I’ve been reading Ernie Cline’s Ready Player One in anticipation of meeting him at week’s end in Alamogordo, New Mexico as we assemble to track down millions of dumped Atari cartridges. The book is entertaining and captures a particular strain of distopian science fiction that contrasts a decaying, dangerous, and impoverished world against a gleaming virtual reality. Gibson framed it most famously as the contrast between the sprawl and the abstracted flow of data through the matrix. Cline’s book is also laced with vaguely archaeological references. Without giving too much away of the plot, the dorktastic main character engages in a quest in a massive game simulation to win a dead billionaires fortune. The quest involves the main character exploring tombs, ruins, or places frozen in time.
The archaeological character of the book, set in the middle decades of the 21st century, plays off an explicit sense of nostalgia for the 1980s. It fits nicely in the growing nostalgia for that decade that fuels, in part, the desire to track down and excavate the buried Atari cartridges in the New Mexico desert. The goal of this excavation, like the quest in Cline’s novel, is to solve a mystery, but it’s also to restore the objects buried in ground (hidden and discarded) to a place within our cultural consciousness. The act of restoring value to copies of the E.T. video game, finds a nice parallels with the plot of the movie (and the goal of the game) where the homesick alien struggles, but ultimately finds his way home.
This kind of Romantic quest for restoration projects a utopian future grounded firmly in a past that is somehow more authentic, innocent, and just. Just as Freud understood excavation as the method to uncover our primordial humanity by cutting away the cluttered overburden of the conscious mind, the nostalgic trip into the New Mexico desert to restore the game E.T. to its rightful place in our nostalgic utopian view of the past. Hayden White, following Northrop Frye, recognized Romantic forms of emplotment as evoking anarchist ideologies although not necessary in the strictest, most doctrinal sense of the word. The act of Romantic restoration, however, does fit well the task of the archaeologists who build their ideal futures through the careful reconstruction of the past.
There is something of an echo between the archaeologist’s craft and our desire to make the past whole again, and the fantasy of science fiction which so often – in its most popular form – follows the well-worn path from impending distopia to redeemed utopia. The nostalgic fanboy recognizes the Romantic emplotment common to fantasy and archaeology. The Atari dig embodies the powerful impulses of nostalgia, science-fiction, fanboy enthusiasm, and archaeological epistemologies.