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Review of Player One: What is to Become of Us by

Player One: What is to Become of Us

by Douglas Coupland

Recently I stole the soapbox in another person's review of Shampoo Planet to pontificate about my personal reader's theory of Douglas Coupland. JPod was the first Coupland novel I read, and it is also my favourite. We all react to Coupland differently—i.e., JPod is my favourite, but some of my friends hate JPod with a passion and love Girlfriend in a Coma or Eleanor Rigby. Despite the fact that Coupland always deals with the same themes, his variations are subtle and diverse enough to create those kinds of reactions. And so, for me, JPod created in my mind the Platonic form of the "perfect Coupland novel", and every other experience I have with Douglas Coupland is like a junkie attempting to replicate the first perfect hit: I need something as good as JPod.

Player One comes close. As a story it doesn't endear itself like JPod. Yet its short length conceals a profound message, Coupland's attempt to answer the novel's subtitle: What is to become of us? Coupland delivers the novel in real-time over the course of five hour-long lectures that collectively form the 2010 Massey Lectures. You can't listen to them for free, unfortunately, but you can purchase the series on iTunes or CD if you care to listen to Coupland read the story aloud. I stuck with the printed version, but I kept in mind the novel's intended purpose. As I read, I imagined it would be like to hear those words projected in a dark theatre as a shared experience with hundreds of other people, or to hear them over the radio. (There is something profoundly connective about radio that even the Internet doesn't match.) This added an atmosphere to the entire experience of reading this book.

The OED's first recorded use of zeitgeist is from 1848, but this must be a mistake, because I feel like that word must have been invented to describe what Coupland is doing. He is chronicling the zeitgeist of our generations, this strange transition between the industrialized twentieth century to the post-industrial information society of the twenty-first century. And I really can't do his books justice in trying to go into more detail here, because I feel like deconstructing his work would just destroy the magic.

As anyone who has read more than one Coupland novel can attest, comparing Coupland Book X with Coupland Book Y is difficult because of how much Coupland reuses his motifs and themes. Still, I have to say it: Player One has a lot in common with his previous novel, Generation A. I liked Generation A but didn't love it, and now I want to go back and read it again to see if I missed anything. Both novels have several protagonists, with the narrator alternating among their limited perspectives. Both novels put the protagonists together in an isolated place and have them share stories and form bonds. Both are set in a somewhat apocalyptic world—Generation A more "post-apocalyptic" than Player One's decidedly apocalyptic setting. Finally, both involve a study empathy as part of a larger exploration of what it means to be human. This is the question that recurs throughout Player One: what separates humans from animals, from everything else in the cosmos? What makes us unique as a species—are we unique? Or are we merely just another expression of life—is the universe programmed to generate life over and over in a near-infinite variety of combinations?

If we want to analyze the characters in this book, we can do so in terms of how they empathize. Rachel is easy: she doesn't. Her various medical classifications mean she lacks the ability to express or interpret emotions, irony, humour, etc. She can't appreciate art. Her reason for going to the airport hotel lounge where our five characters end up is typical Coupland absurdism. Rachel is probably the character we would identify as the most "different" of the four, because of her medical condition. Sometimes though, she feels like she's the most human.

Luke and Rick are very similar because, as they themselves observe, their jobs both involve listening to people's confessions. Luke was a pastor, until he stole the church's renovation fund and skipped town the same afternoon that he lost his faith. Rick is a recovering alcoholic tending bar. Priests and bartenders alike listen to things people don't feel comfortable confiding in ordinary conversations: bars are a home to a tension between anonymity and intimacy that must be very welcoming at times.

Karen empathizes with everyone: her fifteen-year-old "she's going through a goth phase" daughter, Casey; the kid with the iPhone who takes a photo of her on the airplane; Warren, the man she flew out to meet in the bar after meeting him online; and then when the price of oil skyrockets and the world ends for a day or so, she empathizes with everyone in the bar. She even empathizes with the sniper who kills Warren and whom they eventually tie up inside the bar. I really like Rachel, but if I had to pick a favourite character I might choose Karen. Coupland gives her two excellent lines:

I think if people had real courage, they'd wear their Halloween costume every day of the year. At the very least, you'd make a lot more friends more quickly. Like, 'Hey, I like togas, too!' Or, 'Star Trek? I'm in.' Your costume would be a means of filtering down to the people you'd probably like the most.

I love this because that's exactly what we do online, and it's why I find it so much easier to be social online than I do offline. When interacting offline, it is very difficult to share information with other people. Until we start talking, clothing and body language are about the only indications of who we are and what we like, hence Karen's idea that we should all wear our Halloween costumes. On the Web, however, the "profile" is king. Whether it's Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, or my own website, when someone visits my profile, he or she can learn immediately whether we share similar interests. It's a very effective filtering mechanism.

Karen also asks her Internet date Warren whether he feels like his life is a story and then mentions that she thinks "the story part" or her life "is over".

Karen has noticed that young people no longer seem to care if their lives are stories. Not Casey, and not that little pervert on the flight earlier that afternoon. He'd probably no more view his life as a story than he would view his life as that of a sea cucumber. He and Casey inhabit a world of screen grabs, website hits, and precisely tabulated numbers of friends and enemies.

I think my life is a bit like a story, but Coupland has still hit upon truth here. When critics label my generation "apathetic" or "lazier" compared to previous generations, they are judging us using obsolete criteria. Anyone who grows up using the Internet actually learns differently from people who came before; our brains are wired differently. This has happened before: urbanization changed the way people think as children grew up in the suburbs instead of on a farm. Now it's happening again. Knowledge is no longer linear, no longer acquired by rote, and yes, we generally don't retain facts the same way that older people do, just as people in the twentieth century couldn't hold a candle peasants from the twelfth century (pre-literate oral memory for the win!). We don't memorize; we contextualize. Our lives are not linear; they are circular, elliptical, hyperbolic, and hypertextual. We are turning the Web from interconnected repositories of knowledge into an extension of our own minds.

And this is why I think that one of the reasons Coupland's more recent novels, such as JPod and even Generation A, resonate with me more than his older works. He has started to include the Internet and the Web in his meditations upon humanity. I spent my adolescence online. It is now a part of me and of my experiences in a very intimate way—after all, I'm using it now to convey these thoughts to anyone who happens to read them. Plenty of writers have meditated upon the effects of the Web on humans and human consciousness, and posthumanism is old hat in the science fiction community. Yet few do it the way Coupland does … Coupland studies these changes in a way that is almost spiritual. He is interested in how this technology alters us as beings and as a society of individuals.

Indeed, Player One is a microcosmic study of individualism in the digital age. What does it mean to be an individual when there are so many of us? What does it mean to be an individual if we are all connected?

And we're all waiting for It now, aren't we? Good old 'It'—the It who rains, the It we mean when we ask what time is It? I suppose It is the arrival of the Sentience. The arrival of the metamind that is us and yet much more than us. It is the Sentience that will eclipse us, that will encourage us, and shame us and indulge us. It is out there waiting. I'm certainly waiting—it's why I'm here, talking to you before I enter the New Normal, too.

I think it's possible and tempting to interpret Coupland's writing as prophetic at times, like in the passage above. Yet I am always wary of applying "prophetic" to people's words, because we are terrible at predicting the future. Rather, I think Coupland is merely describing and interpreting present-day trends. This is where he sees us going from where we are right now—not our inevitable future but the already-changing and shifting present. Because he's right that we are waiting. Some of us are literally waiting for the Singularity, or its religious equivalent, the Rapture. (I used to think I might be one of the former, but now I am not so sure.) Others are just waiting to see what is going to happen in a world of almost 7 billion people. This is what should happen:

Here's to all of us reaching out our hands to other people everywhere, reaching out to pull them from the icebergs on which they stand frozen, to pull them through the burning hoops of fire that frighten them, to help them climb over the brick walls that block their paths. Let us reach out to shock and captivate people into new ways of thinking.

With four characters in five hours, Douglas Coupland succinctly gets at what makes us human—part of what makes us human. We are different from other forms of life because we have the capacity for self-preservation not on the level of the individual or the pack but of the species entire. This has driven us to develop the tools to direct our own evolution, to direct the development of our consciousness, our minds, and our bodies. And it is making us increasingly connected, because as the world grows more crowded, how could we become anything else?

At times the extent to which Player One extrapolates this idea of inter-connectedness approaches Lovelockian proportions. Various characters float or espouse a Gaia-like hypothesis about the Earth or the universe. You don't have to agree with every idea in Player One—and I think, from the way he characterizes them on occasion as "woo woo" or "New Agey", that Coupland is not serious about them either. He includes them, rather, because they are essential to the subjects being discussed, and in order to challenge and provoke thought. I'm glad I don't agree with everything in this book, because it means I'm not praising it simply because it reflects what my pre-existing beliefs and opinions about life, humanity, and technology.

My edition of Player One clocks in at 246 pages. The last 31 of these pages are "Future Legend". Many of the terms described therein will be familiar: invariant memory (Platonic forms), memesphere ("the realm of culturally tangible ideas"); or, they will feel familiar even if we didn't have the vocabulary to articulate them so succinctly, e.g., "karaokeal amnesia" ("most people don't know the complete lyrics of almost any song, particularly the ones they hold most dear"). It's possible to read this glossary from start to finish, but it would be a chore (trust me, I tried). The book is over at this point, and this is an appendix, Coupland's demonstration that we have stretched our vocabulary to its limit and must invent more terms to describe the shift happening in our own lifetimes.

Last year I took a course called Philosophy & the Internet (online, obviously). In the second week we read a blog post by Clay Shirky: "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable", in which Shirky points to the Internet as the death knell of print newspapers and argues that this is evidence we are in the midst of a revolution. Discussion sprang up over whether we agreed with this assertion. I was very vocal in my support of Shirky and this idea that we are experiencing a revolution. Even if I weren't, however, I think Player One would have convinced me. In five hours in an airport hotel lounge, Douglas Coupland could totally do that. What's even more amazing is the sense of unbridled optimism he manages to bundle along with his argument. Player One happens during a crisis of global proportions, and at the novel's end the world is not as it was; oil remains expensive and rationed, but people somehow adjust—they always do, is Coupland's message. The end of the world proves to be the dawning of a new world, and like the old world, the new one is a mixture of the good and the bad, of happiness and suffering, of crazy families and criminals and mothers and priests. Despite the fact that there's a sniper on the roof, a body outside the door, and a chemical explosion poisoning the air around the lounge, Coupland manages to persuade us that it's all going to work out fine. Somehow, against all odds, these people are going to make it out alive, and life will go on.

I needed that. Sometimes the panoply of information that reaches me is overwhelming. We are nearly 7-billion strong on this planet, but problems always seem to scale better than their solutions. Don't get me wrong: there are no assurances in this book that we will ascend, as a species, to a better place. There is still every chance that we will collectively stumble, faceplant, and give way to the next big evolutionary thing. But I feel like with Player One, Douglas Coupland is saying, "Not today." There is a very good chance we will, as a species screw up—but there's always a chance we won't. It's a very infectious sort of optimism, the same kind of optimism that's the reason I love Doctor Who so much. ("Let's get in a big blue box and see what's out there! Let's poke it with a stick! Let's be so very human!")

It's also an optimism that has to steep, which is why I am glad I write reviews. Initially Player One left me with a warm but vaguely befuddled feeling—typical "Coupland, man, he's weird". So I sat down to write about how I liked Player One, but…. And then, as I sometimes do when writing reviews, I discovered that there isn't a "but". At every turn, despite my most valiant efforts, it eluded me. That is a powerful thing for any book to do.


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