“The moment someone enters the Third Gate, a live vidfeed of their avatar appears at the top of the Scoreboard. Apparently, Halliday wanted clearing the final gate to be a spectator sport.”
“Wait. You mean to tell me that the entire world has been watching me play Tempest for the past hour?”
From the opening blurb citing the book as “this generation’s Neuromancer”, to the author’s closing acknowledgements thanking people in Hollywood for assuring him it “will make a great movie”, Ready Player One is possibly the most insulting product of geek culture to ever grasp desperately for acceptance.
Self-congratulatory autofellatio hyped as a celebration of ’80s pop-culture, Ready Player One is ill-conceived, poorly written, and bears the telltale plotting and dialogue of a manuscript that never went beyond a first draft. Written by Ernest Cline, the filmmaker behind the similarly stale, wanna-be cult phenomenon Fanboys, the story has the verisimilitude of something a lonely child might create over the course of an afternoon with a box of incongruously paired toys. Set thirty years from now on an alternate Earth where mainstream American pop-culture never fragmented into innumerable tribal niches, almost everyone in the world spends their days and nights in a virtual reality program called OASIS. Created by James Halliday, a cross between old-school videogame designer cum astronaut Richard Garriott and a fictionalized version of Mark Zuckerberg you might see on an episode of Law and Order, OASIS is a place where people hang out in virtual basements, go to virtual dance parties, attend virtual school, and play fully-immersive video games.
Outside of OASIS, the author doesn’t provide many details about life in America in 2042. Natural resources have been depleted, an evil telecommunications company named IOI employs the majority of working Americans as OASIS tech support, and the less fortunate live in jury-rigged structures of RVs stacked on top of each other. Most egregiously lacking for a book whose heroes are obsessed with the best of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s is a sense of what else is out there competing for their devotion. Ready Player One takes place in a universe where high school kids into fantasy might still identify Highlander as their favorite film, believe in the superiority of the original Star Wars trilogy, adore Advanced Dungeons & Dragons over any of its later more accessible editions, and spend their time playing games created for the Atari 2600 instead of the descendants of Bioshock, Modern Warfare, and Bejeweled Blitz. It’s as if, obligatory nods to Firefly, Peter Jackson, and the Battlestar Galactica reboot aside, people stopped producing art, music, books, and movies sometime in the mid-1990s.
The book follows Wade Watts as he seeks to unlock the secrets of OASIS and win ownership of the game world, as stipulated in the late Halliday’s will. Wade’s competing directly against employees of IOI, who will kill to keep him and his friends from beating them to Halliday’s hidden prize, yet are surprisingly lax at keeping video evidence of their assassination attempts secret. But the majority of the book takes place in-game, where Wade accomplishes such awesome feats as navigating his way through a simulation of the 1978 D&D adventure the Tomb of Horrors, quoting all of Matthew Broderick’s dialogue from WarGames, and playing robots against the top agents of IOI. Inevitably, his success is met with high-fives, cheers, and assurances of how funny he is.
For all the mistakes Cline makes in the novel, it’s Wade’s insistence as a narrator that the reader should find his story hilarious and exciting that’s the most difficult to forgive. Both character and author seem incapable of the recognizing the difference between a joke and a statement of fact. It’s notable that for all of Wade’s encyclopedic knowledge of ancient geek culture, he never once mentions Scott Pilgrim. Like Ready Player One, both the comic book and the film adaptation of Scott Pilgrim mine videogame nostalgia for material. But whereas Scott Pilgrim shrugs it off when he defeats his enemies and they scatter into piles of coins, Wade would have to point out that what happened “was just like in Super Mario Bros.”
Cline is by no means alone in conflating references to pop-culture esoterica with instant hilarity, but it’s a particularly strained fit for a novel. It’s tempting to write that Ready Player One isn’t a novel at all, but an undiscerning collection of lists, safely vetted by the distance of two decades, of what other people on the Internet can all agree on as retroactively cool. But it’s worse than that. It has a plot, though it’s completely unengaging; characters, though their dialogue is thuddingly torturous; and a setting, albeit one that’s devoid of life and in blatant violation of intellectual property laws
Like a kid who insists on reciting lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail incessantly, even though the time has long since passed when that was even ironically obnoxious, Ready Player One is an embarrassment to everything it means to celebrate. Undone by the author’s misplaced self-confidence, it’s a failure on every level, from inspiration to execution. He might as well have slapped two covers around a single line of text: “You guys like this stuff, right?”