The curious dual address of nichestream texts (Chapter I)

26/11

A few months ago, I tore through Ernest Cline’s geektacular novel Ready Player One. I highly recommend it, both because it is wonderfully inventive while still being winkingly evocative of Snow Crash, and because I think it trounces Little Brother as a piece of fiction that deftly engages issues of free culture, surveillance, and virtual identities.

But despite my enjoyment, I was also hyperaware as I read that Ready Player One is yet another prime example of the curious dual address that texts have cultivated as fan/geek culture has moved from the margins to the mainstream.  This dual address simultaneously presumes that consumers are conversant in geek culture references, while hyperconsciously couching those references in archetypes/stereotypes, or otherwise easily decoded framing devices.  Ready Player One might be viewed as a more populist literary descendant of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a text that also encourages a fannish decoding of its many references.  Henry Jenkins has playfully used Diaz’s novel as a geek litmus test, listing the novel’s pop culture references from A:

…to Z:

As this alphabetical bookending suggests, the gap between “normative” fannish interests (e.g. sports) and “excessive” fan subculture (e.g. a scifi/fantasy film in which James Bond wears a red diaper and suspenders with thigh-high boots…hey, it’s the future…) is an ever shrinking one.  Just ask geek culture sage Patton Oswalt.

I’d argue that this trend towards geek culture intertextuality/referentiality differs from simple postmodern pastiche, in that it is centrally preoccupied with recuperation of the fanboy into hegemonic masculinity by framing him as an action and/or romantic hero.  The Big Bang Theory features a (perhaps unintentional) dual address that bifurcates the audience into those who laugh at the shows’ nerd collective, and those conversant enough in geeky jargon and fannish references to laugh with them.  The show’s approach to casting guest stars is a perfect example of this, with Firefly/The Sarah Connor Chronicles’ Summer Glau, Star Trek: The Next Generation’s/twitter demigod Wil Wheaton, Marvel Comics’ icon Stan Lee (quoth my Mom “Who is that old man?”), Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff, and astrophysicist and Nobel laureate George Smoot, all appearing as themselves.  These guest “stars” would appear to serve a counterintuitive (or at least an atypical) function, rewarding those conversant in nerd/geek/fan culture and potentially alienating, rather than drawing in, those in the mass audience who aren’t “in” on the reference or joke.

BSG's Katee Sackhoff and ST's George Takei as Howard's sexual subconscious on BBT

Heather Hendershot has argued that The Big Bang Theory’s latent misogyny, the fact that the show views women “strictly as sex objects,” routinely undercuts its representational potential and eradicates all points of identification for female viewers.  Astutely noting that The Big Bang Theory must be understood as a mass show framed as a niche show, and not the reverse, Hendershot frames the show’s effort to “have its cake and eat it too,” as persistently short-changing fangirl viewers or pointedly ignoring them.  Questioning why CBS “pretended to target a geek demographic, when it was really looking for lads all along,” Hendershot exposes who this recent wave of “nerd-friendly” programming is really targeting, but fails to fully explore how interchangeable these “geek” and “lad” demographics have become.  Vitally, Hendershot’s analysis does raise the question of who is being excluded from the “geek demographic” these nichestream texts target.  Penny, the primary “sex object” within Hendershot’s critique, is constantly perplexed by the fannish references the show spouts, and might provide a point of identification for a mass audience more inclined to laugh at, rather than with, the male characters discussions of fannish minutiae.  I would agree with Hendershot that The Big Bang Theory’s representational framework leaves little room for female viewers, much less fangirls, to situate themselves, though this appears to be changing in the most recent seasons.   

Which brings us to Ready Player One…fair warning, there are some (mild) SPOILERS ahead…

Ready Player One centers around Wade Watts, a lower class teenager who (like everyone else in the bleak, ravaged US of 2044) spends most of his time in OASIS, a virtual world designed by hermitic genius James Halliday.  Upon Halliday’s death, he leaves his fortune, and the future of OASIS, to whoever can find/decode a series of “Easter Eggs” hidden in OASIS first.  As you might imagine, Wade is the first to solve the first puzzle, making him a target of an evil corporation who wants to turn OASIS (which is loosely aligned with an open source/free culture ethos) into a 1% wonderland.   Finding these “Eggs” and decoding the puzzles to obtain them all hinge on having a comprehensive knowledge of 1980s pop culture trivia, turning Halliday’s nostalgia for the culture of his youth into a fannish obsession for all OASIS users hunting his fortune.

Now, I am clearly in a generational sweet spot here, and I have to presume the book will be more enjoyable to those who watched War Games a lot as a kid than those, like Wade, who don’t have bone fide 1980s nostalgia on their side.  That said, even if you didn’t grow up mired in 1980s pop culture, none of the references here could be considered cultural “deep tracks” or even B-sides.  This is what makes Ready Player One such an ideal example of a nichestream text: the texts it so fannishly cites are canonical geek texts (e.g. Monty Python and the Holy Grail), and the culture it reflects, in which a certain degree of fannish, participatory pop culture knowledge is necessary for survival, is recognizable by us all.  Still, the type of fan engagement that Cline documents/celebrates in Ready Player One is wholly affirmational, from the reverent view of Halliday (the “author” or “creator” here) held by Wade, to the emphasis on consumption and collection of data/trivia, to the fact that nearly all of the “quests” involve Wade replicating or reenacting moments from media texts, or getting a perfect score on a classic arcade game.

I don’t wish to take anything away from the book, which was an immensely enjoyable read, and will justifiably be on every geek holiday gift guide this season.  Despite painting a society in which most of these fan/competitors are male, it also provides us with a number of viable female characters who, while occasionally falling prey to being relegated to “love interest of the male protagonist” status (hey, it’s YA), are fairly well drawn and move beyond some tokenist sense of geek culture equality.

That said, the book reads as though it were designed to become a film (albeit one that is going to be a real nightmare in terms of licensing).  Ernest Cline, best known for writing 2008’s Fanboys, carries over some of the problematic geek culture politics from that film into this book.  The fact that the film revolves around the ultimate nichestream franchise/fandom, Star Wars, only exacerbates these issues.

More on Fanboys, Ready Player One, and the (potentially problematic) dual address of nichestream media texts TO BE CONTINUED (in a post next week)…

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