With Steven Spielberg’s high-profile adaptation set to come out soon, I thought the time was right to finally read Ernest Cline’s 2011 Ready Player One, which I had never gotten around to reading (for no particular reason) despite having pretty much every goddamn nerd I’ve ever met excitedly exclaim, “You haven’t read that book yet, Pettus? Oh, you just gotta, you just gotta! You gotta read that book, Pettus! YOU JUST GOTTA, YOU JUST GOTTA READ THAT BOOK!!!” Okay, so I finally have! And the verdict? Eeeehhhhhhhhhhh… It turns out that there’s simply not much to Ready Player One besides an endless amount of references to empty 1980s popular culture, plus a vision of virtual reality that Cline stole wholesale from such cyberpunk novels as William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash; eliminate those and you’re not left with much else besides a simplistic children’s story, with sneering obvious villains and a three-act plot straight out of your community college’s “Storywriting 101” class, the entire book written in a cloying “BroSpeak” vernacular that gets increasingly annoying with each passing page.
For those who don’t know, it’s set in a future where America has officially gone to hell, which has driven most of its citizens to spend most of their time in a dazzling VR environment called the OASIS, which has become pretty much the de facto means for accessing the internet despite it still being a privately held company, solely owned by the “Bill Gates Times Ten Thousand” Asperger’s poster-child James Halliday. So when Halliday dies, and announces beyond the grave that the first person to solve a puzzle he’s hidden within the OASIS will become the heir to his fortune (worth as much as the annual budget of most industrial nations), and that the clues to this puzzle are all based on his nostalgic memories of the ’80s movies, music and computer games he voraciously consumed as a lonely antisocial child, suddenly the entire planet becomes obsessed with this time period as well, cleverly letting Cline both have his far-future-technology cake but also eat his pandering “Hey, do you remember THIS thing from the ’80s?! How about THIS thing from the ’80s?” cake too.
That’s perhaps the thing I liked least about Ready Player One, which I know is the very thing that many others like the most about it, making it natural that I would have a different reaction to the novel than most others. I just find it the epitome of lazy writing when an author says, “Hey, here’s a thing from the past I just mentioned! Do YOU remember this thing from the past I just mentioned? You DO??!! FUCK YEAH, WE BOTH REMEMBER THIS THING FROM THE PAST I JUST MENTIONED!!!!1!!!” Ready Player One is by deliberate invention essentially 300 pages of that, an entire storyline that very self-consciously makes conspicuous nostalgia the engine fueling the entire plot along, to the exclusion of any other well-done aspect of literary storytelling. (Also, Cline sometimes gets this nostalgia wrong, which drove me crazier than anything else; for example, no actual ’80s autistic antisocial computer nerd would’ve been caught dead listening to “burnout bands” like AC/DC and Rush back then, a historical retcon that was totally and completely invented by contemporary tattooed hipsters who want their nerd-cred but their metal bands too.)There's simply not much to #ErnestCline's #ReadyPlayerOne besides endless 80s pop culture Click To Tweet
Still, though, I have to admit that there are many charms to be found in Ready Player One as well, and there’s a reason this book has taken on a fandom that is much larger and more passionate than its publishing details would otherwise justify. For example, even though the book wallows in nostalgia like a frat bro bathing in cologne before a night of clubbing, at least Cline does this nostalgia in sometimes very clever and inventive ways; to name just the first great example we come across in the book, Cline’s physical recreation of Dungeons & Dragons’ very first adventure module (a particularly obscure ’80s reference that I myself remember with a lot of warmth) is a real thing of beauty here, and especially when the final showdown with the main baddie turns out to not be a swordfight but a duel on the coin-op videogame “Joust,” the exact kind of thing you could just imagine a frail asthmatic like Halliday creating in old age as a way of amusing his inner 14-year-old. And for it being a simplistic plot lifted straight from a children’s book, at least Cline keeps this plot going at breakneck speed, a thrillingly-paced storyline that I suspect is the main reason that people mistake it for a more complex story than it actually is. (Other nice touches include the fact that Cline finds a way to enfold Japanese nerd culture into this US-heavy story; and that a crucial part of the puzzle is solved by memorizing and reciting lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the ultimate nerd wet dream.)
Perhaps this book’s most lasting legacy, though, and the thing that will continue getting it attention long after its ’80s nostalgia has worn out its welcome among future generations, is that this is also Cline’s love letter to autism and the differently-abled; pretty much every protagonist in the book is clearly characterized to be somewhere “on the spectrum,” as the term goes, from the high-functioning Steve “Woz” Wozniak stand-in Ogden “Og” Morrow, to the Howard Hughes shut-in Halliday, the Roxane-Gay-like overweight black lesbian puzzle-solver “Aech,” and our hero Wade Watts who is described like a teen version of Cline himself. It’s refreshing to see a group like this, usually relegated to “comic foil” roles if included in contemporary books at all, actually turn out to be the saviors of the universe here; and it’s a testament to its fans that this book has grown into the kind of phenomenon it has while still presenting only autistic heroes, yet another sign in the 2010s of the turning tide in the way we think about what constitutes “appropriately mainstream” artistic projects (but for more, see Wonder Woman, Get Out, the female remake of Ghostbusters, etc).
So all in all, a mixed bag; a book I nominally liked, but not nearly as much as most others, that drove me crazy during giant chunks of the page count, but that I ultimately found just too charming and clever to dismiss altogether. Certainly I can see why there’s been so many bitter criticisms of Cline’s second novel, the similarly themed Armada — this book is very clearly a case of Cline accidentally catching lightning in a bottle, randomly at the exact right moment in history to do so, and we all know how difficult it is to catch lightning like that twice — but it’s enough, I think, for an obscure indie writer to have one giant massive hit like this in their career, even if they never have another one again (which I suspect will be the case with Cline). It comes recommended with reservations today, a book whose enjoyment is directly tied to how much you keep your expectations low going into it.