Throughout the novel it seems pretty clear cut that Aech is a white male.
Then, we discover he’s an African-American young women, traveling in an old RV after being kicked out of her mother’s house for being a lesbian. Huge surprise, of course. Aech and Wade had bonded so well and to me, the language Aech used as rather ‘masculine’. Now Wade had a triple-shock: his best friend was not only a woman, but an African-American woman, and a lesbian.
However, here is a quick excerpt from the novel (I’ve picked out the most intriguing parts of it) as Wade finally meets Aech:
“A heavyset African American girl sat in the RV’s driver seat, clutching the wheel tightly and staring ahead. She was about my age, with short, kinky hair and chocolate-colored skin that appeared iridescent in the soft glow of the dashboard indicators […] the numbers [of her Rush 2112 shirt] were warped around her large bosom.” (Cline 318)
“A wave of emotion washed over me. Shock gave way to a sense of betrayal. How could he – she – deceive me all these years?” (Cline 318)
“I let go of her and stepped back. ‘Christ, Aech,’ I said smiling, ‘I knew you were hiding something. But I never imagined…”
‘What?’ she said, a bit defensively. ‘You never imagined what?’
‘That the famous Aech, renowned gunter and the most feared and ruthless arena combatant in the entire OASIS, was, in reality, a….’
‘A fat black chick?’
[…] ‘There’s a reason I never told you, you know.’
‘And I’m sure it’s a good one […] But it really doesn’t matter.'” (Cline 319)
I found this dialogue and Wade’s reaction to be very unsettling. His description of her sounds like a rather ignorant description that would come out of the mouth of a poetic ethnocentric child. He then goes on to tell her that “it really doesn’t matter”, but what is he referring to? Her reason doesn’t matter or that her concealing her identity doesn’t matter? Either way, both are problematic.
Wade recounts Aech’s story saying “In Marie’s [Aech’s mom] opinion, the OASIS was the best thing that ever happened to both women and people of color. From the very start, Marie had used a white male avatar to conduct all of her online business, because of the marked difference it made in how she was treated and the opportunities she was given” (Cline 320). Wade then goes on to say that “We’d connected on a purely mental level. I understood her, trusted her, and loved her as a dear friend. None of that had changed, or could be changed by anything as inconsequential as her gender, or skin color, or sexual orientation” (Cline 321).
It was certainly very noble of Wade to decide to not be affected by Aech’s identity but that does not excuse the problems of these passages. Marie suggests that OASIS helps women and people of color but it helps by allowing them to assume the identity of a more socially acceptable identity. OASIS does nothing to help further the causes of social minorities; it only masks the problem.
Then in a very pointedly noble move, Cline refers to aspects of one’s social identity to be ‘inconsequential’. It would certainly be nice if they were! However it is clear that for Wade and for the OASIS society, identity was highly important – despite the fact that nobody’s identity on OASIS could be pure. People created their avatars and even in attempting to make them look like themselves, they are all only representations. There are varying degrees of identity change in the virtual world, but Wade felt especially betrayed by Aech upon first meeting her because of how drastic her identity change was. There was no hint of him feeling betrayed by Art3mis upon finding out she had a large birthmark on her face that she did not put on her avatar. Cline and Wade make it perfectly clear that gender, race, and sexual orientation are not as inconsequential as an absent birthmark.
It seems that Cline sought to make a positive comment on race, gender, and sexual orientation but the language of the above passages subvert all of his attempts. I found this entire section to be disturbing and to be rather thoughtless in its message. I am not suggesting Wade should not have been surprised to find out Aech’s identity, but he did not have nearly the same reaction to Art3mis’ birthmark or Daisho not being brothers. None of this would be as problematic if Cline had not attempted to dissuade the problems by recounting Marie’s story about OASIS as savior of minorities or Wade’s sudden notion of the inconsequence of identity.