Book Review: Jen Wang and Cory Doctorow’s “In Real Life”

By Breeann Kirby

InRealLifeCoryDoctorow cover
©Jen Wang, used with permission of First Second Books

In the collaborative adaption of his short story “Anda’s Game” (published originally in Salon nearly a decade ago) to a young adult graphic novel (published by First Second,  14 October 2014), Cory Doctorow freely acknowledges that Jen Wang did “all the heavy lifting in the adaptation” and though he “wrote the underlying story and edited her script and […] implementation […] Jen is the true soul of the graphic novel.” In a separate interview with Comics Alliance, Wang adds, “There were about eight or so drafts, with the first one being closest to the original story. With each draft I pushed a little further into new territory […] the details changed, and I added a third Act where we see what happens after Anda decides to help Raymond.” Wang’s adaptive changes make In Real Life an important and compelling read for both the young reader as well as the adult reader who wants to reconnect with hope in humanity and second chances.

Jen WangJen Wang is an accomplished illustrator, writer, and cartoonist who has done individual and collaborative projects for companies such as MacMillan, Paramount Pictures, Los Angeles Magazine, and TOR.com. An advocate for the sequential arts, she co-founded and organizes the LA-based Comic Arts LA, whose inaugural festival took place 6 December 2014. In addition to her many projects, Wang recently started a new comic series called “The White Snake” on her site.

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Photo by Jonathan Worth (jonathanworth.com)

An ardent activist for revising how we share and use information, Cory Doctorow champions, among other things, Creative Commons licensing and has made almost all of his books freely available in electronic format. Despite this access, the sales of his print books have not gone down. A prolific writer (“I’ve spend the past ten years writing about ten blog posts a day, every day“), Doctorow regularly contributes to both print and electronic publications such as Popular Science, Wired, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine in addition to Boing Boing, a site he co-owns and co-edits.

By following the cyber adventures and physical world of Anda Bridge, a warrior in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) of Coarsegold as well as a pudgy, shy teenage- transplant from San Diego to Flagstaff, In Real Life teaches us that both the cyber and physical worlds are “real life” with the consequences of our actions reverberating throughout both realms.

©Jen Wang, used with permission of First Second Books
©Jen Wang, used with permission of First Second Books

Anda is recruited to join an exclusively female gaming community, the Fahrenheit Clan, in the MMORPG of Coarsegold that has millions of players and many clans in an open world format. Modeled on games like World of Warcraft but with a decidedly builder focus, Coarsegold and its inhabitants are lovely, fantastical, and fierce. Unlike her life in Flagstaff, Anda excels there. So much so, that in Coarsegold, she is recruited by fellow gamer Lucy, aka “Sarge,” to engage in special in-game raiding missions, killing bot-like gold farmers for US dollars. Anda justifies these massacres because these gold farmers are working the system, selling game items on ebay to players who want to purchase upgrades rather than earning them. Besides, Anda’s a gifted warrior, getting in and out of situations that even Sarge can’t; the missions are fun and the “real world” money she can spend in Flagstaff isn’t bad either.

“[T]his story, about the relationship between sexism, racism, class war and labor economics, reflects the future 10 years out from its initial inception because race, gender, class and capitalism are forever entwined, and every technology gives us the opportunity to reconfigure their relationship and interrogate their role in our world.”

The book’s art is true to Wang’s style, more curved lines than angles with distinctive use of coloring to evoke the different worlds. Wang’s decision to depict both Flagstaff and Coarsegold in the same style is a subliminal reminder to the readers that for Anda (and most gamers) there is no experiential distinction between worlds.

©Jen Wang, used with permission of First Second Books
©Jen Wang, used with permission of First Second Books
InRealLife-COMBINED_100-31
©Jen Wang, used with permission of First Second Books

Real life is where we engage and interact with others, physically and virtually. This subtle messaging frees up the rest of the text to address other big issues surrounding gaming and the global economy that are highly relevant as we learn about abuses such as the GamerGate controversy and workers’ rights issues in countries like Qatar, India, and China. In an interview with Paste Magazine, Doctorow notes, “[T]his story, about the relationship between sexism, racism, class war and labor economics, reflects the future 10 years out from its initial inception because race, gender, class and capitalism are forever entwined, and every technology gives us the opportunity to reconfigure their relationship and interrogate their role in our world.”

©Jen Wang, used with permission of First Second Books
©Jen Wang, used with permission of First Second Books

In Coarsegold, Anda can forget that she’s an overweight new kid; the money she earns, in Coarsegold treasure and US dollars, allows her to gain confidence both as a warrior of the Fahrenheit Clan and a programmer in high school. However, all the fun dissolves when one of the farmers, Raymond, engages with Anda, explaining that the gold farmers she slaughters are actually the avatars of child workers in China, trying desperately to make a living for their families in terrible working conditions. Anda begins to care, attempting to protect Raymond both in game and in “real life,” by killing Sarge and talking Raymond into organizing a strike at the gaming factory. Both end in disaster. Anda is banned from Coarsegold, alienates Lucy (Sarge), and causes Raymond to get fired.

“Finally!” the curmudgeonly adult reader cries, “Anda gets her come-uppance as a nosy, pudgy, Western girl who is meddling in issues about which she knows nothing. Time for Anda to eat a kale salad and stick to ‘real life.’” However, the brilliance of the story is found in Wang’s expansion on Doctorow’s original short: in Wang’s version, we see Anda get a second chance. In Flagstaff, she and Sarge reconnect (albeit via webcam), apologize, and mend their friendship. Then in a daring re-entry into Coarsegold, Anda (whose avatar now looks much like that of a gold farmer), with the help of some of Sarge’s recruits, races to find Raymond and aid him in his fight for rights. The biggest adult critique of this book stems from these final moments; adults are convinced that real life can’t work this way.

The fact that the story ends with Anda’s finding hope in that both worlds can be influenced for good by people who care rather than some cautionary moral seems to be a difficult pill to swallow by some critics mostly because many adults have stopped looking for hope and second chances.

©Jen Wang, used with permission of First Second Books
©Jen Wang, used with permission of First Second Books

Despite all the big issues covered in this book, In Real Life refuses to have a moral. Anda doesn’t need to drink more green tea smoothies or keep her Western nose out of issues she can’t possibly understand; rather the story avoids a neat take-away, preferring to err on the side of second chances and forgiveness. Kids still get this—this thing that we as adults may have forgotten— in real life we sometimes need to try again. We need hope that we will be given the opportunity. What better way to empower a generation than reminding them that yes, caring for others actually does count for a whole lot? The fact that my ten-year-old son (and avid gamer) wasn’t surprised at all that female Anda was a gifted and strong gamer speaks volumes. The further fact that after reading In Real Life, he wanted to research working conditions in China and figure out a way to help also demonstrates that Wang and Doctorow have hit their mark.

You can head to TOR.com to read an excerpt of In Real Life.

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