Before I begin: This is the last of my pre-prepared posts (because The Slump is nowhere near over … *sigh*) which I wrote back in August. After this anything I post will be me winging it – for which I apologise in advance!
Even if you were to glance at this and think it’s not your kind of thing, I can recommend reading Doctorow’s introduction. In it he talks about economics, how the internet is changing ways of doing things, the importance of knowing where your stuff comes from and the power of protest. In the story that then follows, he and Wang tell a tale with all of these themes as their protagonist Anda navigates a new school (having moved with her parents from California to Arizona), makes new friends both online and IRL and learns what she’s ready to stand up for.
For a graphic novel that has a few problems, which we’ll get to, this was nonetheless an enjoyable read. Anda is a quiet main character, beautifully drawn by Jen Wang, who grows in confidence over the course of the story. She’s into coding and Dungeons and Dragons, and, after a guest speaker at school invites girl gamers to try their hand at the MMORPG Coarsegold, she gets into online gaming, where she quickly becomes involved in the illegal practice of taking out gold farmers for real world money. Fortunately, she’s more uncomfortable than some with the rule “if they don’t speak English you should probably kill ‘em” and strikes up a friendship with one of the gold farmers she’s supposed to kill, a Chinese boy called Raymond. This friendship takes Anda on a steep learning curve as she is faced with the very different life that Raymond lives, and the very different reasons he has for playing Coarsegold.
Coarsegold itself looks like a game I totally want to play. A full-on fantasy world in which you can play as one of five different races (I lovelovelove character creation tools, possibly more than actually gaming itself – I couldn’t play XCOM 2 very well at all, but my avatar was just the prettiest darn kickass chick you’ve ever seen), it is populated with magical creatures and artefacts and looks like a rainbow explosion of visual joy thanks to Wang’s lovely illustrations, which give it the feel of a cross between Ni No Kuni and Dragon Age.
I hadn’t come across Jen Wang before this, but she’s on my watchlist now. The two things that I really liked in In Real Life were her use of colour and her gorgeously expressive drawings. She uses two different palates to distinguish between the real world and the online world without clashing or making either one the lesser. The slightly muddier brown-dominated tones of her real-world panels are just as lovely as her more vibrant in-game panels and paired with her skill in rendering subtle facial expressions and body language in a lovely cartoony style Wang carries a lot of the story. Truth be told, I kind of fell in love with real-world Anda with her head of unruly brown-later-red hair, big eyes and adorable pink cheeks. Even when she’s cross she’s cute!
However, there were a couple of things that made me uncomfortable about this story. The Chinese gold-farmers all play as pixies and wear identical outfits that make them easily identifiable as ‘other’, but which makes me think of that horrible, loaded generalisation “they all look the same to me”. It also makes them appear childlike which doesn’t sit well with the whole privileged white girl saves disadvantaged Chinese kid thing that happens. It all made me feel ill at ease with what I believe is a good story that Doctorow and Wang are trying to tell.
I also question the ending. It’s a little too sweet and Hollywood after what’s happened. In telling a story about the real-world implications of online gaming I feel that the ending should have also been real-world. Sure, it’s a nice ending, but it undermines some of the message and while I feel like it’s there so Doctorow can make his point about communication, it could have been done differently and to better effect.
So, this left me with two thoughts:
One. The internet is a powerful communication tool. We only have to look at our little international community of book bloggers to get a taste of that. I am in awe that in my lifetime and only in my personal experience I have gone from having friends and acquaintances who lived within no more than a half-mile radius of myself, to having friends and acquaintances across the globe that I am able to interact with daily. That is a crazy beautiful thing.
And two. I believe that people both in the singular and united can make a difference. But I also think we have to think really hard before we start trying to make a difference for people who haven’t asked us to. I know this is all highly complicated stuff – there are people who cannot speak out for themselves and need advocates, but I think we have to ask ourselves, and keep on asking every step of the way, why we are doing something, to ensure that we don’t get carried away with our own self-righteousness.