Book review: “Ready Player One”

Ready Player OneJWM’s Summer of Fiction continues! Today we’re discussing Ernest Cline’s 2011 debut novel, Ready Player One.

Ready Player One tells the story of Wade Watts, a teenager living in a dystopian Oklahoma in the year 2044. The world’s energy supplies have peaked and then dwindled, leaving a stark divide between a few lucky people who were able to hold on to some form of prosperity and a vast majority who were not. Watts is one of the latter; he lives in “the stacks,” a grim arcology of mobile homes stacked one upon the other into looming, rickety, crime-ridden towers.

But he has an escape from the grimness that surrounds him: a virtual-reality online network called the OASIS. In the OASIS, Wade Watts isn’t a pudgy, socially awkward kid from the wrong side of the tracks. There he is Parzival, one of thousands of hackers around the world who obsessively search the network for the OASIS’s ultimate prize: a series of challenges hidden in the system by its original creator, whose will specified that the first person to find and solve them all would inherit both the OASIS itself and the vast pile of money it had earned its maker. The novel follows Watts and a few of his hacker friends as they race to be the one who takes the prize, pursued by operatives of a shadowy corporation that wants the OASIS for itself and is willing to do anything to get it.

So what kind of book is Ready Player One? On the surface, it reads a bit like cyberpunk — the image of a world of people jacked continuously into an immersive digital experience will be familiar to readers of William Gibson or Neal Stephenson, among others. But when you dig into it a bit, you find that the cyberpunk stuff is mostly just set dressing, façade. Its actual heart is somewhere else altogether. To understand where, let me tell you a story.

When Germany reunified in the 1990s, Germans who had grown up in communist East Germany suddenly found themselves awash in a sea of glamorous consumer goods unlike anything they had ever imagined. But all that material richness came with a price tag attached, because the flip side of the new capitalism was that the economic security communism had provided was torn away. In the old system nearly everybody was poor, but they didn’t have to worry about what would happen if they lost their job tomorrow. The new system flipped those priorities on their head.

Most Easterners made this trade happily, but for some, the longer they lived with the new system the better the old system looked. They began to feel a nostalgia for the world they had left behind — a nostalgia that took in not just the old East German state, but even the low-quality goods that were all it had to offer its residents. The Germans eventually coined a term for this wistful feeling: “Eastern nostalgia,” or ostalgie. And it was a powerful enough sentiment that clever capitalists eventually started tapping into it, reviving old Eastern brands like Vita Cola specifically to attract the ostalgie-minded consumer.

I thought a lot about ostalgie while reading Ready Player One, because it itself is a work of nostalgia. While its trappings are cyberpunk, its core is really something very different: a fond love letter to American pop culture of the 1980s. The inventor of the OASIS, you see, had grown up in that era, and was so infatuated with it that he hid his challenges behind puzzles that would require a deep knowledge of the era’s ephemera to solve. So Parzifal and his hacker buddies, who have spent their teenage years trying to solve those puzzles, are all walking encyclopedias of Cyndi Lauper-era trivia, and key plot points hinge on things like the specific model year of a Tempest arcade game and the ability to recite all the lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail from memory.

It’s clear that Cline loves the era; his fondness for it is all over every page of Ready Player One. The problem is that this love never really gets beyond the surface level. Ready Player One is loaded with references to ’80s pop culture icons, but it doesn’t really have anything to say about them; it just wants to evoke their memory to give the reader a warm, fuzzy feeling. So while at first the constant name-checking is fun, after a while it begins to wear.

I found myself wanting Cline to go deeperto tell us why kids like Wade, who weren’t born until decades after the ’80s were over, became so enamored with the culture of the era. We can understand why the genius who planted the puzzles they struggle with loved it; he was a child then, and everyone has nostalgia for the era of their childhood, since no matter how bad it really was we remember it as the time before the demands of adulthood started pressing in on us. But Parzifal and company are 2030s kids, not ’80s kids. Why would that era resonate with them so deeply? Imagine if the story was about a reclusive genius in the year 2004 who hid the keys to a fortune in coded messages inside the liner notes of classic rock LPs from the ’50s and ’60s. Sure, you can imagine lots of 2000s kids chasing after those keys; but can you imagine them enjoying it?

Ready Player One doesn’t really operate at that level, alas. It’s not interested in engaging with these types of questions. It’s content to just be a simple adventure story with a heavy layer of VH1’s “I Love the ’80s” on top. Which led me to my other problem with the book.

As the Internet has taken off, “geek culture” has zoomed from the fringes of the pop world to its heart. The fantasy novels and comic book arcs that my nerd friends and I argued about over the lunchroom table in junior high school are now the basis for the world’s best-selling movies and TV shows. Back then, a person who knew too much about The Lord of the Rings was on a fast track to an atomic wedgie; today you can take that person and make him the lead character in a hugely popular network sitcom. It’s a different world we live in now.

Which is fine! I’m happy that kids who are interested in the things I was interested in as a kid aren’t getting swirlies over it anymore. But as with anything else that reaches mainstream popularity, as the masses have piled on to geek culture, sharp marketers have taken notice. So now those of us who were on the bandwagon before it started to roll have to see ideas and slogans that meant a lot to us in our formative years deployed to sell the world cheap T-shirts and disposable plastic crap.

And I got the same feeling reading Ready Player One that I did gazing upon all those sad tchotchkes: the feeling that my memories were being used to sell me something that couldn’t sell itself. Take the Star Wars logo off the pre-distressed $20 T-shirt, and does it still seem worth $20 anymore? Not really; suddenly it’s just a few dollars worth of fabric. Take all the ’80s nostalgia off of Ready Player One, then, and is what you’re left with a story that would grab the reader all by itself? Not really; suddenly it’s just a pretty basic adventure story. A basic adventure story that’s been dressed up to sell to people like me.

Ernest Cline just published his second novel, Armada. I was hoping when I looked it up that it would be a chance for him to stretch his legs a bit; but it looks like it’s a story about… video games and ’80s nostalgia. Sigh.

Next time out, I would urge him to get outside his wheelhouse a bit. Tell me a story about Regency England, or a fantasy kingdom, or Neo-Tokyo in the year 2178. Tell me a story with no Atari games or Oingo Boingo records. Stop leaning on the crutch of my nostalgia. Put all that stuff aside and just tell me a story.

You know?

Want more? Links to all Summer of Fiction book reviews can be found here.