There are times when you can be told by a bunch of people that you’d like something, you can read a summary of the thing and be pretty sure that you’re going to love the thing, and then you still wind up really not liking the thing. This is often a matter of taste or sensibility, with the piece of art or culture in question just missing the mark in terms of being what you were hoping that it would be. It can also happen because some things just aren’t actually very good.
This is what I believe to be the case with Ready Player One, a novel that seems to desperately throw nostalgic references at the reader in an attempt to distract from the hackneyed plot and lousy writing.
This fan-made poster manages to be both inspired by Ready Player One and also fun. Not sure how.
It is clear that Ready Player One’s author, Ernest Cline, is a passionate guy. This novel, his first, is a densely constructed love-letter to all things nerdy – specifically a certain era of nerdy. From just the opening chapter, the references to the computer games, music and films of the 1980s are laid on thick and laid on frequently. Given my vintage, this was initially charming. As it slowly dawned on me that these references weren’t simply place-setting or a quirk of the novel’s world, but were the actual meat of the work itself, I became increasingly irritated by their frequency. It doesn’t stop. This book may as well have been called “Hey, remember this?”, and it may as well have just been a trivia book for dorks of a certain age. That would have spared us having to suffer through the storyline.
The book revolves around an underprivileged kid – also a nerd – living in a dystopian future that is so economically and socially bleak that people choose to spend the majority of their time living in a virtual reality world called the Oasis. People go to school in the Oasis. They socialize there. They find their purpose there.
The Oasis was created by a software designer who’s portrayed as equal parts Steve Jobs and Willy Wonka – a creative genius who lived and died obsessed with his own work and his own difference to other humans. His obsession with the pop-culture of his youth – the 1980s – bleeds heavily into the VR universe that he’s created, and as such, becomes the obsession of the droves of people who essentially live within this universe. The action of the novel kicks off when Wonka-Jobs kicks the bucket. His death triggers the commencement of a secret contest to uncover secrets hidden deep within the Oasis, carrying the grand prize of the inheritance of his unfathomable wealth. As the worst nerds in existence are also existing in abject poverty, of course this leads to heated and ridiculous competition for the rest of the novel.
This leads us to yet another series of adventures and trials that can only appropriately be attempted and bested by the white guy hero. Ready Player One reads like it’s a required text in White Guy Power Fantasy 101, a course that you can sign up to take at Caucasian With A Penis University, which is a school that doesn’t exist – except for the fact that it’s the only school that exists.
The novel’s protagonist, Wade, is a white kid who’s got a real tough life. He’s chubby and lives with his aunt, because obviously he’s an orphan. Aw. But when the contest gets announced, he begins to flourish. Contest has a video game challenge? Who’s better at video games than a white guy?! Nobody! Contest has movie trivia challenge? White guys know all kinds of things! The main competition is an evil corporation and a spunky white chick? White guy will totally show that mean old corporation who’s boss and then beat the white chick at the contest (because girls, am I right?) and in the process will win her heart (because girls, am I right?).
Ernest Cline may be culpable for any damage done to my eyes as they rolled wildly in my head through the course of reading this novel.
The whole thing just reads like slightly above-average fan fiction for white dudes, with the only thing adding verve to the proceedings being the frequent and passionate shout-outs to John Hughes films, new wave bands and Atari 2600 games. It could be argued that the novel is intended for the Young Adult set, and should more appropriately be considered alongside things like The Hunger Games or even Harry Potter. I don’t buy it. If this novel were intended for younger audiences, its heavy reliance on references unintelligible to anyone under the age of 30 makes no sense.
The book is a success, probably because it’s written by a white dude and is about a white dude, and because nerds will buy anything. Look at me – I bought it. There’s a movie adaption coming, by way of Steven Spielberg. I’m sure that he’ll address the weak issues that exist with the book, as he’s certainly never been guilty of creating any white dude power fantasies!
The bottom line: Writing about the video game Joust doesn’t in and of itself make for a fun read, Cline. Even if Joust is awesome, which it is.
Continue reading for a SPOILER that points to the book’s most infuriating moment, if you’re not planning on reading it. If you are planning on reading it: Why?
Somewhere near the end of the book, it is revealed that Wade’s best friend, with whom he’d been in heated competition with for the grand prize and who he had assumed he was in competition with for the heart of the cute, spunky white girl, is revealed to secretly be a girl posing as a guy. This reveal takes her out of the running for white girl’s heart. Further, though, it doesn’t complicate Wade’s wooing of the white girl because it’s revealed that this friend is also a lesbian and also overweight. Phew! Close call! Almost had two girls to choose from, but it turns out that this one is a fat lesbian, so she can still just be Wade’s buddy!
Oh, and also she’s black. She’s the only black character in the novel, that I can recall. It’s as if Cline got to the end of the novel and realized that it was all white people and then arbitrarily made this character black because she’d already been essentially invalidated in two other ways already.
Holy shit, just writing about this is making me angry. Fuck this book.