Escapist Dream (Book Review): How It Represented and Satirized Geek Culture
Better Than Ready Player One
For the past decade, geek culture has become larger and more popular than ever before. Gone are the spectacle-wearing losers and suspender-wearing dweebs, geeks nowadays flaunt their artistry in their works and sexiness in their cosplays. Everyone who used to criticize geeks, has to admit that they also like to watch and discuss the latest blockbuster movies and franchises.
But imagine a world, where these geeks can become their favorite fictional characters? A world where these geeks can live a life similar to the movies, comics, anime and video games they are passionate about?
I was drawn into this GameLit book because of this interesting premise. As a hardcore geek I was expecting a lot of wacky battles and pop culture references similar to that of Ready Player One. What I got however, was something far deeper and more intellectual. This book surprised me on how it accurately represented and satirized geek culture.
Unlike most convoluted GameLit and LitRPGS with their abundance of rules, mechanics and systems that seldom makes sense and are accurately portrayed (seriously what’s the difference when Jason is at level 5 and when he’s at level 7 or something), the world of the Escapist Dream is far simpler and easier to understand. It’s just a virtual reality world where everyone can dress up and use any superpowers. No levelling up or any similar stuff; visitors here just have fun pretending and doing make-believe. The conflict in the story comes from “bugs” which have somehow affected the world, making people do questionable things (eventually leading to murder), and it’s up to the main characters to stop it.
The world of the Escapist Dream is divided into four main areas, based on what fandom and medium the people in it are passionate about. There’s Stan City (probably named after Stan Lee) which is the home of the comic book geeks. There’s also Otaku Academy which is the home of anime and manga otaku. There’s also Gamer’s Den which is the place where gamers and e-players reside and compete. And then there’s the Library which is where the book nerds hang out. The geeks here are able to use the powers of their favorite fictional characters and role-play as actual comic, anime, video game, and literary protagonists.
All of these places contain tropes taken from each medium, which author Louis Bulaong hilariously and accurately portrayed. Let’s take a look at Stan City for example. Like in a comic book, the geeks here dress up as superheroes and try to do superhero things like saving people, fighting villains etc. And while the author described it faithfully as a fun and action-filled place, he also used this city to kind of make fun of some of the wacky tropes in comic books. In here, you can also find crazy superhumans with crazy names similar to that of the Polka Dot Man. There’s literally a villain in the story by the name of the “Physics Man” who has the power to control physics. And he is hilarious as hell with his mad scientist personality and exaggerated German accent.
Another example can be seen in Gamer’s Den where Louis Bulaong really increased the volume of his satire. Gamers in this place are portrayed as talented and passionate geeks, described as having reflexes and skills above the average comic or manga reader. However, the gamers here are also portrayed as rageful, hating about virtually everything from what console they use, to microtransactions, glitches and camping, “salt”, trash-talking about one’s momma, etc. There’s even a reference to the almighty “PC Master Race” and Jim Sterling of all people.
As you have read, there are a lot of pop cultural references and shenanigans here from comics, films, anime, video games etc. It’s fun, wacky and entertaining to read from chapter to chapter.
The same hilarious representation and satire are present in the characters too. For example, the main character, Charlie, is your typical American geek. But in the world of the Escapist Dream, he gains the powers of a Jedi and Superman. What makes Charlie really funny is that like these characters, he always tries to be noble and just (to the point of not even using guns). He thus ends up being this awkward but funny wannabe superhero.
Then there’s also a character named Kaichou, a Japanese otaku, who is fat, wears glasses, but tries to be cool and smart. Deep down however, is a guy who gets nosebleeds when seeing sexy girls. He also secretly keeps a waifu. My favorite character in this novel would have been the female Korean gamer named the Wiz. Unlike all the other gamers in other GameLit books, she by far feels like an actual gamer. She gives painful but hilarious trash talks, and uses actual video game slangs (again… unlike other GameLit/LitRPG characters). And the fact that she’s a Korean, which is a country filled with the most serious gamers around, makes her even more interesting.
Another wacky character whom I also laughed about is someone who calls himself “The Librarian”. As a fan of classical novels, he is portrayed as this pompous stick-in-the-mud who believes novels are better than comics, anime and video games. I kind of see Louis Bulaong writing this character as a shot at real fans of “high culture” who thinks old stuff back then is superior to what is being sold now. They are basically this master race who forces people to read Lord of the Flies than manga because they think it’s smarter.
Behind the wackiness of the world and the characters, lies dark and serious themes that make up the character’s personalities. Charlie may be this fun-loving geek who plays superheroes, but deep down he’s also someone who is lonely and depressed for literally being the only geek in his hometown. He came to the Escapist Dream in order to escape, and ends up gaining something he’s always wanted: Friends.
The most tragic figure in this story is probably Jim, a British programmer sent to the Escapist Dream to fix its various glitches. When he first appeared, Jim was nothing more than a jerk who bullies Charlie and fights with everyone constantly. I felt hatred for this character because of his attitude and toxicity in the early chapters. But as I continue reading, I was astonished to learn the reason why he was this bitter and cynical all the time. The guy is a victim of trauma and loss, and I learned then to pity and appreciate his character more.
What makes Escapist Dream unique from, let’s say Ready Player One, is its more profound themes. The characters here are not the OPed talented protagonists that is prevalent in most young books today. Charlie and Jim did not level up in every chapter because of the experience points they have, or the new items they accumulate, but instead grew up by becoming more mature of their emotions and pasts. This is by far, the best character development I’ve seen in a GameLit and LitRPG novel.
I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that this is one of the best GameLit novels I have ever read. The style of writing was compact and concise, every character was really well-written and relatable, and I was also surprised to read an Amazon e-book with little spelling or grammar problems. Of course, the book is not perfect. It starts too slow and the ending was a bit stretched. But I assure you the more you read it, the more you will fall in love with the place and the characters if you yourself is a geek.
What made it special in my opinion as well, is that this is a geeky book written by an actual geek. Every good and bad stuff in comic, anime and video game culture were accurately portrayed here. Every pop culture reference landed hilariously, and it was fun also researching some of the references that I didn’t even know. If you’re a hardcore geek living alone in this pandemic, and wants something to laugh and cry about, then this book is for you.
Overall, I give it a 5 out of 5.