Thursday, October 09, 2014

Book--A-Day 2014 #280: In Real Life by Cory Doctorow & Jen Wang

Sometimes books are pretty much exactly what you expect, and that's fine. For example, the new graphic novel In Real Life -- written by Cory Doctorow and drawn by Jen Wang -- looks like the YA story of one girl and her MMO. And that's basically what it is: the lesson might not be precisely the one you expected -- or maybe it will be; it depends on your guess -- but there is one, and it all comes together in a pat ending.

But maybe I only expected what I got because of my deep cynicism; the creators here aren't known for pat endings. Doctorow is a blogger, activist, and author of novels like Little Brother, which have been crowd-pleasing but work at knotty issues and don't present simple solutions. Wang is a cartoonist, and her first book, Koko Be Good, was equally sneaky and specific: it told the story of one girl and one boy and their relationship without ever having them fall in love.

In Real Life is also the story of one girl and one boy who don't fall in love, but the last page of this story leaves the sense that we probably just need to give them time. They are slightly handicapped by never actually meeting in person, or even being in a position to do so. Anda is an American teen, newly moved with her family to Flagstaff, Arizona. Raymond is a sixteen-year-old Chinese worker, a "gold farmer" who searches for valuable items in an online game for twelve hours a day. They meet in Coarsegold Online: Anda was recruited by Liza McCombs, Australian head of the all-female guild Fahrenheit, who was making an unlikely personal visit to Anda's programming class for just that purpose. (Really? Does she travel the earth talking to high school students to get newbies for her guild? And schools consider this a good use of their teaching time? This is one of the details that makes me wonder if In Real Life was originally a novella -- with room to fill in some more of those details -- before it became a graphic novel.)

Anyway, Anda joins the game, immediately loves it, and falls in with her "Sarge," Lucy, who is another newbie. (Honestly, this is beginning to seem like some sort of pyramid scheme, but I'll shut up about it.). Lucy recruits Anda into some raids for pay, where they kill a bunch of gold farmers. (If you don't already know what a gold farmer is, you're probably well outside the audience for this book.) On one of those raids, Anda chases one gold farmer but doesn't kill him immediately -- and that turns out to be Raymond, who knows a little English.

The story beats from there are fairly predictable: Anda learns of Raymond's living conditions and is appalled; she schools him a bit in unionization, which does not go as planned; parental disapproval hammers down, including a grounding; Anda clashes with Lucy; Raymond seems to be lost forever. But, as I said up front, it all gets tied up neatly in a ball at the end, with happy endings for everyone and niceness reigning supreme.

Wang's art is lush and gorgeous; the online world gives her the opportunity to paint a lot of interesting and unique things, which she does very well. Doctorow's story is more traditional, though his dialogue is nicely colloquial and honest. This is a great book for a school library, and is utterly unobjectionable -- but both Doctorow and Wang can and have done better than this, so it is mildly disappointing.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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