Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A revival of '80s geek culture has been going on for a while now, especially as evidenced by (maybe caused by?) the dominance of superhero movies and the rebooting of sci-fi franchises. What's more, these often make more '80s references in the form of "easter eggs" and in-jokes. Some are subtle and surprising (Tony Stark catches a SHIELD officer playing Galaga) while others are the sum total of the appeal (practically every other line in Guardians of the Galaxy). Ready Player One author Ernest Cline tapped into this trend in a big way, admittedly slightly earlier than either of those examples (2011).
The thing is, the '80s "wink winks" are starting to wear on me. I don't know if it's because I only really remember half of the '80s, having been born at the first part of that decade, or because the references are becoming a lazy shortcut to humor and audience appreciation.
Ready Player One is a book full of those forced references. The difference is that these aren't usually played for humor. They're at the heart of the plot and setting because both were created by someone even more obsessed with '80s culture than Star-Lord. Sometimes this works really well. Other times it's like reading Wikipedia. For chapters on end. Especially in the beginning.
Despite how it sounds, I enjoyed this book and felt completely engrossed in the plot - especially once it actually got going. It worked on me the way The Big Bang Theory does (and coincidentally, both feature Wil Wheaton as himself). Unfortunately, said sitcom tends to divide audiences, offending some for its perpetuation of geek and other stereotypes. This book has some of that going on, too. Occasionally Cline tries to balance the pure escapism by challenging some of those stereotypes (and pure escapism itself), but these moments feel a little clumsy and disingenuous. See the SPOILERS section below for examples.
That said, this book is really more safe than offensive or controversial, focused more on nostalgia than originality. The cover blurb calls it a cross between Willy Wonka and The Matrix, and it's startling how accurate that is. All its really fun elements are not just borrowed from other games and movies; they are those games and movies, so you can only enjoy it as much as you enjoy watching someone else play Pac Man or watch WarGames. I spent much of the book distracted by the knowledge that this is being made into a movie, wondering how they will possibly get the rights to all those properties or recreate them in a way that doesn't just look like a supercut of unrelated characters and settings. I predict the movie will fall short in its inevitable comparison to Wreck-it Ralph, especially if it keeps the content that prevents it from being appropriate for kids. It will probably be more at home alongside lesser known but successful teen action/comedies like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
The thing is, Ready Player One knows what it is, which is every gamer's dream: a conflict that can only be overcome by being good at games and knowing otherwise useless trivia! For as long as such a premise can possibly work, this one does.
There were a series of what felt like small political asides that didn't work for me, including the early debunking of God, the midpoint masturbation theory, economical concerns, and the "big reveals" of the female characters' identities.
Regarding the first three, at one point I thought Cline intended on connecting them to a larger theme about reality vs. fantasy. I actually think a case could still be made for that, but it isn't explored enough, leaving Wade's original theories unchallenged and his character development limited to "won over the girl" (as if that's the highest and hardest goal of any geek). Worse, that girl is relegated to the same "Strong Female Support System" role we've seen so much before, with her dream of fixing the economy treated more like an adorable quirk Wade is willing to tolerate.
That brings me to the third aside. I give Cline props for acknowledging that girls are gamers, too. However, does it really count as diverse or stereotype-reversing when the stereotype, and not it's reversal, is what dominates the narrative? Whether it's Aech as an African-American lesbian or Art3mis as a full-bodied, facially-scarred love interest, the implication is that such individuals can only win their way into the hero's/audience's hearts by first pretending to be someone else. It's clear Cline was aiming for something more innocent, hoping to indict intolerance and prove his hero's depth, but somehow it ends up feeling shallow instead - patronizing.
As a final gripe, I was disappointed with the Tomb of Horrors scenario. I never played that D&D module myself, but I did get to flip through a copy and hear about it in enough detail to remember some of its nastier traps, including the Sphere of Annihilation inside the devil's head. This is a terribly creepy, iconic image for D&D players, but gets only passing reference in this book and no physical description whatsoever. Its casual treatment is a good example of Cline's preference for telling rather than showing, and one of many possible moments that fans of the source material might consider missed opportunities.
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