The short: 3/5 ✦. Too much time is spent on random references instead of character development or exploration of the incredible world it all takes place in.
Have you ever been watching a show, and the writers put in an inside joke or a meta reference to a movie that only fans of that movie would get, and instead of finding it funny or cool, it was just awkward or even embarrassing?
Maybe that’s just me.
On one hand, I realize it shouldn’t be embarrassing to enthuse about something we love – we should all be able to let our nerd flags fly! But I also think there’s a difference between catering to the audience and self-congratulation with a hearty wink, and Ready Player One teeters on that fine line.
To be fair, 85% of the references in this book went over my head, so it’s probably safe to say that I may have enjoyed it more if I was a fan of retro video games, anime, and sitcoms from the 1980s. Still, I’m a huge Python fanatic, and all the Holy Grail quotes barely made me smile. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the novel in its own terms, but for me, it failed to deliver a joke that I should’ve enjoyed. (Especially given that Halliday was supposed to be obsessed with the eighties, and Grail came out in 1975. That said, I did like the subtle Brazil nods during the IOI scenes, very nice touch, that.)
Another issue I had was that the book reeked of nostalgia, and not the good kind. It’s the kind of nostalgia that “ONLY 90’S KIDZ WILL GET THIS!!” memes thrive on, a yearning for a so-called “better” time that the poor toddlers of today will never know. I like history as much as the next nerd, but I also like progress. Ready Player One touches on this slightly, with Cline discussing how messed up the world is – but he doesn’t dwell on the reason for the stagnation of society. He actually brings up quite a few different issues – war, poverty, environmentalism, racism, etc. – but drops them quickly. More time is spent on the intricacies of Joust than the one confirmed non-heterosexual character in the entire story. The implications of how OASIS both is perfect (unlimited personal freedom!) and also not perfect (it’s basically a drug!) are also brought up – but it’s no more than a passing observation, and Cline moves on. I would’ve liked more exploration of the greater issues, how OASIS really saved/ruined the world, and for character and cultural diversity to be part of the story organically, not just for its own sake. (Sometimes, it felt like Cline was just ticking off boxes on a diversity checklist . . . )
It probably doesn’t help that Wade, the main character, is kind of a jerk. You feel sorry for him at first, living in a terrible home and desperately poor, but once he loses those attachments to the real world (with all the emotion of losing his left shoe), he becomes much less sympathetic. I especially didn’t like how he treated Art3mis, though I had issues with their entire love arc in general, as it was incredibly forced and jarringly contrived. And yeah, he saves the day, but he’s the hero, what else is gonna happen?
To avoid being entirely negative, I did greatly enjoy the mystery novel element – the wild-goose chase of seeking the contents of an eccentric’s will. Who hasn’t secretly wanted to do something like that? To see who among your inheritors would actually be deserving of your life’s treasures? Wade and the other “grunters” exploring billions of planets in OASIS, using skills and trivia knowledge as clues, was incredibly cool, and I wish more of the book had been . . . well, more fun! Cline seemed to have wanted his novel to be realistic, but since he didn’t really explore actual realism, either, Ready Player One again occupies an area between two extremes, and it’s not a happy medium.
Overall, this feels more a The Big Bang Theory of nerd books, when it should’ve been a Community.
Header image: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, published August 16th 2011 by Random House NY