After the release of the CGI-heavy trailer, dedicated fans have been practically salivating for the movie adaptation of “Ready Player One,” directed by Steven Spielberg and set to hit screens on March 30.
Critics from the Boston Globe to Entertainment Weekly praised the book and marked it as one of the best books of 2011 when it was first released. The trailer itself proudly touted the novel as a “Holy Grail of pop culture.” I opened the book excited to embark on an immersive journey, but was disappointed with what I found.
Ernest Cline’s story follows 18-year-old Wade Watts in 2044, where the real world has fallen to ruin. The good citizens of the world now learn, work and live almost entirely in the OASIS, a virtual reality so captivating and pervasive that it has essentially replaced reality.
Wade is part of a global hunt for the Easter egg, a virtual prize left behind by the now deceased James Halliday, owner and creator of the OASIS. Wade races against fellow egg hunters (known as gunters) and the mega corporation IOI that wants to commercialize the OASIS for a profit. In the end, Wade emerges triumphant, defeating the IOI and winning ownership of the OASIS along with Halliday’s entire fortune.
The first and most obvious issue with the book is that it’s marketed to a very specific audience: nerds. I’ll preface this with the disclaimer that I’m not a huge ‘80s fanatic, so perhaps my sense of alienation was magnified by the fact that I grew up in a generation beyond the era “Ready Player One” is devoted to. But I expected a greater degree of relatability from a book so widely praised. After all, I enjoyed series like “Stranger Things” and “Ender’s Game,” which are built around the ‘80s and nerd culture. The difference is that “Ready Player One” is almost exclusionary in nature. Everything is centered around the ‘80s and the media James Halliday (a.k.a. Cline’s self insert) love so dearly.
The main issue is with the excessive use of references, to the point where it feels like you’re reading a Wikipedia page and not a fiction novel. Each page is crammed with references to ‘80s pop culture to the point where the plot becomes dependent on it. The thought process involved in finding each Easter egg requires an extensive knowledge of the ‘80s — knowledge that I lacked. Although Cline haphazardly explained some of the references throughout the novel, I still felt alienated and confused. A comprehensive understanding of the ‘80s is required in order for each step in solving the puzzle of Halliday’s egg to feel logical; otherwise, the answers feel arbitrary and forced.
Indeed, that’s Cline’s selling point. He markets himself as an unabashed geek, a proud devotee of the era of his childhood. His fans, the downtrodden nerds and geeks of the world, praise the book for its homage to their favorite decade of pop culture.
Cline himself provides an excellent example:
“I made a big entrance when I arrived in my flying DeLorean, which I’d obtained by completing a Back to the Future quest on the planet Zemeckis. The DeLorean came outfitted with a (non-functioning) flux capacitor, but I’d made several additions to its equipment and appearance. First, I’d installed an artificially intelligent on-board computer named KITT (purchased in an online auction) into the dashboard, along with a matching red Knight Rider scanner just above the DeLorean’s grill. Then I’d outfitted the car with an oscillation overthruster, a device that allowed it to travel through solid matter. Finally, to complete my ’80s super-vehicle theme, I’d slapped a Ghostbusters logo on each of the DeLorean’s gull-wing doors, then added personalized plates that read ECTO-88.”
At some point it stops being about paying respect to the ‘80s and becomes about how many references Cline can sneak into the novel. Well, not ‘sneak’ so much as ‘parade past you.’ Passages like this are littered throughout the book. Other works based around the ‘80s don’t feel the need to loudly explain every reference to really milk the nostalgia like Cline does because those works have actual substance and don’t rely on heaps of references to make people care about the characters.
Many of Cline’s fans are victims of what I call “nostalgia porn,” a flimsy narrative whose sole selling point is the fact that it constantly dumps warm, happy reminders of relics from a bygone era straight into the reader’s lap. “Ready Player One” is nostalgia porn on steroids. Instead of being content with simply remembering the ‘80s, Cline invents a world where the culture is glorified. It’s a world geared around his interests, where a maniacal obsession with the ‘80s conveniently pervades society due to the death of an eccentric Steve Jobs-esque billionaire. It’s a world where being a nerd isn’t scoffed at; it’s socially acceptable, even admirable.
The flimsy nature of the narrative becomes most apparent when one takes a closer look at Cline’s characters. Wade Watts, the main character and narrator of the novel, is rather one-dimensional. In a tactic similar to that used in harem anime, Cline produces a bland, colorless and slightly pathetic character for his target audience to unconsciously project themselves onto. Nobody cares about Wade because he’s strong-willed or has compelling motivations; people care about Wade because he’s generic enough for every nerd reading the book to relate to. Thus, the audience cheers Wade on because his successes as a nerd validate their own identities.
Outside of being a nerd, Wade has no defining traits. His motivations are largely unclear as well. The most compelling reason I could find to root for Wade was because he was up against a greedy corporation who sought to monopolize the OASIS for a profit. As much as I hate lazy writing, I guess I hated the mega corporation more.
In an almost self-congratulatory fiction, Cline writes a character who gets it all — just for being a nerd. He starts the book as a poor, lonely, chubby nobody, barely scraping by and living in a trailer park. At the end, he’s a fit and famous billionaire who owns the OASIS and has the most powerful avatar inside the simulation. And of course, Wade gets the cute nerdy girl he’d been crushing on (and kind of stalking) since the beginning.
This wouldn’t be a problem if Wade earned any of these achievements, but he doesn’t. Any meaningful character development is subverted by Cline, since any and all obstacles can be overcome through Wade’s inexplicable gaming prowess and devotion to ‘80s trivia. At one point, Wade acts out the entire plot of a movie inside a virtual simulation verbatim. Of course, Wade manages easily, because he’s “watched [the movie] over three dozen times.” He infiltrates and hacks IOI’s database singlehandedly in eight days while on the run as a fugitive. At the end of the book, he outlasts his friends only because he plays a perfect game of Pac-Man (a perfect game of Pac-Man! Literally SEVEN people have done this in history). In an attempt to cover for this, Cline occasionally kills off minor characters and acts as if Wade’s fleeting, episodic grief is some sort of meaningful character development. Ultimately, Wade doesn’t need character development because he has no real flaws. And that, in and of itself, is a flaw.
It’s easy to get caught up in Cline’s world. He offers a sort of self-proclaimed escapism from reality. But, when you break down the novel, it’s a shallow narrative with a dose of ‘80s references, barely held together by Cline’s imagination.