The Rise of the Video Game Novel

So it’s an inevitable comparison: between Ready Player One and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, in fact, it’s a comparison that is already being made across the web. Nonetheless, it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot and so I wanted to add my voice to the mix.


First, these are both books that I read recently and enjoyed tremendously. For one of the books, Mr. Penumbra, this was obvious and I sort of expected that I would. In terms of Ready Play One, it was completely unexpected. I’ll explain. First of all, Robin Sloan’s book has the word “bookstore” in the title. Ding! I’m already interested. Second, I was hooked from the first page (an immediate description of someone applying for a job in a narrow store-fronted mile-high bookshop in San Francisco) Umm. Yep. You got my attention. I have worked in bookstores in four countries, so yeah, I’m reading this book. But Ready Player One was not a book I ever thought I would be interested in. A book about video games? Not my thing. 80s culture? Yeah, I lived through it but don’t particularly want to go there again. I didn’t even understand the title until it was explained to me – that’s how few video games I have played in my lifetime – even though I am a child of the 80s and 90s. And yet. I loved the book.

Now, I’m not someone who can sit here and rattle off comparisons between these novels and others, because this is not a genre I normally read. I’m sure there are books out there (that I haven’t read) like Microserfs (I mean, how can you NOT mention Copeland here,) and the novels of Neal Stephenson (Ok, I’ve read some of his books,) which warrant comparison to Ready Player One, but to me the book was completely novel. Sloan’s book can easily be compared to books the The Club Dumas, with elements of the Da Vinci Code, a certain Umberto Eco feel, and even, I’ve seen people compare it to Haruki Murakami‘s work, I’m not sure I agree with that one. But still, the book defies comparison. Both of the books do. The only books I can think of to compare them to is each other.

So what does that mean? Do these novels mark the rise of a new genre? And what exactly would it be called? Techno-geek with touches of D&D, old-school 80s fantasy novels and culture, combined with the deep dark questions of where is technology leading us and what will happen when physical books are no more and we all live in virtual worlds? Because even though Ready Player One is post-apocalyptic, it is a story, like Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, about how we make sense of our current reality. The only reason Ready Player One makes so much sense, is because its plausible. As is Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore. The characters in both novels are real, humble, human, geeky, in other words, kind of like a lot of us, and technology and the internet gives them the power, to be larger and more powerful than themselves, to think in new ways, to think outside boxes and living rooms and even outside computer screens. I know this is going to sound cliche, but, in the end, both Clay in Robin Sloan’s novel, and Wade, from Ernest Cline’s novel, need to look within themselves for the answers. They are not super-heroes, but in going beyond their circumstances and their lives, and indeed in thinking out of the “box” that we all find ourselves glued to today (and I don’t mean TV,) they do become a form of hero, they get the girl, and they learn that technology and avatars and virtual reality don’t hold a candle to actual reality.

I must say that what I perhaps found lacking in Ready Player One, which was abundant in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, was book references. Anyone who was playing video games in the 80s and watching all those TV shows and movies that Cline mentions in the book, was also, often, reading classic 80s fantasy and Sci-Fi novels. Sloan touches on it in Mr. Penumbra, and to me it was one of the most endearing parts of the book – the idea that an author might encode or alter a version of his/her novel, the idea that the novels we write are works in progress that capture a reality of the world as we know it when we write the novel, but that that reality changes, and the power we as authors have to decide, or decide against, making a change or letting our work speak for itself.

My call? For the next great Ready Player One and Mr. Penumbra-style novel that is a homage to the virtual worlds we all grew up in between the pages of 80s books.

For me, it’s 80s Fantasy:
Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover, David Eddings’ Belgariad, Terry Brooks’ Shannara, Margaret Weis’ Dragonlance, Stephen King’s Dark Tower, Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms, Zelazny’s Amber Tower, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionovar, Tad Williams’ Dragonbone Chair, Ann Mcaffrey’s Pern, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, Charles de Lint’s Newford, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Raymond Feist’s Riftwar, Brian Jacques’ Redwall, Piers Anthony’s Xanth,and so many more: Mercedes Lackey, Stephen Donaldson, John Crowley, Robin McKinley, Tamora Pierce, Dianne Wynn Jones, Clive Barker, Tracy Hickman and…I must stop this list or I will be here all day.

Please add ones I’ve forgotten in comments!

And I call on someone else to make this list for 80s SciFi because I am not well read enough in that genre to list those worlds, though they are sister/brother worlds to the ones I listed above, and deserve an expert of their own to pay them homage.

I only wish I had the time and brain space to write it myself.

(Oh, and totally buy Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore in Hardcover – it GLOWS IN THE DARK!! Ready Player One is out in paperback.)


1 Comment

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One response to “The Rise of the Video Game Novel

  1. Iso Nuys

    A distinction needs to be made of a video game novel and a video game adaption. If you look on the science-fiction bestsellers on Amazon, you will see many adaptions of video games such as: Halo, Gears of War, Mass Effect and Assassins Creed. This has already become a sub-genre in its own right.

    For me, what Penumbra and ReadyPlayerOne represent is the fusion of nostalgia (defined by the writer’s own childhood), with what an author such as Geoff Ryman might refer to as ‘banal science-fiction’, by which he means a future so closely linked to what we have now that the technology is so seamlessly integrated in society, and hence, it’s almost invisible. Of course, sub-culture is also very prevalent, but it’s not unique to these books or video games. In essence I don’t think it’s too far removed from the books of Nick Hornby, with High Fidelity tapping into the nostalgia of independent records stores, or football in Fever Pitch. I guess there’s a kind of romanticism to it too.

    So, I don’t think Penumbra, or ReadyPlayerOne represent a new genre, but they’re rather a continuation of existing trends, the difference being that video games have passed from being cutting edge technology to a time of nostalgia. My generation was the first to have video games, and now we’re all approaching middle-age, we look back on these humbles beginnings and say things like, “I remember when they used to be just a block bouncing around the screen,” or, “It used to take twenty minutes to load a game from a cassette, and sometimes it crashed at the end.”

    The old Atari’s already have a place in some museums and rare cartridges can exchange hands for thousands of dollars.

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