turns out to be anything but. For example, the hero brags about having the authority and autonomy (which are mistakingly infused as part of the plot) to mute other players, so as to momentarily evade their opinions and judgments. This in turn causes one’s autonomy to become his own prison. But this is just one of what can feel like hundreds of examples. One of my favorites quotes along this vein was “They’re just rearranging deck chairs on the titanic.” when referring to politcal campaigns in their physical world. From this place, the characters’ skepticism rushes to meet the reader early in the story. It quickly becomes apparent that this autonomy—this universally applied narrow outlook—is a manifestation of the compartmentalized, and therein detached world that the all live in. 

This is the backdrop for what really hooked me: humanity’s need for a transcendental medium.

Although the characters are jaded and distrusting, they are still souls in need. They long for purpose and for acceptance. This necessitates something from without: an other. Now, the group of heroes ultimately find it in one another, which makes sense for this storyline. But this is lynch-pin of Ready’s offering: How does a world enthralled with autonomy live out a life dependent upon otherness? 

The breauty of this story is in how it transitioned somewhere along the line from a person just trying to get by and remain unoticed, to a group learning to share their true, non-avatar selves with one another—when that was the most taboo thing of all. There was no science nor reason that caused this change. Within this compartmentalized world, the soul of man broke free from its own shell with a demand to be known. Parzival begins his narration from a worldview drenched in logical-positivism, where everything needed to prove itself in order for him to “believe”. However, his narration ends with an existential awareness in not just himself as the subject and others as objects, but in his friends as subjects and himself as the object. #Phenomenology

Herein lies the beauty of the story: man begins blind to otherness, assuming that he or she is the single most important soul and consciousness. But as maturation occurs, we not only see others as they wholly are, but we see ourselves with all of our needs. Ready Player One gives us a strong plea to let go of the reigns of the autonomy, which our world esteems as “normal”, and instead, embrace the neighbor as thyself.