Ready Player One by Ernest Clines is not a good book. It is not a particularly fun or interesting book either. It is a rather bad book. Whatever novelty or creativity the book has is overshadowed by dull, grating and in some cases offensive, execution. The book would be forgettable except that is a different spin on some ideas and its widespread praise. Those two things mean that it’s worthwhile to discuss it at the very least.
Trigger Warning: Violence, transphobia, homophobia, suicide
Beware of spoilers ye who enter
In the interest of fairness, the best thing that this book does is painting a plausible version of the future. The world of 2045 sucks and it sucks in ways that are very plausible; in a lot of ways it’s the new version of what cyberpunk should look like. This degree of proficient world-building does not hold true for much else. It is impossible to discuss the shortcomings of his world building in other spaces without talking about one of the key parts of the premise though.
A major part of the setting is that the 80s have come back in vogue because they were an obsession of the world’s richest man and creator of the OASIS, James Halliday. This is in and of itself is hard to believe. The notion that an eccentric rich dude could cause a massive resurgence in this stuff is unlikely for two big reasons. First, it requires people to collectively stop caring about stuff (the most recent thing referenced is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) which isn’t going to happen, there is more recent stuff that people are attached to. For every triumph that has aged well there are a dozen duds that are best forgotten. Second, because 80s pop culture, embodied by things such as Revenge of the Nerds (a noted favorite of Halliday) have been deconstructed as problematic and we are collectively making some measure of progress towards being more diverse and inclusive. It requires people to collectively stop caring about any of that. Of course, when 80s pop culture is a roadmap to becoming the richest person on Earth; you have a pretty good motive to not care.
This Easter Egg hunt, to claim Halliday’s treasure, has spawned an entire subculture and is the focus of the book. Our protagonist, Wade, has made finding the egg his own quest for the Holy Grail, and he is profoundly unlikeable. Now, some of this is because he’s a teenager with basically no support network, but those parts of him aren’t what I dislike. Wade is a walking encyclopedia of Halliday trivia who just cites stuff and identifies stuff. He doesn’t have any substantive opinions on this stuff, the most we get is that he dislikes a certain song. He, nor does the text for that matter, play with this stuff in interesting stuff. It’s all slavishly recreated so the reader can nod and go, ‘Oh, I get that reference’. Which is strange, a lot of these references are just straight up recreations, so you’re expected to know what’s going on, but nothing fun happens.
Now, you could just make an argument that since I didn’t experience the 80s first hand, there’s stuff I just missed. Which is partly true, but event the stuff I did get was dull. The climax involved a mecha fight, and as someone who will put up with a fair amount for giant robots, found the sequence to be dull. The problem is even worse when it involves videogames, reading someone play through a videogame is incredibly boring, fan service padding before we can get back to things actually happening again. It’s dull and uninspired, fan service that the reader should appreciate because it’s there, not because of what it does.
Wade lacking substantive opinions isn’t the only reason I dislike him though. He’s also the perfect example of my issues with 80s pop culture being problematic, as the trigger warnings should have indicated. Early in the book Wade uses a homophobic slur to verbally spar with someone. The point of hate speech is to be hurtful and the use of slurs to hurt. So, in 2045 homophobia is still a thing, no doubt because culture has regressed to the 1980s. The fact that it’s teenagers doesn’t excuse this as typical high school drama either, kids learn bigotry from somewhere and social mores change.
Now in order to discuss the transphobia I need to digress to how the book discuss cyberspace. This book has a sophomoric view of what constitutes real vis a vis cyberspace and virtual reality. The idea that everything that happens in the OASIS isn’t real, that it has to take place face to face in the real world is complete nonsense. It ignores how the OASIS is used in every aspect of life in setting. Outside the setting, it’s the view of the privileged super-user, it’s the view of someone whose never had a meaningful talk over Facebook, never had friends they’ve never seen in real life, never had to worry about who they were around people they knew in real life and didn’t need an alternative.
This brings us to Art3mis and Aech, two characters who take advantage of the OASIS to look as they want, not as they are. In the case of Art3mis, it’s to not have a wine-stain birthmark. In the case of Aech, it’s to be appear as a white male instead of a heavyset black woman. Art3mis, a badass and charming gunter, is the love interest who creates tension by proscribing the aforementioned view of reality. This “tension” also comes from Wade, who is insistent upon knowing the “real her. Setting aside the issue of not being happy with how someone chooses to present themselves and that being just as real as the body they’re born with, there are other issues at hand. First, there are the incessant jokes about how Art3mis might be a guy named Chuck who lives in his mother’s basement, which aren’t funny on either a societal or personal level. Wade is poor and the Great Recession never ended, that you have to live in your parents’ basement isn’t something to laugh about; it’s something to rage about because your generation, the generation before yours, were screwed into such a situation. On a personal level it’s not funny either, so what if Art3mis is biologically male? She chooses to present herself as a woman and that should be good enough. Wade’s transphobia and nonsensical fixation on the real world comes to a head for me with the following question “Are you a woman? And by that I mean are you a human female who has never had a sex change operation?” It’s incredibly offensive and it’s what you’d expect…out of a 1980s movie.
The reason I mentioned Aech is that her* identity is meant to be a shock, that someone wouldn’t present themselves as they actually were on OASIS. This is silly, a ton of people wouldn’t present themselves the same way; a ton of people would not be the same as they are in the real world for any number of reasons. Any hesitation that Wade has is swept away once he spends time her, because Aech is still Aech and this wasn’t some long con borne out of bad faith. But no issues are raised, because Aech isn’t the love interest and there doesn’t need to be “tension” in their relationship.
Speaking of romance, the relationships in this book are pretty bad. Wade and Art3mis is fairly groan inducing, partly cause Wade is a teenager whose idea of relationships comes from 1980s teen movies and partly cause Art3mis is made to be contrary. It takes up a not insignificant word count and it’s a lot of telling, not showing. Art3mis gets a few scenes where she’s allowed to be herself and not an appendage to something greater, and in those scenes she’s a wonderful character, a badass gunter with an endearing side. If the book had her as the main character, it would be infinitely better. The only other relationship is the love triangle between Og, Halliday and Lauren, which is a case of socially awkward people are bad at expressing themselves and end up making questionable life decisions because of it. Also there’s some grating parallels between that and Wade’s situation that are a cause for further groan. A healthy relationship where both people are alive is too much to ask for. These relationships aren’t charming, they’re forced.
Ready Player One is a bad book, it so very badly wants to be one of the 80s movies it has sycophantic reverence for, but it’s not. It’s a book that could have existed in 2011 because many of the issues I talked about weren’t as mainstream, but even then its problems were clear. In 2015 it’s a laughable work that oscillates between boring and offensive. In no way can I actually recommend that you read this book. Next week, I’ll be reviewing the 100 season two. Till next time.
*Another issue is that Wade doesn’t know the significance of pronouns and misgenders her once we know the truth, but all indications are that Aech identifies as a woman.