Full 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.