“The captain is a one armed dwarf, he’s throwing dice along the wharf….”
I read Ready Player One near the end of last year. I’d heard good things from some friends, I like video games, and I’d consider myself fairly enmeshed in what has come to be known as ‘nerd culture’. With the films recent release and my pre-release thoughts on the trailer, I thought I’d take the time to give the book the going over that I’ve previously refrained from in the name of civility and, perhaps, prudence. Spoilers ahead for those who care.
Ready Player One is what would happen if Reddit became sapient and wrote a novel. It’s neckbeard self-insert fanfiction under any other name. From beginning to end there are perhaps a handful of moments that didn’t make me flinch. I cringed so hard I had to resist the urge to violently tongue my own retinas. For the first couple of chapters I was convinced that the book was some sort of meta-joke attempting to be ironic by way of being chronically awkward. The further I went on the more it was apparent that what I was reading was not a badly told joke. It was, to my growing unease, entirely serious.
The book is overly reliant on trivia. A lot of people have alluded to them as references – and I wish they were. They would at least negate the constant pace-destroying info-dumps that follow them. In reality, a reference employs some sort of allusion, without directly mentioning the thing they allude to. This book doesn’t bother, it just vomits trivia on your lap and screams, “Hey, guys, remember this!?” They don’t even have the potential to be as clever as a reference could be because they’re so obnoxiously thrown in your face. Ready Player One seems over reliant on the misguided idea that references are either witty or amusing in and of themselves. I spend far too much time on the Internet and can state, with authority, that without adequate consideration for timing, context, and phrasing, references are not automatically funny. That’s not how humour works. Stop.
The opening third of the book is drenched in this sweating supercilious nerd culture elitism, presented as if to look any better than the school social cliques that protagonist Wade constantly derides. Being so pervasive in the narrative, and since it directly mirrors the very thing it mocks, I assumed the total lack of self-awareness was the point. I gave it the benefit of the doubt, assuming that somewhere along the way he’d be given a reason to drop it. No such luck. There’s this ridiculous scene where Wade is desperately one-upping some guy on trivia in the hopes of impressing Aech, another OASIS dweller and who serves the purpose of friend and personal cheerleader to Wade. The premise of the scene is just that he blathers extensive 80s media trivia at Aech, who is obviously impressed, while the other guy does the same thing but with less tedious detail and is relegated to the lesser ranks of the uber-geek scoreboard. Or something. The fact that Wade never once acknowledges hypocrisy of his condescension riddle railing against “posers” or the irony of acting almost exactly like the popular kid stereotypes he whines about, gives you a good idea of where the novel’s blinkers are. If I remember correctly, I’m pretty sure that scene with Aech and the trivia recital ends with a played-straight fist bump. Oh and the car. The car. When I said this was self insert fan fiction I wasn’t exaggerating. Wade’s care is the mechanical embodiment of bad self-insert fanfiction, combining the Deloran but with a Night Rider voice but it also has the ghost buster logo on the doors and OH FOR THE LOVE OF GOD SPARE ME.
What’s sad is that all the references and trivia could actually have been used in interesting or clever ways. I’m convinced of this. But the book is so clumsy and ham-fisted about everything, that all of the 80s stuff isn’t even referenced. It’s just name-dropped as if there were points to score or something. This constant smug stream of innocuous vapid information as nerd-cred even extends to things that don’t need explaining, such as the 3 in Art3mis’ name being the substitute for an ‘e’. He clearly already knew he was aiming this book at gamers and nerds, they don’t need this condescending explanation. Nobody does. Literally every person over the age of ten years old understands the 1337 5p34k thing, even if they don’t want to.
The characters are obnoxious. They are all what politicians imagine every time a piece of technology-based legislation gets put in front of them and they reply with something to the effect that they don’t understand what they’re looking at, and that they’d rather let the nerds deal with stuff like that. They are two dimensional, stereotypical, and they never progress beyond that because they are only there to revolve around Wade. They don’t feel like they’re organically in the world, so much as they are just cogs that interlock with Wade to get him from A to B.
Wade himself is contemptible. He is the mall-ninja neckbeard white knight to end all other mall-ninja neckbeard white knights. His OASIS handle, Parzival, even references the Arthurian knight, Percival. Ostensibly as a nod to the holy grail, and his OASIS quest, but lacking any and all admirable traits one might associate with an Arthurian knight, opting instead to embody the sum total of every pitiful immature Nice Guy you’ve ever come across.
After Wade gets the first McGuffin, stock dystopian faceless corporation Innovative Online Industries (IOI) – who naturally want to win the easter egg hunt and control the OASIS – demand to know how to attain it. Wade refuses so they blow up his neighbourhood. The whole thing. Presumably a corporation with their resources could have just hired a hitman to kill the two or three people around Wade, but instead thought it would be more subtle to kill hundreds, if not thousands, of random civilians in plain daylight. Because that’s not going to leave a paper trail. More to the point, the murder of so many innocent people doesn’t actually trouble Wade who is, at least partially, responsible. Don’t worry, this somewhat catastrophic event has perhaps a single paragraph dedicated to it… and is never mentioned again.
After his aunt and all the inhabitants of the stacks have been turned into a fine red mist, he moves out of the hillbilly Spiderman trailer park into his own place. He doesn’t cook, admits to eating only frozen and takeaway food, because I guess you’ve got to really encapsulate that neckbeard idol thing if you want to win overblown trivia competitions. My initial reservations about Wade’s ability to not degenerate further into a festering sludge of grease and blubber, is at least accounted for to some degree by Cline. While I’m entirely unconvinced that a virtual gym could, in any way, shape, or form, replace actual physical exercise, it’s a minor nitpick that I’ll let slide. Wade’s fame still needs to be maintained by a low-level day job, which is an interesting subversion of the typical version of success, undermining it with the reality that he is not actually wealthy, despite the fanfare.
It’s just a shame that none of this really develops into anything. The stacks demolition was ripe for internal conflict and character development. Earning enough money to pay the rent, while also being an OASIS superstar could also have been used for an interesting examination of real world concepts of success. What a relevant time it is to bring up that topic! As it is, however, they more or less just make up a transitionary space between one chunk of exposition or trivia dump to the next.
While the book does roll on at a good pace, there’s never any tension. In part, because Cline keeps spoiling what’s going to happen before he gets to it. It’s the direct opposite of what a novel should do. Instead of your reader asking, ‘Ok, so what happens next?’ when they have already been given the rough idea of how a plot development is going to turn out, they merely ask, ‘are we there yet?’ I kept running into sentences that would give the game away and then wonder, if I hadn’t been reading for a book group, what my impetus for turning the page was? If Wade dies in OASIS there’s no surprise, because Cline has the unforgivable tendency to telegraph this fact at the very start of the chapter. Given how utterly pathetic Wade is, it’s hard enough to build any empathy or connection to him. I can only presume that not having the dramatic moments of the book ruined far ahead of time would have at least slightly sanded the edges to my hatred for him.
Sometime after the bombing, Art3mis cuts her connection with Wade. In response, Wade becomes a stalker. After it finally dawns on him that she doesn’t find his intrusive and downright creepy behaviour in the least bit arousing, he has a full blown amateur dramatic man-child meltdown. It is at this point that he begins talking about throwing himself from the roof of his tower block. If you remember having a Livejournal back as an early teen, it’s not dissimilar to reading that. This bit of the narrative is supposed to be a low point. I honestly couldn’t have cared less. Wade’s constant obsessive babbling about Art3mis is bad enough, but the hounding afterwards, and the fact that it’s presented as if it’s just a display of his love for her, drove me to actively hate him.
I love flawed characters, give me flawed characters all day and all night. There’s nothing worse than a Mary Sue. The older I get the less I enjoy traditional heroes. I find them disingenuous. So Wade is a flawed protagonist and theoretically I should love him. After all, he’s nothing but flaws. There’s a difference between imperfect and utterly repugnant. Imperfect characters have some redeeming qualities, so we root for them and follow their journey with rapt anticipation.
There is literally nothing to like about Wade. The problem is that this laughable romance plot line lacks any and all romance, it’s just repulsive and, worse, contains not the barest shred of self-awareness. I could not give you a single reason as to why Art3mis should want to pursue a relationship with this boy but the whole escapade is framed as if we should sympathise with Wade. Even that’s perhaps salvageable? You’ve got some sort of narrative arc potential there. It’s ripe for character development. Hell, you could even spin this romanticised harassment into an unreliable narrator. But it’s not. It never is. Like everything else in the book, the whole sordid mess is just played straight. Ask absolutely anybody on the planet and they will confirm that I am about as romantically competent as a bowel tumour, but I have to wonder what Ernest Cline thinks a healthy relationship looks like.
When your protagonist is talking suicide my instinctive response should not be, ‘Fucking do it!’
Art3mis herself is not really a character so much as she is a trophy. Ironic, considering the video game theme, the aspirations to social virtue and the ongoing real world debate on gaming’s treatment of women. Wade finds out she has a birth mark. Despite this most titanic of obstacles, he continues to obsess over her. This great inner struggle and his persistent creepy stalking is treated as heroic. His entire character is the neckbeard caricature, right down to the “DAE ‘member the good old days when REAL men had class and tipped their fedoras to m’lady?”, but simultaneous completely oblivious to this fact. I flat out do not understand how Cline thought this was a good idea. I just don’t get it. I made a concerted effort to find a shred of satire, anything at all to suggest that his tongue was wedged firmly into his cheek, as I would expect from such a grossly repulsive character, but turned up nothing. It was just a constant deluge of second hand embarrassment.
Art3mis’ role as ‘reward’ is laid bare in the final scene. In fact she may as well have been dressed as Princess Peach. She leads him through a maze and then they kiss. Wade suddenly has the notion that the potential for getting laid means that he doesn’t want to log onto the OASIS now. If you don’t understand why that’s not a sign that he has grown as a character, then you probably need to take a long look at yourself.
This is a “love” story that makes me want to throat-fuck my oesophagus bloody with my own spinal column.
Aech is this book’s Cheerios avatar. She is black, gay, and female. One big special snowflake comprising a menagerie of discriminated groups available, wrapped up in a surprise reveal that is supposed to be shocking but merely make you roll your eyes and sigh at its palpable irrelevance, thrown in as an afterthought. Given that Cline is clearly well versed in Internet culture, Aech turned from character to tumblr-golem in the space of a page. I cannot help but view this as a cynical attempt to draw praise from the kind of mindless wailing echo-chamber that tumblr often embodies; a hack kneed attempt at virtue signalling or cultural relevance that does absolutely nothing for the plot. When you think it can’t get any more clumsy, Cline has Wade go on some inner monologue revelation about how he realises that (gasp!) her gender, sexuality, and race aren’t going to affect his view of her. We’re supposed to think of Wade as a good person for this stunning proclamation.
At the end of the book deceased OASIS owner James Halliday, orchestrator of this whole debacle, drops a sad excuse for an Aesop, that basically amounts to, “Go outside. You need sunlight.” After a life spent throwing a spiteful tantrum, essentially because some woman was dating the “wrong” guy, Halliday is perhaps not the best role model to be handing out life advice. Much is made of the kill button to the OASIS and the vast wealth leading up to this conclusion, but it’s painfully clear that what’s driving Wade is actually his quest to lose his virginity. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any sadder… But of course, this is all tragically heroic or something. Seriously, billions of dollars and state of the future internet on the line, but Halliday and Wade are more concerned about getting their dicks wet with people who aren’t interested in the first place.
Compare this to something like Moggworld by video game critic and novelist Yahtzee Croshaw. Moggworld understands the tropes it uses, understands its audience, and understands how to craft a compelling story and characters within that sphere. It too likes to reference things like MMORPG culture and game mechanics. The difference is that it actually uses those mechanics to paint something into a scene or affect the plot. They aren’t just excuses for another smug and unnecessary info dump or some juvenile catty sideswipe at “posers”.
I am clearly out of touch. I am genuinely baffled that Ready Player One was even remotely successful. I don’t know what I am missing, nor what driving force could be satisfactorily attributed to the proliferation of this book. I cannot account for it and, honestly, with regards to my sanity, I am not willing to crawl into whatever tenebrous rabbit hole might yield an answer.
This book sums up a reality of publishing that experienced authors attempt to convey to hopefuls across the world every day: Being a good writer does not guarantee that you will be published.
You can throw several hundred pages of monotonous simplistic and poorly thought out plot onto a word document. You can fill those pages with characters representing cultural stereotypes that would have been offensive in the 80s. You can develop a protracted and uncomfortable series of Nice Guy sexual fantasies that only you find remotely compelling or endearing. You can almost wholesale ignore the notions of world building, characters arcs, and narrative tension. You can drown all of that under an endless arbitrary litany of film, song, and video game names that add nothing to the narrative outside of letting the reader know that you, the author are a ceaseless discharge of entirely vacuous trivia. And you can still get that manuscript accepted by an editor at Random House and a movie contract to boot.
This sounds bitter, but I don’t actually begrudge Cline his success: it’s a difficult enough gig and for better or worse he at least followed through on writing some novels. That alone deserves respect. Whether I like his writing or not, it’s working for him and it’s great that people are buying books. However he is, to my mind, a fantastic illustration that writers should never base their sense of self worth on whether their book has been accepted to print. Ready Player One is concrete proof that the quality of the prose is probably not the deciding factor in the publishing process.