I Should Have Loved This Book, But I Didn’t: A Review of “Ready Player One”

Ready player OneFull disclosure:  I am a Gen Xer.  An 80s geek-child.

I spent my teen years as a Trek loving, comics collecting, D&D playing, all-things-Spielberg fanboy.  I geeked out on EPCOT’s Spaceship Earth (the original ride, with the Walter Cronkite voiceover).  I saw the original Dune in theaters and liked it.  When other kids went out on Friday nights, I stayed home and watched Doctor Who on PBS.  I had a Starfleet Technical Manual, the Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21 (where Peter Parker gets married to Mary Jane), a TRS 80 computer with a tape drive, the Atari ET game cartridge (among many others), and Rush’s 2112 on audio cassette.

Ernest Cline’s 2011 smash hit novel Ready Player One should be a book just for me.  Set in a world obsessed with 80s geek culture, this little quest narrative centers on a hero conversant with all things 80s.  It’s a sci-fi nostalgia set-piece drama with plot dynamics straight from that decade.

I should have loved this book.

But I didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong.  I had fun with it.  Cline certainly knows his 80s trivia, and it’s a lot of fun to watch him show off.  He kept me turning pages at a fast clip.  He clearly worked hard on the book and I found it tremendously entertaining.

So what’s my complaint?  No complaint.  Cline did his job, he deserves every shekel that he earns.  I’m glad for him and his success.

I just can’t join my voice to the thunderous chorus of fanboy and fangirl adulation.  I can’t hail this as a great book, a wise book, or a book of which I would say ‘you gotta read this.’    It’s a confection.  A guilty pleasure.  A fling.

Here’s some of the things that I think kept this fun book from being a great book.

(WARNING – there be spoilers ahead.  Proceed at your own risk)

1) The protagonist doesn’t grow.

To succeed in his quest, the main character, Wade Watts, must call upon his considerable prowess – in this case a remarkable command of trivia, video game skill, and the ability to hack into computer systems.   The challenges he faces come fast, increasing in intensity and difficulty.

But Wade never fails.

He does go off in a wrong direction;

he gets distracted from his mission;

he faces unexpected challenges of colossal magnitude;

but never once does he try something and fail.

Without failure, there is little room for growth.  Failure leads to self-examination, to exploring new horizons, to reassessing motivation.  Failure is the refining fire that helps us use our skill with wisdom.  Wade never goes through any of that.  By the end of the book, I have no sense that he is any wiser than when he began.    I base this conclusion in large part from my next quibble …

2) The “lesson learned” contradicts the plot of the book.

When Wade “wins” the quest, he has the chance to meet a computer simulation of his deceased hero, James Halliday.  Halliday had created the elaborate virtual reality world, called OASIS.  When Halliday learned he was dying he developed a special quest in OASIS – the winner would inherit Halliday’s vast fortune and be given control of the virtual reality empire.  To win the quest, the main characters had devoted their entire lives to mastering trivia about Halliday’s life, learning his favorite movies by heart, learning to play his favorite video games at mastery level.  In order to succeed at the tasks in the quest, they had to completely check out from the “real world” and master the fantasy world of James Halliday.

When Wade meets the computer avatar of Halliday, he receives this puzzling instruction:

“I need to tell you one last thing before I go.  Something I didn’t figure out for myself until it was already too late…. I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world.  I didn’t know how to connect with the people there.  I was afraid, for all of my life.  Right up until I knew it was ending.  That was when I realized, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness.  Because reality is real….  Don’t make the same mistake I did.  Don’t hide in here forever.”

In other words … you dedicated your life to this false world so that you could win my quest, now forget about that.  Because what’s really important is real life.

Doesn’t that seem to be a massive contradiction?  Doesn’t the lesson kind of undermine the quest?  Shouldn’t the challenges of the quest itself have been building to that great lesson?

3) Victorious geeks can become omnipotent bullies:

By the end of the book, Wade has achieved the true geek dream – defeat the bad guys, win the girl, show off your prowess, and attain omnipotence.  In winning the quest, Wade gets absolute control over OASIS.  He becomes, in effect, a god.

I have little confidence in his abilities to use this power well (see point 1).

Sure, his girlfriend has convinced him to use his vast wealth to feed the world.  That’s great.  Helping people in abstract is great.

But dealing with actual people is really difficult.

And Wade has a definite character flaw – one that is endemic in geekdom:  disdain.  Wade shows the geek’s disdain for anyone who doesn’t share in his geekery.  This comes out in his occasional breaks from the narrative to rant about sociopolitical opinions.  It comes out in the attitude toward the antagonists.  It comes out in random interactions.

For instance, Wade goes undercover, taking a job as a customer service representative for the machiavellian corporation that seeks to win the quest and control virtual reality.  His very first customer encounter is a call from a crude individual who was less than technically competent.  Without hesitation, Wade retorts with “Sir, the only problem is that you’re a complete f****** moron.”  His customer service skills do not improve from there.

It’s an ugly side to geekdom, but it exists.  When you’re a bullied underdog, disdain can be a helpful survival tool.  However, when you suddenly go from bullied underdog to most powerful man in the world, it’s pretty hard to shut the disdain switch off.

And disdain plus power equals tyranny.

Wade thinks he’ll use his fortune and power to make the world a better place.

Just remember, that’s what Anakin Skywalker thought too,

That’s also what Ozymandias from Watchmen planned on,

And Rassilon, the greatest of the Time Lords, became bent on destruction of the space time continuum.

I looked up some Amazon reviews, to see if I was alone in my thoughts on this.  I found this helpful little quote from a user called Narutakikun:

“There’s also a weird tone of arrogant mean-spiritedness to this book. It’s a little hard to describe, but it reeks of that attitude you get at a comics shop if you say that you really don’t know that much about Green Lantern or that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was actually a pretty okay movie. The author’s taking occasional breaks to beat you over the head with his sociopolitical views doesn’t help, either. The whole “geekier than thou” thing just doesn’t work for me. It definitely keeps the book from being as “fun” as a lot of people have claimed.”

Without the growth, without the lessons learned, the hero is set up to quickly morph into a villain.  Given what we read in the book, I fear that Wade is likely to become Syndrome (from the Incredibles) or Titan (from Megamind) – or even worse, the Lord Ruler (from the Mistborn Trilogy).

In sum, the 80s were a wonderful decade.  But remember, they spawned the 90s, a decade of irony that undercut the earnestness of the 80s.  There once was a famed 90s song that made reference to:

a bad play where the heroes are right
And nobody thinks or expects too much
And Hollywood’s calling for the movie rights
Singing hey babe let’s keep in touch
Hey baby let’s keep in touch

I can’t help but remember that lyric when I consider the Ready Player One movie coming out in 2017.  Don’t think or expect too much.  Just enjoy it for what it is.  A fling.

2 thoughts on “I Should Have Loved This Book, But I Didn’t: A Review of “Ready Player One”

  1. While I understand why you chose the points you did in the review, and I more-or-less agree with you on point 3 (and somewhat on point 1). Still, I’d like to offer some friendly push back on points 1 & 2.

    Point 1: Wade never grows.

    I think Wade does grow in a unique way, just not in the game.

    First, Wade does fail. It’s just that the book doesn’t focus on it. He tries and fails throughout the book and most often the book mentions it in passing before moving onto the “more exciting” parts. At least, in the game.

    Outside of the game, I think he fails and grows a lot. He fails with the girl, he loses all his friends, he realizes he’s a sickly, overweight kid. He has lots of failings. And it’s in these areas that he grows throughout the book. He gets a job at a call center (not the slave one) and becomes successful at it. He makes enough money to pay for the room, build an extensive security system, and build his life around the game. He also starts working out daily until he becomes physically fit and changes his eating habits. While doing this, he stops spending time with people, yes, but by the end of the book he’s grown a lot. He is a much healthier person, he realizes that he needs other people and that this video game will never fully satisfy him (though it’s still his primary focus), he grows in a lot of ways from the scared, spoiled kid he is.

    This culminates in that moment at the end where he chooses to sit outside with his girlfriend instead of playing the game. He is realizing that relationships, friends, health, etc are all better things than a video game.

    Point 2: The lessons learns contradicts the plot.

    So here’s the deal, your not necessarily wrong on this point, but I think there is another way to look at it that causes the whole thing to make sense.

    According to his speech, Halliday decided to make the Easter Egg Hunt because he realized he had made the wrong choices with his life. So he makes a game for the kind of kid he was growing up: someone completely obsessed with the things he’s obsessed with.

    This person idolizes Halliday and spends their entire life obsessed with the things Halliday is obsessed with. When Halliday meets this person, he tells them “Hey, maybe don’t idolize me, I wasn’t that great”.

    I think that’s the point. Don’t get obsessed with games and things that don’t matter so much. Put your focus into relationships and people.

    Point 3:

    You’re right, this one’s just a nerd’s dream. It would go very, very badly for everyone involved. haha.

    Anyway,

    Not that any of this matters, you’re free to feel totally different and that’s cool. I just wanted to talk through a few responses to the first two points where I think you might have missed a few things.

    Cheers!
    -Alex

    • Alex,
      Thanks so much for your thoughtful and detailed and courteous comments. Friendly push-back is always welcome.

      Your feedback on point one is fair. I overstated the case by saying that Wade never grows. I didn’t give Wade’s emotional/relational growth enough credit – mainly because, as you rightly observe, the book mentions it in passing.

      Now, is this subtlety on Kline’s part, or is it that he got so caught up in obsessing with 80s trivia that he kind of just gave a head nod to the relationship stuff (so that he could get back to the really cool 80s geeking out)? Or is it that Kline is going for something else (see below) Hard to say.

      Point 2 – I agree – that’s exactly the message that Kline is going for. Indeed, that’s the rub of my critique – that the character Halliday has done a really piss-poor job of communicating the message he intends. There’s almost nothing in the quest itself that causes Wade to question the obsession. Halliday does everything possible to attract a kid just like him – but then he did absolutely nothing to prepare the kid for the coming message (perhaps like requiring the successful player to actually DO something in the real world – he even has a real world accomplice in Og who could have safeguarded a real world challenge) This is a bait and switch. It’s like a perfunctory “and remember kids, don’t do drugs!” There is a message there, but it’s lightweight and all too easy. To extend the 80s metaphor – it is the tacked on lesson at the end of every He-Man and GI Joe cartoon. Sure, its there, but its not terribly important to the really cool action story that he wants to tell.

      This is why I call it a confection. It has the same kind of moral weight as the message of the Shrek movies. This isn’t to say that the book is devoid of message – just that it is delivered in such a way that it comes across pretty shallow.

      I wonder if that is part of Kline’s design – to structure his story so that it has that 80s cartoon ending feel. If so, then he nailed it! And like I said, it’s a lot of fun and I think I received great entertainment value for my dollar. My main point is that this isn’t a book that I’ll go back to again and again (like I have with the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Narnia, The Once and Future King, Farenheit 451, etc)

      Thanks for such a thought provoking response.

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