In Real Life Review – Trade Waiter
This graphic novel reminds us that the world is crawling with unsavory underground markets. People in the rich world sometimes feel uncomfortable about the existence these grey economies, but they rarely go out of their ways to do anything about them, not because they’re bad people, but because it can be hard to know the right thing to do. This issue sits at the heart of In Real Life.
Writer, Cory Doctorow, and artist, Jen Wang’s, story concerns a middle school gamer girl, who’s a powerful fighter and a skilled player in a male-dominated world of massive multiplayer games. The hero, named Anda, in an oblique reference to Ender’s Game, discovers gold farmers (players employed to acquire and sell in-game items) who she sees destroying the economy of the game. Anda gleefully begins to taking these farmers out and to collect real cash bounties. The moral quandary comes out when she realizes that these gold farmers are people in poor countries who depend on farming for their livelihoods.
The book was originally a short story by Doctorow, some of the plot has been updated, but the main ideas show up in both versions: the tension between life in Anda’s rich world and the hard lives of the gold-miners. In Real Life gets new power in this adaptation. Wang’s art makes the story more accessible and immediate. For example, she portrays Anda’s video game avatar, the tough, idealized version of herself she presents in the game world, in contrast to her barely-mature self in her own world. Seeing the story in a comic, also illuminates the relationship between a very young girl and her 30-something mentor/teammate.
Wang’s art tends to round edges and subtle color contrasts. It looks cartoony but not dashed off or too simple. The characters are expressive and individualistic. The game world is not just pretty to look at, it pulls you in with the seductive thrill that the best of games create.
The book is fast, but its activist heart is right in line with the many great Doctorow stories that are out there. I’ve heard Doctorow talk about predicting the present, about how he and other Sci-Fi authors like him don’t figure out what will happen in the future, they just point out what’s really going on today. And in the Doctorow books, there’s often a prescriptive hero pointing out what the hell we should be doing about this already. Here’s the world as it is now. Here’s what you could do about it.
That said this book isn’t preachy really. It’s got an opinion, but it also has a story and it’s a good one.