Book Review: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
Whenever I read something outside my wheelhouse, like a romance novel, or a YA novel, or a YA romance or whatever, I try to step back and remember that some books (or heck, some whole genres) are Not For Me. As a result, it can be a fine line to walk between “this book sucks because it’s a genre I don’t like!” and “this book sucks because it’s legitimately bad.” It takes some self-awareness.
On the other side of things, if there ever was a book written “for” me, it’s Ready Player One. I’m a nerd who grew up in the 1980’s, playing video games and reading D&D manuals and watching cartoons and so on. I was (and still occasionally am) weird and awkward around people, and I spend too much time on the internet (as evidenced by me writing out this blog right now). Demographically, I’m pretty much the exact targeted audience of this book, and the upcoming movie (with the trailers getting me interested enough to read Ready Player One and crank out a hot take on the book before the movie came out).
And with this in mind, I can confidently say that Ready Player One is absolutely terrible.
In case you haven’t seen the trailer, or if you’re lucky enough not to have read the book, here’s the gist of the plot: in the 2040’s, the world has run out of fossil fuels and everything is terrible. As a result, most of the world’s population is obsessed with a VR network game called OASIS as a means of escapism. The thing is, the dude who designed OASIS was obsessed with 80’s nerd shit, so upon his death he launched a treasure hunt inside the OASIS to determine who would be his successor (and get a bajillionty dollars). It’s basically Willy Wonka + The Matrix, which is a comparison I can’t claim credit for ’cause it’s one of the ad copy quotes on the back cover. In the midst of all this is one Wade Watts, a total nerd loser who sets out on this virtual treasure hunt, and succeeds, by virtue of … being a total nerd loser.
(Oh, and there are some vague spoilers to come, if you care about that sort of thing).
The ‘draw’ to Ready Player One is the references– hardly a page goes by before someone starts spouting off wikipedia-like facts on some 80’s song, or movie, or video game. The whole purpose of the book is just to shove in as much “oh hey, remember that?” bits as possible. Weaponized nostalgia. Done well, throwing in little bits and Easter Eggs in a work (be it book, video game, movie, whatever) can be a fun “aha!” moment for the sharp-eyed fan. Thing is, Cline does not do it well. There’s an annoying sense of smug nerdiness throughout the novel, like the stereotypical Comic Book Guy who calls you a “fake geek” because you don’t know Aquaman’s real name or something.
Really, my biggest issue with Ready Player One is that the unflattering portrait it presents of “nerd culture.” In the book, nerd cred is based on repetition, and nothing else. The OASIS is filled with exact replicas of pretty much every nerdy thing Cline can think of, and the way to progress in the Easter Egg Quest is only through the recitation of various nerdy quotes and facts, and occasionally playing some 80’s era arcade game perfectly. There’s no room for original ideas or alternate solutions to the “puzzles” put forth in Ready Player One. For example, fairly early one, Wade must clear a challenge by reciting every one of Matthew Broderick’s lines from Wargames in a virtual re-creation of the movie. Instead of saying “man, that’s screwed up,” Wade just throws himself into it, ’cause he’s already memorized Wargames ahead of time, for fun. On top of that, Cline mentions that these virtual movie-recitation-sims become a new and popular form of entertainment, ’cause who wants to just watch a movie when you can live in it? (But only if you say the designated lines at the designated times to get points).
The kind of nerdery Cline presents in Ready Player One borders on a religion– the sort of thing where monks spend their whole lives memorizing and transcribing holy texts. Cline (through Wade) even describes movies like Star Wars or Indiana Jones as “Holy Trilogies,” and a guide to the Easter Egg hunt as his “bible.”
As a sidenote, I think the most ‘recent’ reference in the book is name-dropping John Scalzi, whose first novel came out in like 2005, I think? Though really Cline’s nerdery focuses more on 1980’s video games from before the big video game crash (which is never mentioned).
Compare this to another work of 80’s mashup nostalgia: Tom Scioli’s Transformers vs. GI Joe. (I will never pass up an opportunity to goob about this comic because it is awesome). On the surface, Scioli does something similar, dredging up as many obscure characters and plot points as he can think of … but then he takes all of them and does something different. His twist of the familiar into something new (and frankly insane) is what makes Transformers vs. GI Joe so much better than it has any right to be.
Y’see, one of my favorite things about modern, internet-enabled nerdery is that it’s creative. It’s participatory. There’s cosplay. There’s fanart. There’s fan fiction. There’s even people writing book reviews and amateur analysis of various books just because they like to think about this sort of thing. Even something so simple as asking “Could Superman beat up The Hulk?” is a transformative act of fandom, inviting further discussion.
Ready Player One never touches on that. Cline just banks on the little thrill of recognition over and over and over again, contriving the plot so that remembering lyrics to a Schoolhouse Rock song will help you win the game. Heck, there’s even a part where the moustache-twirlingly-evil cyber-corp bad guys get mocked for trying to think of deeper references to a clue, instead of knowing those aforementioned Schoolhouse Rock lyrics.
There are a couple of places where Ready Player One comes marginally close to something resembling a deeper thought, only to veer away again to make a Star Wars reference. Admittedly, most of these deeper thoughts (such as “you can be whoever you want to be on the internet” and/or “sometimes you can make internet friends who you’ll never meet in real life”) have been addressed in far better ways by far better authors. It doesn’t help that, as described, OASIS is kind of a shitty game. There’s the whole ‘cyberspace’ thing with people running around and doing business and even going to on-line virtual schools … but at the same time it’s also tied to a clunky MMO structure, complete with levels and experience points and so on. And apparently Wade is able to play the game for years, only getting his character level to three ’cause he doesn’t have the money to access the actually fun parts … but then once he actually gets things going he’s able to reach level 99 without much in the way of actual effort.
It doesn’t help that Cline’s prose is … unremarkable at best, clunky and amateurish at worst. One could argue that this is him getting into the “voice” of an antisocial teenage nerd, but even then it’s not a particularly enticing concept. It doesn’t help that the occasional action scenes within OASIS have no stakes whatsoever, since they’re in a video game. It’s not even one of those dystopian cyberpunk things where if you die in the game, you die in real life– all that happens is you lose some virtual XP and items. How tragic.
The most telling thing about Ready Player One is that, by the end, there’s a goddamn giant robot fight between a Gundam, Japanese Spiderman’s Leopardon, Voltron, Mechagodzilla, and a mess of other anime mecha … and Cline manages to make it boring. What could have been a slam dunk of an epic final battle is just … meh.
Oh, and then Cline spends about an equal number of pages on Wade trying to play a perfect game of Tempest. Yuuuuup.
I haven’t even touched on Cline’s attitude towards women (spoiler: he’s got something of a fetish for “Rubenesque” brunettes), or race (spoiler: he’s a clueless white nerd)– and honestly I’ll leave such discussions for smarter, more qualified writers than I.
If nothing else, Ready Player One vaguely inspires me as one of those “If this guy can get published … “ sort of deals, though that inspiration can turn to dejected cynicism pretty quickly. Unless you have a high pain reference tolerance, I can’t honestly recommend Ready Player One for anything beyond a hate-read.
… I’m still kind of curious about the movie, though. I mean, it’s Spielberg. When’s the last time he made a bad movie?