With the film version of Ready Player One due out this weekend from Steven Spielberg, it’s past time that I take a look back at Ready Player One, the book by Ernest Cline. I really wanted to love Ready Player One, and it seemed right up my alley, despite some reservations from certain reviews and excerpts I’d seen online. I wanted to read the book before the film came out, even if I was years late to the party. But I came away not only disappointed but also extremely frustrated. I understand its appeal, and I don’t begrudge anyone for liking it, but I found reading it to be an unpleasant experience, in spite of its creative setting and generally entertaining story. Overall I’d give the book a C-, but read on for 5 Things about Ready Player One, 3 that I hated and 2 that I liked.
3 Things I Hated about Ready Player One
The 80’s Pop Culture references
I get it. I really do. I fully understand the feeling that comes from seeing references to something we love, especially if it’s something from our childhood. It’s an instant sense of connection, and it pulls at the heartstrings to know that something we love is appreciated, and it can even give us a sense of superiority when we catch something that went over other people’s heads. So I understand why the endless stream of pop culture references from the 1980’s in Ready Player One is so appealing, and why it has become one of the main selling points for the book. There’s little doubt that in a world with a persistent, customizable online universe which almost everyone can access there would be countless worlds crafted around the 80’s, especially if the designer was a child of the 80s who hid keys for people to find to unlock the ultimate prize. It’s a solid setup for a book, and I can’t deny that I got some joy from seeing books, movies, games, and shows that I grew up loving pop up in unexpected ways throughout the story. But boy did it get old fast.
The references in Ready Player One are shockingly random and often pointless. There’s an infamous, out-of-context passage of the book where main character Wade lists all of the various works he has studied in order to be the ultimate Easter Egg Hunter in the OASIS. It’s pretty insufferable, but it’s only one short segment. The problem is that the references in the rest of the book are just as clumsily handled, if not perhaps as densely packed. Wade and the other hunters work their way through various clues and tasks, from reciting every line from a certain movie, to getting a perfect score on certain videogames, or recognizing a module from Dungeons and Dragons, but they’re all so interchangeable because each reference is nothing more than shallow window dressing. These bits of pop culture are important to the guy who built the OASIS so they’re important to Wade, but there’s never an exploration of why. Ready Player One fills itself with pop culture trivia, but it never delves below the surface. It never looks into the themes of WarGames and why it had such an impact in 1983, it doesn’t place any of the movies, shows, or books in any meaningful historical context, and it rarely even gives us any backstory on the personal reasons why the OASIS’s creator, Halliday, chose that particular thing to turn into a clue. The 80’s isn’t actually integral to the story in any meaningful way, and you could probably rewrite it based on the 1940’s or 2010’s without losing a step. I’m a child of the 80’s, and I’m happy to see Back to the Future or any of the other things from my childhood that I dearly love honored and remembered, but throwaway references don’t mean much to me. I imagine many geeks feel the same. If you want to be my friend I’d much rather discuss the themes and deeper meanings of Star Trek than to have contests over who can quote the most episodes. There is none of that in Ready Player One. It’s all memorization and bragging, without meaning or feeling. It’s a neverending game of “remember this?” without any reason as to why these things are worth remembering.
It is so very white, straight, and male
There’s nothing wrong with being white, straight, and male. I am all of those things. Nor is there anything wrong with having a white, straight, male protagonist, even if it gets a little tiring after a while to see the leads of so many stories that get major attention looking so very much alike. But the viewpoint and the writing of Ready Player One is so white, straight, and male that it’s downright oppressive. It starts with all of those 80’s references. James Halliday may have been a child of the 80’s, and his OASIS has been filled with homages to the things he loved, but they’re a very one-dimensional look at the 80’s. Wade lists off all of the music he listened to in order to hunt for clues, and it’s all white male bands. I lived through the 80’s, too, and I remember a lot of Madonna, Whitney Houston, and Cindy Lauper, not to mention Michael and Janet Jackson, Prince, and Run-DMC. The movies are just as bad. No Beverly Hills Cop, no The Little Mermaid, no The Princess Bride or The NeverEnding Story, not even a reference to Ripley or Sarah Connor. There were so many movies and so much music that was just inescapable in the 80’s and was immensely popular but which are passed over in favor of one more action movie or comedy aimed at white men, or one more obscure videogame targeted at a small subset of us 80’s kids. In fact, the only non-white, non-male segment of pop culture that appears in Ready Player One is one devoted to Japanese movies, videogames, and shows. The problem is that those references feel very fetishized and stereotyped, which has been a common thread throughout geek culture for many decades.
But even beyond the pop culture aspect of Ready Player One, the book itself does a poor job with both representation and in its attitude towards women. For most of the book the only woman of consequence is Art3mis, a fellow Easter Egg Hunter and rival of Wade’s, and also the object of his affection. Wade is obsessed with her, saving screenshots of her avatar and stalking or harassing her whenever possible. Art3mis never gets an arc of her own, even taking into account that the book is a first person narrative, and Wade never pays any interest to her motivations. In fact, when he finally meets her in real life and discovers that she’s not quite the perfect beauty she appears to be online (thanks to a small, quirky flaw in her looks), it’s just an opportunity for Wade to show how great and supportive he is, and how little he cares about looks. Even offhand comments about watching cute girls play music on ukuleles comes off as treating women like objects for male desire. Then there’s the third-act revelation (SPOILERS) that Wade’s best friend, Aech, does not match the white, male avatar that Wade is used to, but is in fact an African-American lesbian. It’s a revelation that only exists to serve as a shocking twist, and for the author to give a throwaway line about how the OASIS allows Aech to present as a white male in order to avoid discrimination. It’s a topic ripe for exploration that gets glossed over, and again merely serves to allow Wade to show how big he is by forgiving her for lying to him, and to provide humor later as Wade struggles with the correct gender pronoun for her once they return to the OASIS. (END OF SPOILERS) In short, both the tone at large and specific sections of Ready Player One made me very uncomfortable, and not in a way that meant the story was challenging my views. It just made me feel vaguely dirty.
The truth is, the two problems above are really symptoms of the same issue: Ready Player One is wish-fulfillment at its worst. It’s very clear that the book is an excuse for Ernest Cline to make himself (and presumably others like him) into the ultimate hero. But there are actually two author stand-ins in the book. On the one hand there’s James Halliday, the brilliant creator of the OASIS, whose final act of an unappreciated and unfulfilled life was to leave behind a series of clues hidden within the vast collection of the things that he loved, which would force the world to appreciate all of the things that were important to him. The Easter Egg hunt in the OASIS was Halliday’s way of making sure that after he was gone the world would obsessively study all of the books, movies, music, and games that he had ever mentioned in his life, so that everyone would love the same things he did. Halliday was born the same year as Ernest Cline, after all. But on the other hand there’s Wade, a hero whose only distinguishing trait is that his level of obsession with those things is greater than anyone else’s. Once he proves that he is the king of the 80’s geeks, he becomes the center of attention, an object of desire, and wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. His obsession with this slice of pop culture rescues from an unsatisfying childhood in a much more real way than the escapism it provided to Halliday in his own childhood, and turns him into an icon, someone the world will follow and revere. Wade magically loses weight, gets the girl, saves the planet, and sticks it to the man. It’s the ultimate Mary Sue.
The fanfiction, Mary Sue aspect of Ready Player One wouldn’t be as bad if it wasn’t so transparent. The book sells itself on the 80’s references, but in the long lists of things Wade studies are plenty of things that don’t remotely belong to that decade, and instead speak directly to white men in their 30s and 40s. The fact that it ignores a genuine smash hits of the 80s but drops in The Matrix trilogy and Lord of the Rings, both of the 2000’s, is sure to mention Tarantino, Peter Jackson, and Kevin Smith, and Monty Python galore, is a sure sign that this is not an ode to a specific era but is instead an ode to everything that Ernest Cline likes. It also operates on the feeling of injustice that supposes that the white, male geek of a certain age is ignored in society, and thus we need to be reminded of all these masterful works, despite the fact that you can run into any Walmart and see aisle after aisle of shirts plastered with many of the same references. I understand that Ready Player One is now seven years old, and so it rode the wave of celebrating white, male, geek culture that became a flood a while back, but even in 2011 we already lived in the age of the white, male geek. Hell, The Big Bang Theory predates Ready Player One by four years, and even it was capitalizing on a rising tide of nostalgia and geekdom that began before it. We live in a world where every famous series or movie has been revived, remade, or been given a sequel. In a world of Tron: Legacy, Blade Runner 2049, the unending Terminator movies, Alien: Covenant, the new Star Wars movies, the infamous Ghostbusters remake, various Star Treks on big screens and small, it’s not like we need a reminder that the 80’s are still pretty popular. Add in some out-of-place rants by Wade against religion that have no bearing on the character, story, or themes of the book, and the whole endeavor feels like a self-congratulatory exercise by Cline.
The fact is, however, that my problems with Ready Player One are very subjective, and your own mileage may differ greatly. Others may not be as put off by these issues as I was, and will either be able to gloss over them to get to the heart of the story, or will otherwise not be bothered by them at all. But I can’t ignore the fact that they made the book a genuinely unpleasant read for me. There were parts that I enjoyed (see below), but I was consistently taken out of the experience due to my frustration with the writing style, the characters, and the wish-fulfillment aspects. It’s a personal reaction, but all art triggers personal reactions and this was mine. Ready Player One is not a book I would fault someone for liking (unless they only liked it for the 80’s references, which is a pretty shallow take on it), but I just can’t do it.
2 Things I Liked about Ready Player One
I may have major problems with Ready Player One, but that doesn’t mean that I completely hated it. There are certain things that Ernest Cline did very well, and one of those is the world he created for the book. Strip away the 80’s references and wish-fulfillment and you’ll find a somewhat derivative but ultimately engaging universe that is well crafted. In the future (2044), humanity has ruined the planet to the point that people chose to live inside the OASIS, where they can create a life and a world that is more appealing. The idea of a virtual reality world is hardly new to sci-fi, but Cline does a good job making it feel fresh and giving it enough context and history where you could believe that people would abandon the real world as much as possible to escape to the OASIS. And the book does a good job of making the real world feel as well-developed as the virtual. The “stacks” where Wade lives, with mobile homes stacked vertically to conserve space, are a vivid image that helps reinforce the poverty and overpopulation that has plagued the planet. The universe of the book also allows Cline to explore the lives of those who aren’t obsessively hunting for clues, and I left the book wishing we’d seen more of this. Wade’s adopted family is pretty awful, but their awfulness helps to exemplify life in the stacks. One of my favorite sequences occurs later in the book, as Wade goes undercover and we get to see other aspects of life outside the OASIS, with indentured servitude to corporations an allowable sentence for criminal activity which gives us a fascinating look at the inside of the company trying to win the Easter Egg Hunt and gain control of the OASIS. Even inside the OASIS, the book presents an interesting take on a world where most people live the entirety of their lives in a virtual reality. The OASIS is built around planets, which each have their own rules, and the OASIS generally has its own economy which allows the wealthy to buy not only real-world goods but to carve out their own personal spaces inside the OASIS. It’s all pretty captivating stuff, typical of the genre but well-realized. Cline’s creation gives Ready Player One a solid backbone upon which to build, even if I didn’t enjoy much of what he built upon it.
I also found the story itself to be enjoyable. A scavenger hunt through a virtual reality world following the clues of a reclusive genius, a race against time to keep the OASIS in the hands of the people rather than soulless corporations, I can definitely get behind that. I enjoyed watching Wade and his cohorts work out the clues and lead an uprising against the powerful corporate types. The plot was exciting, with enough twists and turns to keep me interested, and the underdog aspect was relatable. I just wish my above complaints hadn’t held it back. Nothing will bring your story to a halt faster than having the main character stop to act out an entire movie, even if it is one of the tests he must pass to progress in the hunt. But the story has me excited for the movie, because in the hands of a better storyteller (like Spielberg) I think there’s a lot of potential here. The movie could be a rousing crowd-pleaser if it can smooth over the book’s problems and get to the heart of the story and the world that Cline created. I’m definitely hopeful the film can find the right balance, especially if it doesn’t try to be too faithful to the novel and all of the baggage that comes with it. Stick to the underdog story, the excitement of the hunt, and the engaging world of the book, and fix all of the other stuff.