Book Review: Otaku by Chris Kluwe
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 2 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tor Books (March 3, 2020)
Length: 352 pages
As a longtime gamer, I love to read books with a gaming angle. Needless to say then, Otaku immediately became a must-read, not to mention I was also curious to see how Chris Kluwe, a regular fixture in the online gaming community, would bring his passion for the hobby to his novel debut.
Sadly though, I was disappointed. But before I go into all the reasons why (and it’s quite an extensive list), here’s a bit about the story for context: Otaku takes place in a dystopian future and stars protagonist Ashley “Ashura the Terrible” Akachi, just one of millions of people around the globe playing the popular virtual MMORPG called Infinite Game. But as leader of the Sunjewel Warriors, one of the top guilds in the world, she is recognized for her physical skills and talents—all which must be honed to perfection in the real world so that they can translate to the digital one, where she and her teammates are pitted against all kinds of powerful mobs and raid bosses. This feat of technology is accomplished through the use of haptic chambers known as hapspheres that enclose the gamer, who, wearing specialized gear, would then be able to move around and feel as though they are actually in the game world itself.
Still, Ash’s reputation doesn’t come without a downside. Racism and sexism run rampant in the gaming community, and not one day goes by it seems without some guy threatening to rape or kill her. In her family life, Ash is also struggling having to deal with a hotheaded younger brother and a mother whose mind is almost gone. Her only solace is her boyfriend, but because of who is, they are forced to keep their relationship on the down low, which isn’t a problem for Ash—until, of course, it turns out that her lover has been keeping a big secret about himself from her as well. Next thing she knows, Ash is pulled into a vast conspiracy that involves Infinite Game, one that would bring ruin to both the virtual and real worlds unless the Sunjewel Warriors and other gamers fight back to take back what’s theirs.
Anyway, like I said, there were quite a few things that didn’t sit quite right with me, and I’ll start with the story of Otaku. Being a huge gamer and having personally sunk many years of my life into MMORPGs, the intro of the book immediately struck me as blatant wish fulfillment fantasy and thus was incredibly awkward to read. Now, there’s nothing wrong with wish fulfillment in and of itself, but the problem arises when the author sacrifices everything from characterization and plotting to actual plausibility in order to facilitate his own fantasies, like, oh I don’t know, soloing a dev-controlled raid boss dragon, for example? My eyes just about rolled out of my head, and at that moment I also had my first inkling that things were going to be rough from here on out.
Sure enough, the story just didn’t capture my interest or imagination. Speaking of which, the blurb describing this book as reminiscent of Ready Player One is also a huge misrepresentation, and not least because Otaku lacks the fun factor or depth of world-building. Kluwe seemed more concerned with sending a social and political message along with painting the gaming world as this horrible and no-good evil place, not to mention turning his protagonist into a parody by portraying her as a perpetual victim (but more on that later). Furthermore, while the author’s love for gaming and cyberpunk is obvious, unfortunately he expresses it in all the wrong ways, committing the sin of info-dumping and using a crap ton of technical jargon or gamer-speak that a reader not in-the-know would have very little interest or knowledge in. Again, I think this is a problem with misplaced priorities, where self-indulgence and showing off seemed to have taken precedence over crafting an engaging story.
And finally, I want to talk about our protagonist, the irascible Ashura the Terrible herself. While I can appreciate Kluwe’s attempt to write a diverse character (Ash is a mixed-race queer woman), I have to say, it’s a much less meaningful and significant gesture when the character doesn’t come across as genuine or worse, feels like a caricature. One has to wonder where he drew inspiration for his protagonist, because I can’t imagine there must have been much input from real-life average gaming women, most of whom would have noticed something very “off” with the way Ash is written. Everything—and I mean everything—for this girl seems to come down to dicks. Life is shitty? Well, it’s got to be my lack of a pale-skinned dick. Men acting shitty on the internet? Gee, must be nice to have a dick. Little brother having a shitty day? Oh silly Kiro, your problems couldn’t possibly be worse than mine, because—you guessed it—you have a dick. And that’s the sad part; Ash is so fixated on this one specific aspect of gender inequality, she doesn’t even see those close to her as complex individuals with personal hopes, dreams and struggles because in her mind, it literally all comes down to what’s between a person’s legs.
Not gonna lie, it made Ash incredibly hard to like, as much as I wanted to sympathize with and root for a fellow POC gamer girl. That along with virtually non-existent world-building and lackluster story made it impossible for me to give myself fully to this novel, and it’s a real shame because the premise itself had potential. At the end of the day, Otaku stood in the fire and didn’t survive the wipe, and quite frankly, I just felt relief when it was over.