‘Going outside is highly overrated…’
Firstly, let me start by saying I really enjoyed Ready Player One. That may sound like the beginning of a book report written by a 10 year old and while I am a huge baby man, here this introduction serves as a caveat rather than an innocent statement of intent. Because while I really did enjoy Ready Player One, boy, there are many things about that book that are pretty shitty.
In the 2040’s, the world is dying and most people live in a simulation called the OASIS. So far, so sci-fi. Wade Watts lives in poverty in Oklahoma and is obsessed with finding the Easter egg to end all Easter eggs. Hidden deep within the OASIS is a succession of keys and doors that lead the way to a vast fortune. Predictably, a shadowy organisation known as the IOI use their dubiously earned resources to play dirty but Wade Watts’s obsession with geek culture gives him the edge.
The plot is a familiar one and takes in elements from War Games, The Matrix, and even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The thing that sets Ready Player One aside and indeed the thing that has garnered the most attention for the book, is the myriad of references to ’80s pop culture. Ranging from the obvious (John Hughes movies) to the more obscure (barely remembered arcade games with names like Joust and Zork), the pop culture touchstones are constant and clearly a labour of love. Your enjoyment of Ready Player One stands and falls with how many of these references you recognise. The issue I had with this deep dive into the 1980s is that you don’t have to work hard for the references. There aren’t many actual Easter eggs in the book because author Ernest Cline immediately tells the reader what he is referencing. By the end I was suffering from pop culture fatigue and started wondering when Cline would come up with his own ideas rather than just cobbling together other people’s.
This brings us to another criticism. The characters. Barely a single role in Ready Player One is filled by anything other than caricature. Wade Watts is a composite of Ferris Beuller and a number of dorky ’80s sidekicks, Daito and Shoto are stock Japanese gamers and Art3mis exists only as a symbol of romantic attachment. Yet another manic pixie dream girl. Everyone speaks like they are actually in an ’80s movie. The whole reason that people love those movies is that they can’t be recreated without being too knowing and cringe-inducing. Worst of all is Sorrento, a villain so broadly drawn that I could barely remember his name from one chapter to the next. Hopefully, the Spielberg adaptation will go some way to fixing this problem, he certainly knows a villain when he sees one.
Lastly, the continued portrayal of geeks and geek culture as being dorky outsiders with no social skills is far too close to the odious Big Bang Theory for comfort. This is one cliche that simply isn’t accurate. There is no longer such a thing as geek culture, a cursory glance at the highest grossing movies of the last decade confirms that what was once known as geek culture is now simply mainstream cinema. Or comic books. Or literature. To pretend otherwise is not only a fool’s errand, it is borderline offensive.
Despite that barrage of criticism, Ready Player One is compelling. The pop culture references are satisfying. Just don’t be fooled into thinking it is a masterpiece. It’s barely a cult classic.