In 2017, bad things just happen, and no one is ever, ever held accountable. The president is a demented sexual predator, O.J. Simpson won his parole hearing, Mark Zuckerberg is going to buy his way into politics — and we have no recourse. All we can do is watch and despair as our delusions of meritocracy and “the right side of history” are proven untenable. But there is a case for optimism. As the Alcoholics Anonymous adage goes, the only way out of a downward spiral is to hit rock bottom. Thankfully, Steven Spielberg has agreed to direct a film adaptation of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, and not a moment too soon.
The Ready Player One trailer, screened late last month at Comic-Con, smartly papers over its source material’s flaws with a generous helping of Michael Bay-style CGI chaos. It briefly communicates that the plot has something to do with virtual reality or, like, technology or something, but the main attraction is the 90-second montage of slow-mo car chases and robot laser battles. (All set to classic rock standards, of course.) At first, the trailer seems relatively innocuous, at least by the exceedingly low standards of 2010s blockbusters; it could easily be mistaken for a Transformers spinoff or a new DC/Marvel cash grab in the vein of Suicide Squad.
But a quick perusal of the ecstatic press response to Ready Player One’s trailer reveals something far more insidious. Articles with titles like “A Breakdown of All the Clues, '80s References, and Surprises in the Ready Player One Trailer” abound, as do 15-minute YouTube videos meticulously dissecting the CGI puke in search of recognizable characters. Apparently, Duke Nukem made a brief cameo appearance, as did Garfield, Freddy Krueger, the gun from Halo, Gandalf, The Iron Giant, the car from Back to the Future, Lara Croft and, most nauseatingly, Harley Quinn. Not content to simply borrow Suicide Squad’s ethos of brazen, shameless fanservice, Ready Player One takes it a step further and borrows its main character.
What if the entire world revolved around me, and the specific video games and movies I like?
We had time to stop this. Ready Player One, the debut novel of Ernest Cline, was published six years ago. But, rather than take a stand against the apotheosis of self-satisfied male nerdism, the mainstream media made itself complicit in an atrocity. AV Club gave it an A, Entertainment Weekly an A-. io9 called it a “fantastic page-turner.” NPR’s review said “the author's energetic, deeply felt narrative makes it almost impossible to stop turning the pages.” The Huffington Post wrote that “Ready Player One has it all — nostalgia, trivia, adventure, romance, heart and, dare I say it, some very fascinating social commentary.” (That same Post article called Ready Player One “the grown-up’s Harry Potter,” which is both inaccurate and redundant.)
Let’s dive into the abyss of this very bad book. Ready Player One takes place in the year 2045. Climate change and unchecked corporate power have exacerbated the wealth gap to a point where most Americans live in shantytowns surrounding major cities. Real life has been replaced with an immersive multiplayer simulation, OASIS, which users access through virtual reality hardware. The simulation’s creator, James Halliday, was an elusive Howard Hughes type obsessed with 1980s pop culture and, like Hughes, he had no children. Instead, Halliday’s will made his sizable fortune the subject of a retro-themed scavenger hunt within OASIS. Ready Player One’s cast of characters, all of whom are either comically evil CEOs or sarcastic teenage hackers, engage in a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World-style race to find Halliday’s virtual treasure first. Wil Wheaton narrates the audiobook.
Halliday’s retro-themed scavenger hunt provides a thin cover for Ready Player One’s true purpose, which is to pelt the reader with an ungodly amount of pop culture references. The trailer for the film adaptation actually undersells how many there are. Now, nerdy references can be skillfully integrated into a narrative, and proud geekiness is part of Cline’s appeal as an author. After all, the title itself is a reference to Pac-Man, and much of the marketing was done through outlets like BoingBoing (whose editor, Cory Doctorow, the book namedrops) and the now-defunct TV channel G4. But Ready Player One goes so far beyond a reasonable reference-to-plot ratio that it often feels more like binge-reading 1980s-related Wikipedia articles than reading a novel. The vast majority of these references are superfluous to the narrative, which means their only purpose is to elicit the most primitive of responses: I recognize that thing. Many passages in Ready Player One resemble the satirical monologues from American Psycho (“When Sports came out in '83, I think they really came into their own, commercially and artistically...”), but without an iota of irony. A representative excerpt:
Dagorath was a word in Sindarin, the Elvish language J. R. R. Tolkien had created for The Lord of the Rings. The word dagorath meant “battle,” but Tolkien had spelled the word with just one “g,” not two. “Daggorath” (with two “g”s) could refer only to one thing: an incredibly obscure computer game called Dungeons of Daggorath released in 1982. The game had been made for just one platform, the TRS-80 Color Computer.”
The paragraph-long lists of Atari 2600 games and lengthy explanations of what Star Wars is raise the question of who, exactly, Cline was pandering to. If the target demographic was geeks born in 1972, why are even the most obvious references explained in excruciating detail? If Cline expected an audience unfamiliar with Atari, why laboriously shoehorn it into the plot at all?
Proud geekiness is part of Cline’s appeal as an author.
The book reaches its nadir in a chapter where the protagonist makes his way through a virtual recreation of the 1983 film WarGames. Instead of simply namedropping the title, Cline unnecessarily and embarrassingly re-narrates the first 15 minutes of the movie, dialogue and all. It’s easy to create a pop culture-heavy period piece without breaking the fourth wall to deliver extended Wikipedia excerpts. That ‘70s Show didn’t have its characters inexplicably tell each other who Peter Frampton was. Stranger Things doesn’t use dialogue to announce “Wow! This sure is a lot like The Goonies!” The references are there, and if you get them, you get them. If they go over your head, you probably won’t even notice. With Ready Player One, the references come first. Take them away, and there’s not much left.
With so much time spent recalling the 1980s, we learn relatively little about Ready Player One’s dystopian future, and much of what we do learn is decidedly un-futuristic. Internet lingo is somehow frozen in 2005 — characters born in the 2020s earnestly use leetspeak and MySpace-era terms like “asshat” and “sux0rz.” (Unlike the 1980s references, these anachronisms are unexplained.) The technology isn’t that impressive either: the OASIS simulation bears a distinct resemblance to Second Life, a stubbornly persistent 3D virtual world launched in 2003. Like OASIS, Second Life allows users to attend school, buy and sell virtual property and, if they’re lucky, attain sexual fulfillment. Unlike OASIS, Second Life has amassed only 600,000 active users, and most of them are furries (although at least one of them is a billionaire). Other attempts to create virtual worlds have been similarly unsuccessful. AltspaceVR, a well-funded Comcast-backed startup that added advanced graphics and virtual reality hardware to Second Life’s formula, shut down this month with only 35,000 active users.
In our timeline, virtual worlds aren’t doing so well. On the other hand, Ready Player One’s OASIS appears to have made real life obsolete by 2020. What changes in the next three years? Not much, apparently — the “immersion rigs” used in 2045 show only marginal advances over current VR technology, but they remain prohibitively expensive nonetheless. The assumption is that, with minimal improvements and maximal hype, VR technology will eventually replace all other human endeavors, because nerds want it to. In the real world, VR sales have repeatedly underperformed expectations, and what few consumers there are remain uninterested in 3D social networking. This is probably why Palmer Luckey, the pro-Trump tech billionaire who sold Oculus VR to Facebook in 2014, forced his employees to read Ready Player One. For the megalomaniacs of Silicon Valley, Cline provides a comforting fantasy: the world has gone to hell, all the resources of the underclass have been redirected to a few emotionally stunted computer geniuses, and what do they do with their world-historical dominance? They find new ways to recreate Star Wars.
With Ready Player One, the references come first. Take them away, and there’s not much left.
As the creator of OASIS and the source of the hidden treasure, the tech auteur James Halliday looms over the book like a deity. Besides being a partial stand-in for Ernest Cline himself, Halliday’s character combines the worst traits of Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Kim Dotcom. He made his software humanity’s sole project, amassing untold billions as the world decayed around him. Even upon his death at age 67, those billions failed to find their way to the masses huddling in trailer parks and slums. Instead, Halliday kept his fortune hidden for years behind a labyrinth of Atari challenges, accessible not to the needy, but to those willing to indulge his ego and his juvenile obsessions. Despite Cline’s portrayal of Halliday as a lovable eccentric, he represents Silicon Valley at its most sociopathic. In the final chapter, Halliday’s hologram hints that he may have some flaws, but Cline fails to explore them in any real sense. He couldn’t, anyway; Halliday’s flaws are Ready Player One’s flaws and Ernest Cline’s flaws. If Ready Player One became self-aware, it would cease to exist.
Nearly every one of Ready Player One’s faults is a direct result of Cline’s authorial narcissism. The writing process appears to have begun with the question: What if the entire world revolved around me, and the specific video games and movies I like? The rest was assembled around that essential core. Cline is far from the first author to write a self-insert wish fulfillment narrative, but he may be the first to write one this lazy and self-indulgent. To place oneself in the character of Wade Watts, an 18-year-old video game trivia knower, requires no imagined heroism or personal growth. It simply constructs a world around the reader, where his comfort zone, his passively acquired knowledge of retro video games and Star Wars, is enough to effortlessly make him a Great Man of History. A fantasy this mundane is barely a fantasy at all — just a desire to be unjustly rewarded for mediocrity. And, thanks to Steven Spielberg, Cline’s mediocrity has been rewarded beyond his wildest dreams.