Book Review: Ready Player One

Posted on February 9, 2017 at 6:05 PM

Book Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

In the modern parlance, I am disappoint.

***This reviews contains spoilers***

Cline’s first novel came with a heavy promise of satisfying nostalgia and, if the hype was to be believed, not too small a dose of hilarity. Billed as “Willy Wonka meets the Matrix,” the novel caught this geek by the chin and spun his head directly onto page one. That’s about the best I can say for it, sadly.

I love a good cyber-thriller with conspiracies, a race against the clock, black-ops murder squads, and clever hackers running for their lives on the streets and in the boundless realms of cyberspace. Throw in countless nods to my generation’s glory days (the 80s), and you’ve got me hooked. But you need to deliver. You have to tell a story and sometimes drop easter eggs now and then to make me smile.

Ready Player One does neither, at least not terribly well.

Cline drops plenty of easter eggs (*hint: that’s a big theme in this book), but they come like info dumps, almost ad nauseum, with passing and, at times, overly-long references made to TV shows, bands, songs, albums, movies, toys, arcades, pop culture out the wazoo! But it’s all presented like the reader should, de facto, have a vested interest in seeing these elements of pop culture simply mentioned and then their relevance or importance explained, as if everyone is simultaneously in and not in on the joke.

Nudge-nudge, wink-wink works once or twice, or even a dozen times spaced out and with engaging storytelling in between. But a dozen times per chapter, and with an almost encyclopedic dryness … I began skimming and then skipping entire pages after a while.

Telling me your characters in a far-future love the same things I loved as a kid in the 80s doesn’t endear me to them or give me a compelling reason to follow their story arcs. I need something to worry about, and to see your protagonist worrying about something.

But what him worry? Wade Watts, the 1st-person protagonist of Ready Player One, has about as much to worry over as an otaku whose parents deposit money and food outside the bedroom door, hoping one day for the child to emerge and speak intelligible language again.

To be fair, the book opens (somewhat) well and had me anticipating a story I would enjoy. Barring dry as old bones early chapters of info dumps and history about Wade’s near-future story world, I got into the tale and was excited to see where he was going. We meet him living in squalor and isolated from any IRL peer group. This set up a clear-cut case of YA adventure. The expectation is that he’ll break out of his squalid existence and make a break for it to succeed, against all odds, at winning the day. He’ll meet people, have some challenging trials to face, maybe fall in love or maybe not, but he’ll be a different person than when we meet him, even if his real-world conditions haven’t changed much.

And yet, every time something seemed ready to thwart Wade’s progress, he conveniently either knew the necessary pop-culture reference, or had the means to circumvent any obstacle the real world threw at him.

Bomb threat? No problem; he’s not home anyway. And then the people who tried to kill him decide they were successful and don’t bother trying to do it again – even though Wade’s avatar continues to show up in the virtual world that comprises most of the settings in the book. Again, what does Wade have to worry about? He’s got all the money he’ll ever need, and he has a safe location to inhabit, protected from the people trying to kill him. And they seem to forget about him at the drop of a hat.

Sure, the big, bad evil mega corporation is hell-bent on ruining everything Wade and his fellow OASIS users (read: everybody on the planet) have grown to love about life. Namely, the OASIS (a global MMO experience, and the only one of its kind in existence). But only one attempt is ever made on his life, and it is not even remotely successful. Like every danger he ever encounters in the story, it may as well have been a virtual bomb that threatened his avatar’s existence.

I’m well acquainted with the sense of loss when a video game death peels back hours and hours of progress. And that could have been a clever conceit of Ready Player One. I say ‘could have’, because it was, as best as I could tell, the only conceit of the book. I get that some people make money putting their game play up on YouTube, and that advertisers sometimes pay them to play their favorite games because those advertisers know other people are watching. This review is not meant as judgment about anyone in that scenario; neither gamer nor voyeur deserve any shame or criticism from where I’m standing.

But if you’re going to write about someone playing a video game, you’d do well to at least acknowledge how such stories have been written in the past (e.g., Snow Crash, Johnny Mnemonic, Neuromancer) and employ similar tropes and aesthetic elements as those authors have done.

Cline does make obvious, overt, and even one explicit reference to the giants on whose shoulders he attempts to stand: Gibson and Stephenson. Not a few times I got a whiff of Snow Crash and Neuromancer, the latter being the novel Cline names in reference to something or other that Wade was worrying over. But there it is again – that sense that I was simply being shown something that I know and love. I could just as easily have wandered my eyes over to my own bookshelf and noticed the titles lined up in a row.

Had Cline written a book layered with intrigue and peril, I’d be handing out a better review. Had he even written a book with a genuine sense of human need, I’d be doing the same. But Ready Player One only goes so far as to show us a character who wants to get the high score on his favorite video game, and that, for my money, is not a story worth reading.





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1 Comment

Reply Infraredhep
9:45 PM on May 21, 2019 
,! .