“In Real Life” is one of this year’s most intriguing graphic novels as it raises questions not asked often enough. A New York Times bestselling graphic novel written by Cory Doctorow and drawn by Jen Wang, it is the story of Anda, a gamer, who discovers a black market system through the friendship she makes with, Raymond, a poor boy in China. The focus is on what exploited people must do in order to survive and what can be done to help them rise up and out of their circumstances. But it’s also about the avatars we use to hide from the world. As is clearly depicted here, Anda has problems with the real world and her place in it.
I’m not sure that we ever fully resolve Anda’s issues. The fact remains that Anda is not totally comfortable in her own skin. It appears that she’s stuck enjoying being her avatar much more than not being her avatar. This is not exactly the theme of the book but this sticky issue overlaps into the main plot about the turmoil that Raymond is going through as a “gold farmer” within the virtual world of Coarsegold Online. You see, if you have the money but can’t spare the time to be bothered with the details, you can hire someone like Raymond to make all the effort required, such as learn how to capture magical feathers, to make you a champ in the world of Coarsegold Online. In this way, you can feed your ego, and your self-esteem, if you can afford it and you’re so inclined.
As Doctorow explains in the book’s introduction, the topic up for discussion is economics and how it affects your life, much more than you might think. Throughout, we find all the characters are seeking something and willing to barter, cheat, and kill (virtual killing) to get what they want. Anda is our vulnerable main character, a high school freshman. Her family recently moved and uprooted her from all her friends. One day in computer lab, she is invited to be part of a beta project involving girl gamers. Once, she’s in this virtual world, she immediately transforms into Kalidestroyer, a superheoric version of herself. She’s prettier, lighter, and faster. What does that say about the real world Anda?
Anda is quickly lured into the subculture of gold farming within the role-playing game she’s now absorbed in. Lucy, an older girl who is a seasoned gamer, recruits Anda to join her in killing gold farmers. As she explains it, these gold farmers are cheating and making it harder for everyone else. So, why not kill them and get paid for it? Reluctantly, she admits that you get paid by other gold farmers. But who cares, may as well make a profit, right? It’s from here that Anda ends up meeting one of these gold farmers and learns the grim realities of working in some boiler room for endless hours with no health benefits.
And as much as Anda worries about Raymond, you can’t help but be concerned about Anda. And you’re supposed to be, of course. Doctorow and Wang have created quite a compelling portrait of a vulnerable young woman. Here’s the deal, Anda represents the West and being in a privileged position. Anda’s Chinese friend, Raymond, represents those less fortunate. Anda is on a mission to save Raymond. But other issues resist easy resolution, or perhaps any resolution. At the end of the day, the virtual world still retains its mystique as a paradise and vulnerable souls like Anda continue to favor their avatars over themselves, much more than they might ever realize. This is the thing, you read this and you can’t help but get wrapped up in these characters and wonder about what lies ahead. To be fair, we do come to some better understanding of what is real and what is not. Of course, there’s always room for more. Well, perhaps material for another book.
“In Real Life” is published by First Second Books. You can find it here, here, and here. And, if you happen to be in the London area next week, you will want to stop by Orbital Comics, near Leicester Square, on the evening of Wednesday, November 12. The event is free, and Doctorow will be giving a short talk on science fiction and its relationship to the future, the present, politics and society called “Predicting the present: Science Fiction as a lens for focusing on today.” If you can’t make it out to the reading, Orbital Comics has got you covered with special copies of the now-sold-out first printing of “In Real Life” with a custom, numbered bookplate signed by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang.