There have been many great American novels. The Grapes of Wrath. The Great Gatsby. Underworld. The idea, at this point in literary history, has become a kind of self referential in joke. The great American novel is what young, over-intense MFA students yearn to write. But it’s still useful as an indicator of what we turn to the novel for – the truth.
Or, falling short of that lofty goal, an at least partially accurate insight into reality.
Ready Player One is not a novel anyone will ever turn to for insight into reality. It’s an escapist fantasy in the very lowest definition of the term. A story that doesn’t just create a fantasy world for its readers to slip into, but idolises the entire project of escaping into fantasy. Total immersion in fantasy isn’t just central to the world of Ready Player One, it’s how that world is saved.
Which is really a shame. Because if there is one sub-culture in the strange ecosystem of early 21st life that really deserves the insight of a great novel, it’s gamers.
Not simply because games are popular. In the casual sense everyone is a gamer now. Candy Crush seems to have more players than the extant population of the planet. But because within that culture spanning identity are a subset of people who are, in a far more intense sense, GAMERS.
“If I sound like a superior snobby a*hole about the negative effects of video games, it’s only because I’ve been there.”
I’ve been both. These days I play a few games of online chess a week. Like an alcoholic in recovery, I know my limits. Almost twenty years ago I was, for a short period, the world champion of a browser based strategy game called Stellar Crisis, a task that ate hundreds of hours I should have been spending on undergraduate studies. Three years later, a few days into a Counter Strike binge that would stretch over eight weeks, that would incite lower back problems I still suffer with today because of eighteen hour gameplay sessions, I was fired for no showing at my (admittedly crappy) job.
If I sound like a superior snobby a*hole about the negative effects of video games, it’s only because I’ve been there.
We live in a mass society. The world population, in my lifetime, has gone from 4 billion, to 7.6 billion people. The old world where, for better or worse, we all knew our place, within a community, nation and culture, is long gone. Now there are billions of us living in vast megacities whose only sense of identity comes from the media. From the tv shows we watch, and the video games we play.
“Gamers, whether they can see it or not, are the world’s underclass.”
Gaming, I think, is at the heart of this crisis of identity. We find in games an identity we can adopt for a time. We find belonging and community in MMORPGs that we may never find in the world. We find status and, for the rare pro players, even wealth. And as global population rockets off towards 12 billion, we’re going to find ourselves in a world where billions of people live realer lives in games than in reality.
Which is a really fucking huge problem. Because gamers, whether they can see it or not, are the world’s underclass. It’s not the 1% of billionaires or the creative / professional class living vicariously in video games. Because those people get to live out their fantasies for real. No, gamer culture, with few exceptions, is the escape valve for people trapped in low pay service jobs.
Now THIS is a reality that needs a great novel writing about it. Gamer culture needs a Charles Dickens or a Victor Hugo, not an Ernest Cline. The drama of lives lived in poverty, serving coffee to your tech bros overlords, then “escaping” into the fantasy worlds of video games (made by the same tech bros) between shifts. And with no hope of this leading to a saviour-of-the-world conclusion. No, this is your life, a hero in games, but in reality, a servant.
With its stark insight into the financial world of post 2008, Billions is a Great Gatsby for our age.
Tv shows do what they say in the title. Friends is a show about friends. Star Trek is a show about a trek through the stars, and Breaking Bad is a show about a man breaking to bad. Billions is a show about Billionaires. But it’s also a show about the society that gives rise to billionaires, a global society of seven billion people and rising – the society of here and now.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that Billions is a Great Gatsby for our times.”
There’s no missing the genetic fingerprint of HBOs prestige tv format in Showtimes production of Billions. Headline star Damian Lewis is no stranger to that format, having fronted Band of Brothers, the show that pioneered the 10 hour tv serial, and Homeland, a show that pushed the cutting edge of what that format was willing to say politically and socially.
Billions co-creator Andrew Ross Sorkin, a former columnist covering the New York financial world, culls real life events gathered over his career to provide flesh for Billions writers to feast on. The world post the 2008 financial crash, in which billionaires have gathered more wealth and power than at any time since the “gilded age” of the 1900s, is the world that Billions catalogues. It’s no exaggeration to say that Billions is a Great Gatsby for our times.
Billions is the most sophisticated example of “relationship driven” storytelling to yet hook binge-watching tv audiences.
Bobby “Axe” Axelrod stands as the billionaire founder of Axe Capital, surrounded by obsequious yes-men and ambitious traders, friends from his working class neighborhood who turn to Axe for favors, and wife Lara, queen to Axe’s king, who acts behind the scenes to aid her husband. Every character who relates to Axe is a courtier, and like a king of old, Axe holds in his grip the fortunes and status of everyone he controls.
Chuck Rhoades is a powerful public servant, a US District Atorney with authority over the financial district of New York. He is backed up by a team of conscientious assisstant DAs and dedicated FBI officers, all with an eye for their next promotion. Rhoades father is a rich investor, who secretly acts on his son’s behalf. Every character who relates to Rhoades is a player in a power hierarchy, within which Rhoades holds a high but not supreme position.
The key to understanding how the HBO television format hooks such intense attention from audiences — what else today do we give ten or twelve solid hours of our time to? — is to understand how the story is driven by its relationships. Every successful prestige format show of recent years uses the same technique, establishing a network of relationships that shift and evolve over time.
Pick almost any scene in any episode of Billions, and you will find that the main action of the scene is a shift in the relationship between two or more characters present on screen. Lara losing confidence in her husband Axe. Chuck slyly dominating his idealistic assistant Bryan Connerty. The broiling jealousy of yes-man Wags to any threat to his status. And of course the love triangle between Axe, Chuck and the show’s lead female character Wendy Rhoades. We’ll come back to her pivotal role.
The relationship driven story certainly isn’t new. Playwrights have consciously worked with relationship networks since at least the 15thC and the Commedia dell’Arte of Venice, which, just like Billions, used relationship driven structures to critique and satirise the rich and powerful of the day. Shakespeare learned these techniques, and some of today’s best screenwriters, most notably Aaron Sorkin (no relation to Andrew Ross), borrow directly from the Commedia dell’Arte for shows like The Newsroom.
Billions borrows a trick directly from the Comedia dell’Arte playbook. To manage the potential complexity of relationships between almost two dozen main characters, Billions limits its relationships to those that connect directly to its two central characters, Chuck Rhoades and Bobby Axelrod. This creates two opposing character nets, with Axe and Chuck at the centre of each, their orbiting characters only relating to each other in very carefully orchestrated breakout scenes.
The exception to this rule is Wendy Rhoades, wife to Chuck and therapist to Axe. Wendy is free to interact with any other character in the show, and it’s the shifting status of her relationships that, more than any other factor, drives the narrative engine of Billions. Wendy Rhoades is a “Columbina” character, the central figure of Comedia dell’Arte, whose presence allows the story to move freely through the social hierarchies it satirises.
Billions artful construction serves a razor sharp political purpose.
The conflict between prosecutor Chuck Rhoades and billionaire Bobby Axelrod is Billions central relationship. In the 12 hours screen time of Billions first season, Chuck and Axe share only four scenes together, each made electrifying by the stand out performances of Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti.
Billion’s writers manage a hard narrative tricks in this relationship. Bobby and Chuck are dual protagonists, and each is antagonist to the other. The writers consistently hold our sympathies at a mid-point between the two men. Both are hugely intelligent and morally upstanding, but also hugely flawed and willing to violate their morals to win. It’s the irony that Chuck and Axe would, in better circumstances, be friends, that makes their conflict so powerful.
“Will the idealism of Millennials ultimately transform into the same corruption as their Baby Boomer grandparents?”
This central conflict also embodies Billions core theme, which is expressed openly in the climatic season 1 showdown between Chuck and Axe. Chuck calls Axe on a simple truth, he’s a criminal, profiting by breaking the law. Axe snaps back, Chuck is a leach, sucking from tax payer money. The personal conflict at the heart of Billions mirrors the political conflict splitting our society today. Public good vs private freedom. State vs enterprise. Left vs right. Red vs blue. Your side in this conflict will likely determine whether you empathise with Axe or Chuck.
But Billions isn’t satisfied with being simply political. It wants to get to the heart of the personal conflicts that drive political strife. Season 2 introduces Taylor Mason, played brilliantly by Asia Kate Dillion. Taylor personifies the Millennial generation, a gender neutral digital native with huge insight into the light speed information flows that power the modern world. Taylor is hugely valuable to Axe, but we might expect the high morality of today’s Millennial generation to reject the rapacious world of the hedge-fund out of hand.
Instead, a much more complex picture of today’s Millenial is shown. Taylor is quickly seduced by the world of Axe Capital. But it’s not the allure of money, or the addictive quality of power, that lures Taylor in. The season 2 finale hits us with a final scene between Taylor and an idealistic assisstant DA, who thinks he can challenge the younger person on matters of morality.
Taylor is driven by the highest of all human drives, towards self fulfillment, towards experience over possession, and to creativity over all. All the drives that define the Millennial generation. It’s not entirely coincidence that Taylor Mason so closely resembles, in both ideals and appearance, the young heroes who emerged from the Stoneman Douglas school shooting.
But Billions season 2 leaves us with a disturbing final note. From the highest motivations, Taylor is nonetheless drawn towards the criminal, and the world of high finance that creates billions of victims globally. Will the idealism of Millennials ultimately transform into the same corruption as their Baby Boomer grandparents? It’s asking these kind of questions, through the structures of high drama, that makes Billions the best show on tv.
M John Harrison is one of the all time greats, a “science fiction writer’s science fiction writer”, a creator of weird tales in the horror tradition, and a powerful weaver of fantasy. The Viriconium stories defined political fantasy in the 80’s, as the Light trilogy redefined literary SF in the 00s. As editor of New Worlds he was integral to the new wave of SF alongside authors like J G Ballard and Michael Moorcock.
He’s also out and out the most skilled storyteller working between genres today. In this video essay I take a deep-dive into Harrison’s recent short story collection to answer the question, how does Mike Harrison enter a story?
There is no end, it seems, to the impotent outrage of geek dudes who feel hard done by because scifi films no longer exclusively feature geeky white dude protagonists. Here’s the latest dumb s*&t from those guys:
Any dork hating on Ready Player One stems from jealousy since Ernest Cline seems to be living the ultimate geek make a wish. But his follow up novel proves he's not a one wish pony.
Geeks should rejoice in Ready Player One, this is their Black Panther.
So, no. Of course, Ready Player One is not the “geek Black Panther” and I spend all of five minutes taking that idea apart in my video response.
We use the term “geek culture” as a shorthand, it’s useful in as far as it indicates the nexus of scifi movies, genre tv and books, comics, RPGs, video games and various other geeky shit.
“Ready Player One is basically a massive advertisement for corporate brands.”
But we might be better off calling it “geek non-culture”. Geek isn’t a cultural identity. It’s where many people end up because they no longer have a cultural identity, and instead fill that void with products that were mass marketed to them in the 80s and 90s.
Many of us today construct a cultural identity from a cross section typically featuring things like D&D, WWF wrestlers, superheroes and Staurday morning kids cartoons. The stuff we grew up with, on tv and in advertising.
This stuff is more than an entertaining distraction for many “geeks”. For millions of people who grew up in vacant suburbs, ghostly dormitory towns, and mass society of the 50s onwards, geek culture has become their surrogate culture.
I’m not here to kick that coping strategy in the nuts. It’s ok to do this. But it’s really important to recognise that these things we’ve formed an intense emotional attachment to don’t belong to us, or to the “geek” community. They belong to a handful of multinational corporations – and soon will all belong to Disney – who milk them for every cent they are worth.
Ready Player One is basically a massive advertisement for corporate brands. Turning up for the new Spielberg movie is like paying $30 to have McDonalds and Nike advertisements shoved down your throat, except the brands in question are slightly smarter about hiding away in “beloved” video games and kids cartoons.
We can rebuild you, Geek Culture.
A movie like Black Panther isn’t just important because it comes from a black creative team. It’s also part of a powerful movement to reclaim these corporate owned icons for the communities who value them. The recent Star Wars movies, Ghostbusters reboot and franchises like Doctor Who are all being powerfully influenced by the geek community.
Geeks have forcefully determined that the cultural product made for us should reflect who we really are – which is an epicly diverse assortment of people from all around the globe. Contrast that to the era of “geek culture” through the 00s and 90s, as celebrated in Ready Player One, when geeks were depicted exclusively as young white men, because the media corporations decided this yielded the greatest profit margins.
I don’t believe there was any such thing as Geek Culture…until very recently. We the geeks, people of all kinds, are MAKING geek culture. We’re making it by pressuring big media corps into making diverse content. We’re making it by supporting the creators we love on Kickstarters and Patreon. And we’re making it by having a real critical discussion about our culture, and what we want it to represent
Some people, mostly alienated young white men, hate that this critical discussion is happening. So, we end up with nonsense like Gamergate and the Sad Puppies. But let’s be clear. Black Panther and Star Wars are far, far more representative of geek culture today than Ready Player One, which in 2018 feels exactly like what it is – a relic. If any movie is the geek Black Panther…it’s Black Panther.