A digital ARC was provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
tl;dr: Teenage Anda is a girl gamer who gets caught up in Coarsegold, her favorite MMO, where she feels invincible, powerful, and wanted — until she meets Raymond, a poor Chinese teen who also loves Corasegold, and discovers things are not all that they seem. Raymond, it turns out, works illegally within the game to make money on the outside to survive. Lines between right and wrong get blurred pretty quick while Anda balances what she thinks can be done and what the reality actually is. The graphic novel is supposed to address class, ethnicity, and gender struggles within a 196 page format and do it well.
It fails. Horribly, horribly fails.
(By the by, as a book with massive subtext about the wrongs of Chinese factory workers, isn’t it just HILARIOUS the graphic novel itself is being printed in China?)
Review: Our story begins on the morning of Anda’s birthday, where our attention is drawn to that Anda’s family have recently moved to a new city and Anda is the new kid in school. She’s looking for a place to fit in, hence why later she gets so into online gaming. One would think as this is addressed in the beginning, the theme of “belonging” would be central to the story, but surprise! It’s not.
(Interestingly, since this was the setup, imagine the surprise to find Anda hanging out with the geek kids playing D&D during lunch times and after school. Either she’s a loner or she’s not. You need to make up your mind.)
Later that same day in one of Anda’s classes, a random speaker shows up whose sole purpose is to recruit people for MMOs. Now I have questions: Why is Liza the Organiza invited to speak to a high school class? What’s her purpose here? Since when do MMO organizers go to classrooms to recruit players? Especially ones under age who do no thave access to credit card accounts to pay for such things. The only connections why this wouldn’t be weird is a few panels back shows Anda programming in Python — so I guess this is one of her computer classes having a random speaker show up for class? I guess?
The Liza the Organiza starts her organizing — she wants to know how many of the girls in the class game and then how many of them game as girls? Which of course, none of the aforementioned girls who raised their hands in admittance of gaming, raise their hands to admit they game as girls. We already know the long, long history of what happens to girls who game as themselves in the gaming world. So Liza the Organiza puts to them a special deal: Come to this MMO she is a part of, game as a girl avatar, and after a three month trial, you can be part of her EREET SPECIAL GIRL FORCES. FUCK YEAH, BOOBS!
Just so we’re clear: You’re going to entice teenage girls who do not feel safe in general in this online space, but they should put themselves in danger ANYWAY so they can join your guild, without addressing any kind of safe space for them? Are you joking?
And this ends the entirety of the discussion of women in gaming and gender disparity in the gaming world in In Real Life.
(And I’m only up to page 26. Between the front matter, Mr. Doctorow’s 6 pageish ramble on the economics of gaming (which he also was thoughtful to discuss what MMO and other acronyms meant), the graphic novel didn’t start until page 16.)
Anda gets into the game, gets bedazzled by the popularity she receives within the MMO world and then meets Raymond. The storyline limps along, dragging the reader to point out white people should stop being saviors to all the other non-white folk because you know, we keep fucking their world up.
The ending, with all the faux tension being built, was kind of anticlimactic. Like, yay? And oh yeah, Liza reappears again for some strange reason to grant her approval on how things turned out. Liza, you were a pointless character. You should have been axed.
In addition to the massive problems with the storyline, apparently First Second couldn’t hire a continuity editor? After Anda has been grounded from using “recreational Internet,” there is a panel with her watching TV with her laptop on her lap when she gets a IM from one of her MMO buddies for a video chat. Next panel shows Anda in the laundry room video chatting and then she’s like, I TOTES HAVE TO GET BACK ON COARSEGOLD.
Does our heroine just log into the game in the privacy of the laundry room? OF COURSE NOT. SHE GOES TO AN INTERNET CAFE. I mean, honestly? How the fuck do you think video chats work? Through ESP? Seriously! This is a big graff — how could this have been missed through the editing process?
I also have additional problems with the book – like for example, Sarge, Anda’s mentor, walks her through the type of players she’s supposed to kill — who are all Asian. “If they don’t speak English, kill them!” Sarge orders. And the avatars of the Asians they are sent out to kill are all drawn like stereotypes of Asian farm workers. It’s — a bit bizarre considering one of the purported arcs of this book is about whites colonizing anyone not assumed white within the game, so I suppose you could argue this is why all Asians were drawn to be near identical to the other to prove some kind of racist point? (In fact, to kind of build on this, Anda often gets “confused” on who her buddy Raymond is as she searches for him in the game because — the avatars all look alike, If that is not some white people racist bullshit, I don’t know what is.).
And if the borderline racist attitude isn’t enough, the language did not give the impression of a teenagers figuring shit out and the language didn’t sound like something teenagers say. How can a book that is supposed to capture essence of teens yet sound like it written by a 40 year old man who is far on the wrong side of teenage years? Because it was, that’s why!
The only reason why I gave this dreck two stars was Jen Wang’s art is glorious. If anything, at least the book is pretty to look at.
Lastly, let’s take a real look at the economics of this book — based on the glowing reviews on GoodReads AND based on Doctorow’s reputation as a RIGHTING THE WRONGS HELLRAISER, even with all of obvious problems with this book, it’s going to be a big seller. In the end, is anyone really getting the message Doctorow is badly articulating and selling or do we just care we’re supporting someone who makes the noises to CHANGE THE WORLD while writing things that don’t really support that ideology?