Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Gonna use almost all my tags on this post (Ready Player One)

In the novel Ready Player One, Ernest Cline sidesteps quite a few narrative challenges by setting most of the plot’s action inside a virtual world known as the OASIS. One major aspect of the book facilitated by the OASIS is the ability to showcase multiple pop culture mash-ups in ways which might otherwise violate suspension of disbelief, whether due to the logistics of physics or simple genre incompatibility; within the confines of a giant, immersive video game, all of those concerns can be handwaved away because none of it is “real” anyway. Another benefit of the computer-simulation conceit is that it provides the means by which our first-person narrator and protagonist, Wade Watts, can shade ever so slightly into a touch of omniscience, as he sometimes knows what other characters in remote locations are doing, thanks to the fact that he and they are all playing the same game and the Scoreboard is always virtually accessible. In honor of the Scoreboard, I’m going to go ahead and assign (and deduct) points for Ready Player One as a means of reviewing it.

+20 points for Wade’s name. I admit I am a sucker for fictional monikers that try to pack in the allusions, and this one is a doozy. Always a strong move to give the hero of the tale a first name which is a verb, as Wade is, especially one which can reference something brave and righteous, such as “wading into the enemy lines”. Of course on the flipside, there are other non-mighty connotations (like wading pools) so that helps give the hero a relatable, not-altogether-badass aspect. A watt is a unit of power, which is useful both for conveying the potential derring-do of the hero and also evoking the electric dreamland in which his quest unfolds, and yet Watts still sounds like a believable last name, so all in all the kid has a good handle.

+5 bonus points for lampshading the alliteration. Very early on Wade mentions that his dad was a big comic book fan and wanted his son to have a double-initial name like Peter Parker. Works for me.

+50 points for the premise and premise-within-the-premise of the book. The outer-layer premise is this: by the middle of the 21st century the Earth is in full-on hell-in-a-handbasket mode, with fossil fuel reserves depleted, global warming out of control, a worldwide recession dragging everyone down except the super-rich, and life in general a big bowl of crap. The one bright spot for civilization is the OASIS, the ultimate manifestation of cyberspace as an interactive virtual reality that resembles a cross between MMORPGs, YouTube, Facebook, and every other major internet trend and/or destination. Logging on to (and losing oneself in) the OASIS is most people’s reason for living, with poor people working as indentured servants to obtain the access fees for the OASIS’s minimal functionality and rich people indulging every whim a programmable environment (and high-end high-priced experience-enhancing accessories) can afford. The premise of the story, building off that foundation, goes like this: James Halliday, a Gen X-er who created the OASIS and became a reclusive billionaire, died without heirs, and his will stipulated that his entire fortune (and, essentially, control of the OASIS) will go to whichever OASIS user can find an Easter egg he hid within the program. Five years later, during which time he has pored over the biography and pop culture obsessions of Halliday, Wade Watts manages to decipher a clue Halliday left behind, which sets him down the path to claiming the ultimate prize, although of course he has to race against others intent on the same goal.

So it’s a classic dystopia wrapped around an archetypal hero’s quest (a tripartite quest, no less, with three keys and three gates and everything) and at the same time it’s a love letter to geeky 80’s pop culture, justified by the fact that a genius programmer who died of cancer as an old man in 2040-something would have been born in 1972 and spent the ages of eight to seventeen as a geek in the 80’s. All of these are fantastic ingredients for a book that is so very much in my wheelhouse that it is all but collapsing the wheelhouse floor under its weight. In theory.

Not enough board game references, either, but I'll let that slide.
+10 points to you if you have already guessed that I don’t think it quite came together to live up to its potential. I know this is totally unfair of me. Just the other night my wife and I were watching Top Chef and I was lamenting the judges’ tendency to judge how far away a dish was from the judge’s expectations, as opposed to judging what was actually in front of them in and of itself. But I do think there’s a difference between Cat Cora dissing a dish because she personally does not care for tarragon, and my sense that Ready Player One missed some huge opportunities to deliver more solidly on its dual premises. Moving on …

-15 points for the toothlessness of the dystopia. A few dozen pages into the book it occurred to me that Ready Player One was more or less a YA novel. There are two ways to handle a dystopian setting: make it a truly grim and dangerous place, or make it a cardboard backdrop to justify whatever unreal plot elements you care to incorporate in the tale. Ready Player One is the latter, content to assert that the real world sucks which is why the OASIS is so popular and important. Wade is part of the poor underclass, orphaned because his father was shot during a looting riot and his mother later overdosed, raised by a wicked aunt who hoards his food vouchers for himself. And yet he is perfectly healthy both emotionally and physically, the usual teen angst and nerdy weight-struggles notwithstanding. He manages to feed himself by doing odd jobs in computer repair, somehow. The government conveniently gives all children free OASIS access and hardware so that they can go to virtual school. It’s all a very by-the numbers Dystopia For Kids, by which I mean a dystopia which children could read about without having nightmares. Everything is dirty and run-down and non-ideal, but nothing is truly horrifying. Wade even has a kindly elderly neighbor, Mrs. Gilmore, who validates him as a nice young man. A true dystopia brings out the worst in everyone; a dystopia that has sweet little old ladies in it speaks for itself.

+10 points for killing off Mrs. Gilmore. Of course, right when I was thinking that it would not be hard to make a G-rated movie out of Ready Player One, Cline ramps up the vilification of his main antagonist by having the heavy blow up a good chunk of the shantytown trailer park where Wade lives in a legitimate attempt to kill Wade. Granted, by narrative necessity, Wade is somewhere else at the time, but Mrs. Gilmore isn’t as lucky. (Nor is Wade’s aunt but she was already unsympathetic enough for deserved-to-die status.) So, maybe not completely toothless, if there’s a genuine bodycount.

+88 points for the focus on the 80’s. I give full (maybe even excessive) credit for the ballsy move of setting a story in the future but populating it almost entirely with decades-old referents, right down to the décor including wood paneling. I mentioned above the justification of Halliday’s age, and the unspoken axiom that the golden age for any entertainment is “when you were 12”, but I know some people still found the relentless 80’s vibe jarring. Not me (though obviously I too was 12 right in the midst of said decade), because I can get behind committing to a concept 110% as well as writing what you know, which Cline clearly does.

+9 points for not going exclusively 80’s. On the other hand, Cline wisely concedes that even in a virtual universe where the deity-figure loved the 80’s and most of the denizens reverently follow suit, there are going to be some people clamoring for other touchstones which came later. Including the Whedonverse and quidditch were touches which I personally appreciated.

Book-quidditch, as opposed to movie-quidditch
-20 points for a complete lack of originality. But, arrgh, here’s where it starts to go a bit pear-shaped. As presented over the course of the novel, the OASIS represents an inescapable dearth of creative thinking. It is literally a limitless realm of unencumbered possibilities, and the only thing people use it for is recreating existing intellectual properties. I offer absolutely no argument against the fact that it would be surpassingly cool to fly on Falkor the Luckdragon’s back with a lightsaber hanging on your hip and Green Lantern’s ring on your finger while on your way to visit the Sky City of the Hawk Men. But there should be some new IP in the mix somewhere, shouldn’t there? Considering that the story is set a few decades in the future, there are two potential sources, really: individual OASIS users could have invented their own worlds and creatures, vehicles and weapons, and so on; OR, since Cline makes reference to “movie stars” as still being a thing in the future, he as author could have invented new movie and tv franchises which people could be copying in the OASIS. But no, every fantastical element seen in the novel is either determinedly generic or a specific reference to a real-world bit of pop culture. I know, I know, there’s a certain purity to that, and it’s a presumptuous trap of arrogance an author can fall into to start making assertions like “The interactive Battle of the Sarlacc Pit (from Return of the Jedi) was an all-time favorite among OASIS users, but the Last Stand Against the Cyborg Demons (written by Jacques Trebuchet of Halifax in 2037) was even more popular”. Maybe it’s best to avoid the temptation altogether. I’d argue the converse, though.

-10 points for ignoring comic books other than the aforementioned double-initials thing. I mentioned the GL ring above but that’s my own personal mash-up fantasy. In Ready Player One, no one so much as sports Batman’s utility belt as part of their ensemble (unless I missed it). Yes, to a certain extent I take this as a personal slight, that comics get no love amidst the thick swarms of movie, tv, video game and music references making up the novel’s literal pop culture landscape. But I think it’s worth a ding in the points tally because it represents a kind of unfired Chekov’s Gun, too. Wade mentions early on that Halliday was a renowned comic book collector, and the whole quest-structure of the plot revolves around Halliday’s obsessions, but nothing ever comes down to knowing the convoluted history of a legacy Spider-Man villain or anything. Disappointing.

-30 points for the ending. I’ve got nothing against a happy ending, but not only does everything work out perfectly for Wade, but it does so in a completely uncomplicated manner. I’ll go ahead and give a spoiler warning, but does it count as spoilers if there are no surprises to ruin whatsoever? There’s a battle at the last gate, but Wade makes it through, with the bad guys on his heels. Inside the gate, instead of a single challenge as at the first two gates, there are three – one similar to the first gate’s, one similar to the second’s, and one requiring a minimal amount of applied trivia-knowledge. Wade completes the challenges, finds the Easter egg, meets an AI simulation of Halliday, and inherits the OASIS fortune. Also he gets the girl. The end. No twists, no reversals, it’s hard to even call the whole extended setpiece a climax because the outcome is never in doubt.

-100 points for the hollowness of all the references. OK, this is where we get down to the nuts and bolts of what totally drove me crazy over the course of the book. This is a book for and about Gen X-ers, a great unselfconscious whooping declaration of passionate love for the entertainment of our youth. But it also seems shockingly unaware of a certain negative reputation that nostalgic Gen X-ers (rightfully) have accrued, namely that our pop culture memories mean something to us not because of what they represent or taught us or convey, but simply because they existed. All it takes to make a Gen X-er happy is to say “Oh, dude, remember Manimal?” The relative quality and/or meaning of Manimal is irrelevant. It existed, and we remember it, and we can talk about that endlessly, in infinite variations. Remember that thing? Yup, that sure was a thing. And that’s pretty much the unironic approach that Ready Player One takes.

I’m not saying that every fleeting reference to a bit of pop culture flotsam that passed through Wade’s peripheral consciousness in the book needed to be fraught with philosophical significance. But even at the heart of the book, Halliday’s Quest, everything just sat there pretty inertly. Here’s a list of the specific touchstones Halliday incorporated into the Easter egg’s trail of clues and keys and gates: Tomb of Horrors (a D&D module), Joust (an arcade game), War Games (a movie), Zork (an interactive-text computer game), Captain Crunch (a real-world hacker/phreaker named after a breakfast cereal), Blade Runner (a movie), Black Dragon (an arcade game), 2112 (an album by Rush), Schoolhouse Rock (Saturday morning educational cartoon interstitials), Tempest (an arcade game), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (a movie), Adventure (an Atari game). It’s a solid, eclectic mix which certainly evokes the 80’s with a fairly heavy nerd-slant. But why those artifacts specifically? Could the exact same story have been told with a different set of movies, video games, and assorted references (and therefore without the song “Subdivisions” getting stuck in my head for days on end)? I would have to say it could, and whenever that’s the case it does not tend to reflect well on the story in question.

And the part that sets my geek-teeth a’gnashing is that a lot of the specific choices Cline made have so much potential for analysis and deconstruction and thematic connection, but he never goes that far. To a certain extent, all right, Halliday is described in the novel as being a little bit of an undiagnosed Aspergers/autistic type, and so it’s plausible that he likes War games because he likes it, in a superficial way, and included it in the quest because he wanted other people to interface with it. (Halliday wanting people to share his obsessions becomes something of a mantra throughout the book.) War Games is a movie about video games and computer hacking and so on, all of which seem to make it a natural for Halliday’s favorites, but it also raises some real questions about over-reliance on technology (the WOPR/Joshua computer with the potential to start World War III) as well as the wisdom of dropping out of society altogether (as Professor Falken has done at the outset, only to be dragged back into the military-industrial complex by the crisis at hand) and setting up some kind of metatextual dialogue between those ideas and the nature of the OASIS would have been not just interesting but super-awesome. Or what about Blade Runner, with its replicants and its probing into what it truly means to be alive? Or Tomb of Horrors, which is essentially about fighting the undead (and also has a reputation – never mentioned in Ready Player One - of being practically impossible for characters to survive) but could easily become a meditation on mortality and the weird nature of the OASIS and whether or not user avatars ever “die”?

Ding, dong, the lich is dead
I could go on and on, but it would at this point just be overcompensating for the fact that Cline doesn’t get into any of that stuff at all. I can understand not wanting to be ham-fisted about narrative themes, and expecting the reader to do some of the cognitive work without holding his or her hand, but I don’t think Cline’s showing that kind of restraint, really. I think he just set out to write a shiny adventure story crammed with a ton of pop culture references that make him happy in and of themselves, and did so and called it a day. It just aggravates me to no end (because that’s just the way I am, I suppose).

So all told, where do we end up? +7. That’s terrible if we were grading on a scale of 1 to 100, but I never claimed to be doing that. A +7 magical item in Dungeons & Dragons, for instance, is nothing to sneeze at, and maybe that’s the best way to regard Ready Player One: a magical entertainment weapon with a +7 bonus against boredom. It’s a fun, quick read very well-suited to sitting down and consuming cover-to-cover in a single afternoon, with some flaws in the form of squandered potential and missed opportunities, but that likely only matters if you are some kind of ridiculous, compulsively overthinking pop culture obsessive.


  1. I'd been looking forward to reading this one. Pity it's as shallow as that.

    The novel's world you describe is very reminiscent of the one in Philip K. Dick's "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich," where people would escape the misery of the crappy future by taking a drug that would mentally project them into a Barbie or Ken doll in a Malibu Dream House-esque playset. Dick went a bit more into those themes you brought up. It's a deeply, deeply weird read. (A shock, I know.) Well worth checking out.

    1. I mean, I'm not going to back down from my assessment of the book as literarily shallow, but neither would I ever shy away from assessing a Hostess Cupcake as nutritionally empty. But I eat Hostess Cupcakes all the time because they are frigging delicious, and if anyone asked me "Should I eat a Hostess Cupcake?" I would say of course you should. So, Ready Player One is silly brain candy, but in the end I think that's ok. I wouldn't want a steady diet of it, but no harm in throwing it in the mix. It takes a number of hours to read that you can count on one hand, which is a lot more forgivable than, say, a 900-page pomo experiment that fails artistically AND wastes a month of your time. If you were looking forward to reading it, I say go ahead and read it, but maybe with your expectations suitably adjusted. You may even end up enjoying it more for having pre-empted the disappointment of potential.

  2. I've been meaning to read this for the longest time. Your review manages to make me want to read it more and not read it at all at the same time.