In this blog post, I’ll be reviewing Cory Doctorow’s graphic novel In Real Life (IRL), about which I was very curious as it covers the same topic as his YA novel For the Win (Now do you get the title of this blog post? I’m very witty and clever).
While I admire the heck out of Canadian Cory Doctorow, I’ve always found his books for younger readers to be a bit, well, on the nose. He writes about important subjects and his plot lines are always excellent. but he really lacks subtlety and the character development often leaves something to be desired. But, now that he has teamed up with artist Jen Wang for this graphic novel, her beautiful artwork and panel storytelling provide the subtlety and character development that was previously lacking in his work. Jen Wang’s artwork is spectacular, her panels of in-game story are beautiful and creative and contrast so well with her representations of “real life.” Her fight scenes are also stupendous (see above)! Basically, the book is worth buying simply for the art work and Doctorow’s awesome introduction.
In Real Life is a Middle Fiction (notice I think it’s MF and not YA, I’ll talk about that more later) story about a girl named Anda who starts playing an MMO and finds out about some weird goings on in the world of internet gaming. The main event is when she gets introduced to a character in-game that is paid to be a gold farmer, a poor kid from a third world country who works for a company that illegally collects valuable objects in-game in order to sell them to players from developed countries (yes, this actually happens, just so you know). Anda finds his job conditions unfair, but grows to understand more about why this kind of job might be economically necessary for her new friend.
The story covers a wide range of topics like feminism in gaming, which is a big topic what with the horrendous Anita Sarkeesian situation currently happening. If you don’t know about this, check it out as Sarkeesian is another amazing Canadian. She has a video blog called Feminist Frequency which, in part, calls out some of the misogynist tropes in gaming and she is sadly now in international news as the target of death threats and has had to move several times for her own safety as a group of weirdos continues to find out her address and post it online. But, back to In Real Life. The story also covers poverty, economics, peer pressure and snobbery in geek communities, and most importantly (as with all of Doctorow’s novels for younger readers) it delves into the importance of activism and methods of activating that activism.
Doctorow is a life-long activist who really believes that the internet and technology will be an activist’s greatest tools in creating change. He also believes that it will always be the youth who will be leading that change, especially now that technology has been become so much a part of making a difference. He makes interesting points in his books about how easily we can create communities online now (whether for good or evil) whereas he had to spend most of his activist days stuffing envelopes. He always gives resources in his stories about things likes copyright laws, hacking, and behavioural economics. He also writes excellent non-fiction about all of this as co-editor of boingboing.
I’ve seen a lot of goodreads reviewers having a field day with the fact that Doctorow chose to explore this narrative from the privileged position of the gamer from the developed country trying to ride in a be the savior in this book. I like to think I’m pretty sensitive to white privilege, and I can’t say I really agreed with this in that he wrote from the perspective he knew and would probably have been taken to task had he tried to write the story from a perspective he knew very little about. I found that the story brings up the fact that Anda made assumptions and tried to help before she really knew anything about the topic and it definitely gave the impression that you really should do your research before delving into issues like this. I also thought that he was telling the story from Anda’s perspective and that a girl that age really wouldn’t know where to begin helping and that this is part of what the book is about, learning how to help after you’ve developed the desire to help. I will say that the fact that the book is short means that it doesn’t delve into the heavy topics in that much detail and so I believe this is a book for middle readers or young YA, and that it might be marketed for the wrong age group by many people because he has written for YA in the past. If you really want to go into this topic more or want to get something for your teenager, you should pick up his aforementionted YA novel For the Win.
In short, I recommend In Real Life, as I always recommend Doctorow, because the story is good and the ideas always make you stop and think. And, you know, thinking is good.