Whoa, this came out in 2011? It’s already three years old? I knew it wasn’t a new release, but I thought it had only been a year or two. The hype is so fresh in my memory…. Well, that goes to show how unreliable one’s memory is.
Whether you agree with the hype or not, it’s understandable why Ready Player One has received so much attention. With its supersaturation of 1980s pop culture allusions, it is a nostalgia gold mine for the Generation X readers that Ernest Cline is targeting. That first generation of gamers, intrepid digital entrepreneurs, and virtual reality pioneers will all recognize and find familiar the atmosphere that Cline recreates in his near-future dystopia. It’s like the eighties all over again, but with better computer graphics!
Let’s start with a disclaimer: I was born in September 1989, hence I was alive long enough for the very last gasp of the eighties to pass me by in my crib. I recognized a great deal of the references here, either from passing familiarity or because things like Monty Python and John Hughes are timeless. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a gamer, but I game enough that I’m familiar with the concepts behind those classic arcade games, even if I haven’t experienced them for myself. Likewise, I don’t play MMORPGs, but I can spot one when I see it. So that’s where I’m coming from when I read Player One: I am not a child of the eighties, but I have occasionally visited.
Like many dystopias, it’s probably a mistake to take this one too seriously. It is all too easy to poke holes in Cline’s worldbuilding. For example, Wade’s assertion that “most of humanity” spends their days on the OASIS? It’s possible to chalk that up to Western-centric exaggeration, but I’m guessing that in 2044, “most of humanity” is still labouring in digital poverty and barely has access to clean water, let alone computers and haptic rigs. Then there’s GSS, the owners of OASIS, who supposedly generate their revenue from in-game purchases of items and property. I’ve yet to see a corporation that can avoid cannibalizing its golden goose for the next big release, and I’m sceptical that GSS could have avoided this fate, ironclad will from its dead founder notwithstanding.
Rather than spend all this time picking apart the world of 2044, though, I’d rather take a look at this contest that Cline uses as the main focus for the plot. James Halliday, geek billionaire creator of the OASIS, dies and decides to leave all his money to whoever can find and open three gates with three keys within the OASIS. To finish this quest, the hunters for Halliday’s Easter egg—gunters—need a rock-solid familiarity with all of the pop culture that Halliday was obsessed with as a teenager. He’s going to expect them to do incredibly demanding things, like play perfect games of Pacman or recite the entire dialogue of the main character of WarGames accurately, with the correct tone and actions. It’s actually kind of crazy.
As commentary on the immersive nature of virtual reality juxtaposed with a real reality that sucks, however, it’s quite adept. I think it’s safe to say that Cline has picked up several threads of emergent discord from the modern day—ineffectual governance in the face of corporate power, pervasive surveillance, crumbling of the education system, the growing gap between rich and poor—and amplified them, always a sound strategy when building a dystopian future. Atop this uneasy world he has added an expansive layer of virtual reality. OASIS is Facebook meets World of Warcraft, and it is more believable than it might seem. As more of the Web becomes app-ified, it seems more and more that people log in only to visit a few sites (Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, etc.) or Google things. I don’t necessarily buy into the premise that we will strap ourselves into haptic rigs like the ones Wade uses here, but I could definitely see a Second Life—like MMORPG spin-off, like OASIS, becoming a reality. Well, virtually.
Wade’s career as a gunter alternates between intense and disappointing. Cline is at his best when he explores the tension between Wade’s desire to find the egg and his own moral and personal growth—for instance, Wade’s ill-timed and problematic attraction to the enigmatic Art3mis. Although Wade is categorically the type of introverted loner geek who would be at home in a “girls don’t exist on the Internet” cartoon, Cline strives to make him more three-dimensional. He exercises IRL to stay fit despite the punishing hours he spends immersed in OASIS. And his crush on Art3mis is founded on respect and admiration. In fact, I was a little disappointed at the end to find out the truth behind Art3mis’ “big secret” about her appearance—I was expecting something more extreme than the revelation that Cline gives us, which I feel is a bit of a cop-out to modern ideas of beauty. It’s not enough for Wade to win; he also has to win the girl too!
And that’s where Ready Player One can sputter and run out of steam. As a conceptual work of science fiction, this is one hell of an intriguing story. But as an adventure story, it’s a minefield of exposition mired in an unattractive obsession with male adolescent fantasy. It would have been more interesting if Art3mis (or any non-white, non-male character) were the protagonist. Although Cline refers to the anonymizing nature of the Net, he does so only in a way that preserves the whitewashed, heteronormative narrative of online presence. And with its reliance on the 1980s for as its cultural touchstone, there is little progressive or subversive about Ready Player One. At its core, it is a classic eighties video game, in which the loner male protagonist beats the bad guys, gets the girl, and ascends to godhood. Joy.
I can’t stop comparing this book to The Magicians. Superficially it’s the similarity in the way both take something from one’s youth or childhood—1980s pop culture versus the Narnia-inspired world of Fillory—and reify it. But both books also have a deeper cynicism embedded into them. Quentin discovers magic is real, but it’s not a cureall to his problems. Wade is the first gunter to obtain the Copper Key, but from thereon in he becomes the target of a concerted corporate effort to stop or coopt his hunt for the egg. In the end, both protagonists see their visions of the world swept aside as they change irrevocably and get a glimpse of the workings of the world. I wish there had been more to the ending of Ready Player One. I can understand the desire to end on an upbeat, positive note—if Cline had continued, I guess he would have had to burst Wade’s little bubble with the realities of their new situation. But I was really interested to see what Wade and Art3mis and the others would do. Sequel, maybe?
I’m ambivalent here. I can see why people both love and hate this story: it has so much going for it, yet all of those reasons create a great gulf of potential that it doesn’t seem to fulfil. Ready Player One is a tour de force romp of 1980s nostalgia mixed with a video-game–inspired virtual reality dystopia. It’s a great example of science-fictional thought, even if the story and the writing leave something to be desired. In the end, owing to its intensely topical focus, I suspect a great deal of the equation comes down to the personal: do you remember the eighties, do you miss the eighties, do you want to revel in a specific aspect of eighties culture? If so, Ready Player One is definitely going to resonate. If not, you might find you’re missing out on the fun.