Escapist Dream Book Review (And Why it’s Better Than Ready Player One)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

A review of an underrated sci-fi pop culture classic.

If 2020 couldn’t get any worse, it surely did for fans of the GameLit genre. Ernest Cline had recently released the travesty of a sequel entitled Ready Player Two. If you’re a long-time literary buff and uber geek, you probably know of Ernest Cline and his nerd fictions that have either been received with mediocre division or utter disgusting contempt. But there’s no denying the fact that Cline’s work popularized GameLit and nerdy pop culture fiction into mainstream media.

Ever since his magnum opus Ready Player One, geeks everywhere have started to crave for more nerd fantasies. While books such as Epic, Warcross, and Scott Pilgrim have been categorized in the same genre as Cline’s book, today I’d like to talk about one underrated sci-fi novel that not only captured what made Ready Player One good, but also does a better job in celebrating geek culture than Cline’s epic.

This is a review of Louis Bulaong’s Escapist Dream.

 

SIMILARITIES

On the surface, one could assume the sameness between Escapist Dream and Ready Player One. Both stories take place in this massive virtual/augmented universe where geeks gain superpowers and compete against each other. Both stories also focus on young teenage geeks who live horrible lives and find comfort by escaping into said virtual worlds. Oh, and let’s not forget about the pop culture references. Both books have TONS of them. But if one would look deeper into each novels, one would see how both novels are different, and why the Escapist Dream is superior.

 

PREMISE

The story of Ready Player One can be described as a sci-fi Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There’s this augmented reality world MMORPG called the OASIS, and the creator of said video game, James Halliday, suddenly dies. But before dying, he created this elaborate “hunt” where the prize is the control and ownership of OASIS itself. There’s the underdog protagonist, who against all odds, wins the competition because of his passion for the game rather than greed itself. Although having the premise of a common GameLit story, it is different from all the others because arcade and trivia are also emphasized besides mindless action. Like seriously, I was expecting World of Warcraft and was surprised to read about Monty Python instead.

Escapist Dream is a bit different from the common GameLit story too. It doesn’t even focus much on game mechanics. There are no competitions, high scores, etc, and I could understand why some GameLit fans initially hated this novel since there isn’t any games at all. The story basically revolves around a virtual Comic-Con convention that has been affected by computer viruses, and it’s up to the main characters to save the day. There’s not that much in the premise, but what I like about the Escapist Dream is that unlike other GameLits, it focuses more on the lives of the characters rather than the game itself. It’s not about what the character does inside the virtual reality world, it’s how that place affects their real personal existences.

 

CHARACTERS

Let us discuss the main characters. In Ready Player One, readers are put into the mind of Wade Watts, your typical overweight gamer. The whole story revolves around him competing in this giant Easter egg competition inside his favorite MMORPG. At first glance you want to root for him due to the fact that he’s an abused kid, and the main antagonists, the corporation known as the IOI, are rich corporate jerks. Throughout the story, he does show competence in every challenge he faces to find this Easter egg. The only downside is that he’s… full of himself. His thoughts are basically filled with how better he is than everyone else, and how stuff such as religion and childhood are total BS. He can be described as a male-version of Bella Swan from Twilight. He’s also a hypocrite too. Like at one time he insults his rivals when they use teamwork, and yet has no problem when he himself had to rely on the assistance of others. And let’s not even go to his habit of stalking his ex and discussing why masturbation plays a role in human friggin’ evolution.

Other people have also mentioned that Wade Watts is a Mary Sue since he basically plows through all obstacles in his path Slumdog Millionaire-style with knowledge of everything 1980s. Personally, I don’t have any problems with this since I get that Ready Player One was written as a fantasy for people who want to accomplish something in their lives specifically with their favorite eccentric hobbies. I also tend to let Wade Watts slide in many of his negative qualities since he’s still a kid who grew up in a horrible household. But sometimes I just praise him for his accomplishments and other times I want to just bash his head to a wall.

The Escapist Dream on the other hand, has two main characters, both of whom are better written than Wade Watts. The first character, Charlie Anderson, is the complete opposite of the latter. He’s this happy-go-lucky geek whom you end up caring for in the whole story. He’s not as relatable to all teenagers, but I still think he’s special since the kid’s basically a modern Pollyanna. While all other Young Adult protagonist are always cynical, selfish, reluctant heroes, Charlie is a character who always try to be happy and kind, even if everything around him is turning into hell. Hence when bad things start to happen to him, you really feel and root for the kid. The other character is Jim Broughton, a programmer. At first, I kind of hated him because he was pretty much an asshole. He also started to feel like a Mary Sue when it was revealed that he’s a former marine. But Louis Bulaong did a tremendous job actually giving him a background that explains why he’s an asshole, and why being the Mary Sue in the story isn’t always a good idea. By the end of the story, I just feel really sorry what Jim had to go through.

Besides the main characters, Escapist Dream’s minor characters also blow Cline’s out of the water. Ready Player One’s characters are all generic. There’s the strong and independent girlfriend, the token gay friend, and Japanese characters who are laughably stereotyped. Escapist Dream’s characters are both wacky and deep. Like seriously, there’s a character there who is a Japanese geek that has an actual digital anime girlfriend, and the book actually made me care about him.

 

THEMES AND WRITING STYLE

Both books are also different when it comes to their writing styles. Ready Player One’s writing reflects the writing of its time, being written in a first-person narrative like the majority of YA books where we get to be inside the mind of another angsty teenager. The strengths of Ready Player One come from how Cline integrates mechanics and encyclopedic knowledge into his prose. I confess that I learned a lot of trivia from reading Cline’s books, especially about the real-life hacker John Draper. But the downside is that reading his writing tends to get tedious sometimes, and I’m not surprised why some haters described his writing as something taken from Wikipedia.

Louis Bulaong’s writing is strange. On one hand, unlike other writers of the genre, he writes in a third-person narrative. He also likes to use conjuctions a lot, so you don’t see much phrases and short sentences in his prose. This creates a steady stream of thoughts which is admittedly unique. What differentiates his writing style further is that he’s more interpersonal while Cline is external. In Ready Player One, it is all about how Wade describes the world around him. In Escapist Dream, emotions of the characters are given more priority, so readers can feel how characters react and suffer through every environment and challenge they come across.

Another advantage of Escapist Dream over Ready Player One is its portrayal of geeks and nerds. Cline’s book was all about praising geek culture and presenting geeks in an awesome positive light. While there’s nothing wrong with that, this is an exaggerated wishful thinking on Cline’s part. Bulaong’s book not only praises geeks the same way Cline’s did, but it’s also not afraid of criticizing and showing the negative side of their culture. Ready Player One is all about showing how awesome Wade Watt’s obsession is in accomplishing his dreams. Escapist Dream on the other hand, shows how obsessiveness can be both great and dangerous when mixed in with trauma and mental illnesses.

 

POP CULTURE REFERENCES

Of course, these two books became well-known for their extensive use of pop culture references. And even in that aspect they are different. When Cline references a certain pop culture, he’s not really that smart when he’s doing it. He has no brakes spouting fictional characters, film and video game titles. He loves to point out nerd trivia in his book, even those which are unrelated and has no effect in the story. Take a look at this paragraph for example:

“Dagorath was a word in Sindarin, the Elvish language J. R. R. Tolkien had created for The Lord of the Rings. The word dagorath meant “battle,” but Tolkien had spelled the word with just one “g,” not two. “Daggorath” (with two “g”s) could refer only to one thing: an incredibly obscure computer game called Dungeons of Daggorath released in 1982. The game had been made for just one platform, the TRS-80 Color Computer.”

Why did Cline had to mention the TRS-80? I don’t know since it doesn’t even appear in the story. Bulaong is smarter when it comes to using references. He seldom mention what film, anime, or game that specific reference he’s using came from. And when he references something, he really fuse it to the whole setting rather than just it being some trivia inside a character’s head, or a specific item or weapon that the main character could use. In writing pop culture references, he sometimes has no fear in adding a bit of fun mockery. Take this for example:

“A girl dressed in Victorian clothing complete with an umbrella skirt, attacked Charlie with a parasol, but the American geek sliced her and her parasol with one swoop. Another geek, this time cosplaying as some sort of albino cowboy spouting nonsense about war, started shooting his twin six-shooters at Charlie. But the kid used his Force powers to lift him up and drag him towards Jim.”

For those of you who don’t know, Bulaong is actually referencing Mary Poppins and Blood Meridian during an intense fight scene between the main characters and a group of fanatical fans of Classic Literature. While Cline is a fanboy who likes to spout his geeky knowledge, Bulaong is the actual subtle artist who challenges his readers to find out what that reference is and its purpose in the story.

 

CLINE’S BENEFITS

Ernest Cline is not entirely that horrible as a writer. Compared to Escapist Dream and other similar books, Ready Player One had an amazingly crafted universe with its laws and logic. It has its designated game mechanics, levelling up system, and even distinction between worlds inspired by science fiction and those influenced by fantasy. All the challenges that Wade Watts had to go through from playing arcade games to reciting Monty Python were all very well described.

Sadly, the world of the Escapist Dream is not as engrossing. It’s basically about this virtual reality world where people can roleplay and use the powers of their favorite fictional characters (and that’s basically it). The book described it as some sort of a social hub or a virtual Comic-Con. But unlike OASIS, there are no goals or objectives in the Escapist Dream, so characters there only deal with external threats (i.e. computer virus) than something that is from the game. It’s basically just a Minecraft-esque sandbox you can go crazy into.

Another thing I will give Cline the thumbs up is his technical skills. He is a professional writer compared to Louis Bulaong who is a self-published author. According to RMN News, Louis Bulaong actually submitted his manuscript to over 20 literary agencies, all of whom rejected his book since its well-known that most publishing houses are not fond of GameLits, made worse by the fact that Bulaong is a non-native English speaker. Cline is not only a professional writer, he’s also a champion of poetry and spoken word competitions (and that’s not even mentioning his career as a screenwriter). So everyone knows his pedigree of expertise when it comes to writing.

Escapist Dream’s writing is also good and unique, but the long wordy sentences and questionable McCarthy-syle use of grammar and word usage, are evident of its self-published nature. I don’t have any problems with this but people who are not used to reading indie books may not enjoy reading something like it. Ernest Cline’s doesn’t have these problems since he could afford to hire pro-editors like Deanna Hoak to edit his book. So in terms of being the cleaner novel, Ready Player One takes the bag.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

I apologize for making this long article more of a book comparison than a book review. But only in using Ready Player One (the most popular book when it comes to nerd pop culture fiction), do I get to analyze and compartmentalize why Escapist Dream is great.

When it comes to writing about geek fiction and culture, Escapist Dream is the king. Even if you take away the pop culture references and its geekiness, it is still the superior book that details the mental and emotional struggles that its characters went through. And all the way, you just had to cheer and cry as the story progress and said characters stumble through every adversity. I’ve never read a book that really portrays geeks in a fun and creative way as Louis Bulaong’s novel.

For geeks and non-geeks out there, I highly recommend you take a shot at this book.


Submitted: January 05, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Joanna Kane Larius. All rights reserved.

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