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Book Report: The Speculative Future of Ready Player Two

Imagine a world where nothing is real. A world where you plug yourself into a simulated environment and you can have everything you’ve ever wanted. Once you plug in, you’ll be able to eat the most fantastic foods, travel everywhere, and do everything you’ve ever wanted. This is the world of Ready Player Two.

Ready Player Two, like Ready Player One, is a combination of video games, 80’s trivia, and adventure. In the article Ernest Cline is the Luckiest Geek Alive, Cline describes his book as, “What if Willy Wonka was a video game designer and held a contest inside his greatest video game?” The books are set in a dystopian future where the real world sucks and nearly everyone lives in a virtual world called “The Oasis.”

It’s a story of speculative fiction—what I grew up calling science fiction. In his introduction to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Neil Gaiman writes that contrary to popular belief, these books are not about predicting the future, they are about extending some aspect of the present and seeing where it goes.(1)Gaiman says, “People think, wrongly, that speculative fiction is about predicting the future, but it isn’t—or if it is, it tends to do a rotten job of it. Futures are huge things that come with many elements and a billion variables, and the human race has a habit of listening to predictions for what the future will bring and then doing something quite different.

“What speculative fiction is really good at is not the future, but the present. Taking an aspect of it that troubles or is dangerous, and extending and extrapolating that aspect into something that allows the people of that time to see what they are doing from a different angle and from a different place.”
Gaiman says that there are three types of questions that speculative fiction can answer:

There are three phrases that make possible the world of writing about the world of not-yet (you can call it science fiction or speculative fiction; you can call it anything you wish) and they are simple phrases:

What if … ?
If only …
If this goes on …

“What if … ?” gives us change, a departure from our lives. (What if aliens landed tomorrow and gave us everything we wanted, but at a price?)

“If only …” lets us explore the glories and dangers of tomorrow. (If only dogs could talk. If only I was invisible.)

“If this goes on…” fiction takes an element of life today, something clear and obvious and normally something troubling, and asks what would happen if that thing, that one thing, became bigger, became all-pervasive, changed the way we thought and behaved. (If this goes on, all communication everywhere will be through text messages or computers, and direct speech between two people, without a machine, will be outlawed.)

Neil Gaiman’s Introduction to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

Ready Player Two brings up some pretty cool “What if … ?” questions like, “What if you could have the best food in the world?”, “What if you could eat that food in the body of your favorite celebrity?”, “What if you could eat it with the taste buds of a food critic?”, and “What if the food was served by other celebrities?” I mean, who wouldn’t want to live in that world?

But it also brings up some interesting “If this goes on … ” questions about real things vs. virtual things. Today, we have a new kind of relationship with the media we buy. Think about how we buy books on a Kindle. You don’t really own a book on a Kindle, you buy a license to a book. I chuckle when I look at Amazon Prime, and it asks me if I want to “rent” or “buy.” It should be asking me “rent for 48 hours” or “rent for the life of the account holder.”

In the old world, if I owned a book, I was able to loan the book to you, sell the book, burn the book, or do whatever I wanted to the book. With a Kindle book, I’m totally dependent on Amazon for the content of my book. I assume that a good-natured company like Amazon will provide me with a great customer experience that will be as good as, or better than owning the book.

But what if these companies change. Even Jeff Bezos says that Amazon won’t live forever. What happens then? This story about Disney’s creation and abandonment of Celebration Florida is instructive. Celebration Florida was a housing development built inside Walt Disney World where residents could live the Disney experience every day. To deliver on this experience, Disney created very strict building codes so that everything would be up to “Disney Quality.” Homeowners signed over their rights about what materials to use and contractors they could hire so that everyone could have the best Disney Experience. However, Disney later sold Celebration to a Private Equity Firm. The firm did not have Disney’s original vision in mind and decided to prioritize profits. Homeowners had no way to fight back because they’d already signed over all of their rights.

Things get even scarier when you merge the real world and the virtual world. That’s the world of Ready Player Two. Computers are already embedded into many of our physical items. Take cars for example. You can see collectible cars, from the early part of the century, at a car show. They drive around fine. But cars today all have computers in them that rely on operating systems like Windows. So in the year 2100, you’ll still be able to drive around your Model-T, but assuming you can boot up your 2020 Toyota Camry, you could be attacked by hackers that could take control of your car and drive you off the road.(2)I wrote more about how computers are getting embedded in everything when I wrote about security expert Bruce Schneier’s book Click Here to Kill Everyone.

Overall, the book Ready Player Two does a good job of highlighting the possible positives and negatives of virtual reality (if you could get it working really well). The positives of better experiences, like having the best food in the world at your fingertips, make the virtual world highly compelling. The problem, of course, is the price we pay for that convenience and the issues that come when things go wrong.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Gaiman says, “People think, wrongly, that speculative fiction is about predicting the future, but it isn’t—or if it is, it tends to do a rotten job of it. Futures are huge things that come with many elements and a billion variables, and the human race has a habit of listening to predictions for what the future will bring and then doing something quite different.

“What speculative fiction is really good at is not the future, but the present. Taking an aspect of it that troubles or is dangerous, and extending and extrapolating that aspect into something that allows the people of that time to see what they are doing from a different angle and from a different place.”
2 I wrote more about how computers are getting embedded in everything when I wrote about security expert Bruce Schneier’s book Click Here to Kill Everyone.