Ready Player One

ready player one

Someone in the comments section of a recent post asked me for my opinion of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. I went to link them to the review I wrote of it last year only to discover that I had not, in fact, written a review of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One even though I clearly remember doing so. So here it is again, for the first time.

It’s the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place.

Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets. And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune–and remarkable power–to whoever can unlock them.

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday’s riddles are based in the pop culture he loved–that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday’s icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes’s oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.

And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.

Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt–among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life–and love–in the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

If you pay attention to “geek entertainment” sites at all you’re probably at least familiar with this book, as it was covered extensively by the likes of Kotaku and io9, as far as I can tell based solely on its subject matter. It had been hyped to the ends of the Earth by the time I got to it and for the first 50 pages or so I thought the hyperbole was actually going to be justified. The opening of Ready Player One is pretty gripping, moving through the set-up of OASIS, the real-world future and Halliday’s challenge at a nice pace. It’s a somewhat predictable story, but entertaining and reasonably well told.

Unfortunately things start to go off the rails very quickly. For reasons that I don’t think are ever explained very well people in Ready Player One’s world- or at least the people we follow in the story- are obsessed with the 80s and early 90s. By that I don’t mean leg warmers and shoulder-pads have come back into fashion, I mean every inch of their virtual living space is devoted to recreating the wood-paneled dens of Ernest Cline’stheir parent’s childhood, complete with old Atari consoles and Apple II computers. Their hard drives are filled with terabytes of old TV shows and movie and albums, all of which are studied and memorized with the sort of passion and obsessive attention to detail usually reserved for scripture. These people live, breathe, eat and sleep nostalgia, seemingly to the exclusion of any other interest. This quickly gets irritating as we’re  forced to wade through endless conversations of the characters name-dropping 80s video games and cartoons. It also leads to the impression that this world has no actual culture of its own. This element of the story even contaminates the hunt for the keys, as most of the challenges involve things like re-enacting the plot of Wargames or playing a full-immersion game of Zork. Wade succeeds more often than not because he just happened to obsess over the correct geek nostalgia property, rather than any display of skill or virtue.

The entire story has a similar lack of any real conflict or excitement. Wade at one point goes through a bout of depression and social isolation while obsessing over the second key, leading to unhealthy weight gain. It’s a potentially interesting situation, but Wade overcomes it in the space of a few pages by buying fancy exercise equipment. At one point he has to essentially sell himself into slavery to the evil corporation competing with the players for OASIS’ grand prize in order to infiltrate their headquarters, but the plan goes off without a hitch, robbing the sequence of any tension or excitement it should have had. Said corporation resorts to murder to eliminate the competition but apart from the obligatory side-character death to prove that Shit Just Got Real none of the characters ever feel like they’re in real danger. Even the end of the book is deeply anticlimactic, a scramble for the last key that goes on for far too long and ends in a dull, meandering exposition dump.

If the story doesn’t enthrall you (and it won’t) then the characters aren’t going to pick up the slack. Wade and his love interest both passed through my brain without leaving any discernible impression, there are two Japanese guys who act like Vulcans and talk about Honor all the time, and the book pulls a late-story twist with Wade’s best buddy that was so insulting and idiotic I nearly threw it out the window. The scene exists just to prove to us that Wade isn’t a racist, misogynist or homophobe- something that should be the default for any decent person rather than an achievement worthy of praise- in the most trite, patronizing way possible.

OASIS itself presented a major barrier to my interest in the story. It’s essentially an infinite universe of virtual planets, each of which can be programmed with completely different parameters. Some of them operate like MMO games, others are more social oriented, there are planets devoted just to e-commerce where you can’t kill people etc. Some planets are fantasy-themed, others sci-fi while many are just a chaotic mix of elements. Given the characters’ all-consuming obsession with pop culture there is of course a Star Wars planet, and a Trek planet, and a Lord of The Rings planet. OASIS has very little actual identity, which means it’s hard to get too worked up over the idea of an “evil” corporation taking it over (and is it just me or is that the laziest sci-fi villain imaginable?)

The end of the book has the characters realize that they’re wasting their lives in OASIS and they need to focus on the real world, as far as I can tell just because Cline thought a story about virtual reality needed to have a message like that. It comes completely out of left field and makes no sense given the book’s setting- the real world is a bleak dystopian hellhole, OASIS provides the only opportunity most people have for genuine social interaction, education or many cases employment. The only reason any of the characters are able to turn their backs on it is because they’ve become ludicrously wealthy, accidentally turning the book into an examination of how money and privilege allows a person to make choices not afforded to those less well off. This is probably not the message Cline was trying to get across.

I can’t recommend Ready Player One. It squanders an interesting premise with shallow characters, dull pacing  and world-building and thematic confusion. If you want a similar but superior experience just stick on some vinyl records and play an MMO for a few hours.

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5 thoughts on “Ready Player One

  1. Andrea Harris

    That’s not even nostalgia, really — nostalgia involves a palpable sense of loss and the knowledge that the past times you yearn for are only attainable in memory… and that those memories are incomplete, which adds to the sense of loss. Obsessively devoting oneself to an era of the past right down to being able to immerse yourself in it virtually is… probably the opposite of nostalgia.

    In any case, I can’t think of any fate more dire than being stuck in a virtual world based on that amazing pop culture of the 1990s. My formative years were most of the 1970s, but the entire 90s is one long 1975 to me — that is, an entire decade of the Year Where Nothing Happened. I don’t mean nothing happened in either 1975 or the 90s, but that they are personal blanks in my life. All I really remember from the 1990s is the first two and a half seasons of The X-Files.

    But I probably shouldn’t comment. I’d never have been attracted to this story in the first place: the game-to-win-the-prize treasure-hunt sort of story has always bored me, so I’m not really in the audience for it even if it was good.

    Reply
    1. welltemperedwriter

      That’s a good point about nostalgia. And the novel had an interesting opportunity to make a point about a reality where you can exist virtually in any era you want–but it didn’t.

      I don’t recall much 1990s in this book, and that was most of my high school and college years so you’d think I’d recall the pop-culture watermarks. But I don’t think Nirvana was even mentioned once, for instance. (OTOH, see above my remark that I chose it in part because I knew I wouldn’t have to pay it a whole lot of conscious attention.)

      Reply
  2. Reveen

    Ech. I hate uncritical 80’s/90’s nostalgia (or 40’s/50’s at that) maybe it’s because I grew up between the 90’s and 2000’s and don’t have much of a connection to either decade, but it seems really myopic.

    Sure, there was a nice little cartoon or video game years ago that you liked when you were young and stupid. But the way some dudes gush you’d think that shit like the Challenger disaster, Rodney King, and the Yugoslav wars never happened.

    It also reminds me of Star Trek a bit, where the spotlight wa shone on a very specific time period. I was late 1800’s to early 20th century for Trek with Shakespere along for the ride. The show would nostalgia about Jazz, Sherlock Holmes, and Al Capone, but it doesn’t acknowledge dudes like the Beatles.

    Reply
    1. welltemperedwriter

      I think I would have enjoyed it more if the main character thought the nostalgia was dumb, but spent time with it so he could solve the puzzles. Wouldn’t have made the book good, but it might’ve been more interesting.

      Reply
  3. welltemperedwriter

    That was pretty much my reaction as well. The only reason I finished it was I had the audiobook and a very long commute–and Wil Wheaton reads it entertainingly enough, giving the 80s buzzwords and catchphrases their proper emphasis.

    Ready Player One struck me basically as nostalgia porn. I’m just a little bit too young to be a child of the 80s–and not really into nostalgia–so that didn’t really work for me, though I recognized most of the references. Neal Stephenson did better VR adventuring–with stronger stakes–in Snow Crash, and I could’ve dealt with the characters’ painfully adolescent levels of maturity if they had struck me as at all real adolescents.

    Perhaps because I was listening to it while commuting–and I deliberately choose books that I don’t have to pay a whole lot of attention to to follow, because I’m driving–I stuck with it despite my mounting annoyance for a surprisingly long time. The point where it finally lost me entirely was the bit where on top of everything else, Our Hero has had time to become a good enough guitar player to, as he puts it, “shred”. Which, no he hasn’t, based on what we’ve seen, and also the bit where this becomes relevant isn’t actually all that hard to accomplish. It was just more unnecessary puffing up of a ludicrous character. At that point I was nearly to the end so I listened to the rest.

    It’s sorta sad, because I did find the setup interesting, with a lot of potential that just never gets realized at all. Too bad.

    Reply

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