There be spoilers ahead, mainly for Ready Player One. And now you know.
Here’s how good Kagan McLeod’s Infinite Kung Fu is: it made me like Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One less.
I read Ready Player One first and loved it. Wade Wiggins slumps through virtual high school while spending all of his spare time researching the history and hobbies of one of the world’s greatest programmers, James Halliday. Halliday built the virtual universe that every person (with money) uses, OASIS, which serves as a sort of cross between Second Life and World of Warcraft. It is a world that is played like a game, but also serves utilities such as public education and television. Halliday is dead, and his will states that he hid an egg (aka easter egg, the sort of inside jokes that programmers tuck away in their software) in OASIS that entitles its finder to his entire fortune and ownership of OASIS. Naturally, ever since that announcement, factions have arisen on the internet among players and corporations to find the egg.
Successfully navigating the OASIS to find the egg depends on absorbing as much 80s and 90s geek culture as possible, including Rush’s 2112, the movie War Games, cereal box prizes, arcade and home console video games, and giant robots from Japanese television, to name just a few of the many references made throughout the story. Wade is a total recluse, so his encyclopedic knowledge of these topics flows forth as evidence of a mind as sharp as it is wasted. There is a note in the book about hikkikomori, or men in Japan who live alone to temper their hobbies. Wade is a Western hikkikomori, living among stacked trailer parks in a world whose environment and economy have tanked, leaving him without any positive reinforcement in his life save for some basic friendship from near-anonymous online personae. Wade is as saved by the OASIS universe as he is a slave to it.
Let’s get this out of the way now: the premise is a match made in heaven for me. Sometimes, Wade will make a casual reference to some piece of gaming history, followed by a fuller explanation in the narration. Cline is clearly having his references both ways – the reader gets to enjoy the hip, quick reference while less informed readers have ready cliffs notes to follow. Ideally, Cline would just stick to his references and let his readers google whatever doesn’t ring familiar, but you know what? I was okay with the combined approach. Cline is the guy who tricked out a DeLorean with Knight Rider and Ghostbusters tech. He unironically loves Black Tiger as his all-time favorite videogame. I am as pleased reading about the use of pop culture artifacts in a story as reading a dictionary of them.
However, as the story progresses, the stakes seem lower than they should be. Wade loses family, but remains secure in his isolation from society. He’s sent to jail, but by design so he can break back out. Wade’s friends are all given incentives to betray the quest for the egg — in fact, there are moments when Wade’s friends remark that this or that detail is “interesting” to learn about Wade’s life — but everyone is true to the group. The video game challenges Wade must overcome are amusing at first. Hey, I love Joust and the minor notes on play style that enable Wade to narrowly beat an AI opponent. But reading the equivalent of, “the game was really hard but Wade beat it anyway” carries no weight. The same problem plagues the final act (or middle act, depending on your patience): after a certain point, the references feel as stacked together as the trailer homes of Wade’s community. The nostalgia dries up as the novelty of each nerdy reference diminishes and I don’t care that the Evangelion mech, Gundam, Ultraman, Supaidaman, and Mechagodzilla are all in a fight to the death. Give the mega-rich corporate villain a compelling backstory instead. Give one of Wade’s friends a traitorous twist. Lose some familiarity.
My complaints about Ready Player One became more pronounced as soon as I read Infinite Kung Fu, a graphic novel 10 years in the making that incorporates elements of mythological, supernatural, blaxploitation, wushu, and good old unarmed kung fu storytelling without missing a beat between any of them. The story can barely contain its sprawling cast, yet each character is distinct. There are over a dozen martial artists dueling each other, yet the fighting styles act as separate body languages. None of the conflicts are bland like a Superman “punch each other until someone quits” fight. Characters receive injuries and death over their arcs, and change in body and mind from chapter to chapter. Nobody feels tossed into the story for the sake of “ooh, I know that face from that movie.” A brief history of kung fu cinema is provided in the back, but advance knowledge is not required to enjoy Infinite Kung Fu, just a willingness to absorb lovely line work, story threads that weave and separate (both between characters and between tones, from grave to humorous and back again), and more knockabout than a burly brawl. McLeod accomplishes the rare feat of paying homages while telling an original story, something Cline comes awful close to doing, though both are a heap of fun.
How far should inside jokes or references go? Is their usage to be judged by personal taste or only by those who ‘know’? If someone bashed Ready Player One for being too referential, I would point out that the constant references are, for a time, reflective of Wade’s mental state and his state of living. I think the matter becomes complex in the case of literary references, to be covered in a future review of -GASP- poetry.