Early this summer I decided to read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline since it sold really well and was getting a movie. I’ve wanted to post my thoughts since then but haven’t had the time until now.
Here are my thoughts on it in no particular order (spoilers for the book, obviously):
1. I was REALLY worried this book was just an excuse for the author to do gratuitous 80s nostalgia fan service…and that’s kind of what it was! Cline used 80s culture to fill in the gaps of his own creativity. There’s no soul in this book, just recycled locals and IPs. I thought the 80s stuff was tasteful at first but as I thought about the book more and more I realized if you take away anything form the 80s there’s practically nothing left. Cultural references should be the garnish, not the main course.
2. I have two parallel sets of criteria for judging books: How often was my immersion broken (whether due to cliches, bad writing, predictability, etc) and how often did the book make me feel something. Ready Player One didn’t do too badly on the first set but on the second it didn’t do too well.
3. In regards to the first metric: I read primarily for escapism (I know that’s the “wrong” reason for reading and that I should read for prose/sentence structure but whatever) so when my immersion is broken it ruins the experience. So things that bugged the shit out of me to the point where either my immersion was broken or my suspension of disbelief was shattered:
A. Predictability: As soon as Wade/Parzifal met Art3mis I knew they’d would date each other by the end. I’m generally NEVER a fan of romantic subplots as they are often pathetic contrivances and boring as shit. This was no exception. Also, the ending was predictable and extremely boring. Yeah cool a big battle where you know there’s absolutely no chance the villains are winning – sounds exciting when you’re 12 not when you’re 28. I found it odd the HuffPost review on the back cover said “The grown-up’s Harry Potter” as the ending of this book felt like it came out of a children’s TV show. I get that it was more “adult” in that characters died and others had attempts on their life but all that “adult” subtext ultimately accounted for naught.
B. Deus ex machina: Ogden Morrow flying them all to his house at the end was a bit of a deus ex machina and I wasn’t thrilled about it.
C. Suspension of disbelief broken: When Wade infiltrates the IOI as an indentured servant and manages to hack their entire database from an entertainment rig and somehow everything works out just fine. That was a bit much.
4. In regards to not feeling something:
A. When Wade’s house is blown up I felt nothing because his aunt was basically a caricature and had no redeemable qualities. I also didn’t fear for his safety because Wade is narrating the book so he obviously survived through all this to tell it.
B. I just felt that Wade didn’t evolve enough throughout the story. I know the author has him deal with the depression of his “break up” with Art3mis but it’s just sort of glossed over in a paragraph or two. “He was sad and then he started working out.” Now, by the very end of the book he’s sort of rid of his “addiction” to the OASIS but he never had to go through the emotional labor to get that outcome or at least the reader doesn’t see it. The Halliday simulation at the end of the castle tells “hey don’t spend your whole life here” and he’s like “OK” and then, of course, he has billions of dollars and a girlfriend as soon as the contest is over so changing his entire view on the OASIS is very easy and very quick.
C. The only two times I ever REALLY felt anything were when Sorrento got the crystal key first. I was a little worried but by that point it was far enough in the book that there wasn’t enough time for IOI to win and then for Wade to do something about it. So I figured it was just for suspense. Also I was a little nervous when Wade got captured by IOI. But it turned out that was All Part of His Plan™ so the tension dissipated rather quickly.
D. Ultimately I think it comes down to Wade/Parzifal not being that interesting of a character. Outside of “nerdy, quirky, smart” it’s hard to describe him and those adjectives are not really emotional traits. FWIW I was really glad Aech was a woman of color and honestly from what she told Wade on their trip in the RV it seems like the book would’ve been way more interesting if it was about her instead of a cishet nerd boy. The part where she said her mother told her to make her avatar a white man due to systemic biases in our culture – and it WORKING – was good commentary and it would’ve been interesting to explore it further.
Furthermore, I think it would’ve been nice to see Wade struggle more with IOI’s employment offer after he finds the first key. Here’s a kid who has had NOTHING his entire life but then could extort these IOI guys for countless dollars and he almost immediately says no. Imagine how much more interesting of a book it would’ve been if he said yes and then had to justify what he did. It’d make the book so much more relatable to the average reader because, as I like to say, capitalism makes monsters of us all. We’re all complicit in horrifying, inhumane activities day after day – unless you’re a gunter, I guess!
F. I saw a quote somewhere that said “A classic never stops saying what it has to say” or whatever. What did this book say about anything other than that 80s culture was cool? It tries to make commentary about capitalism but it comes across as ham-fisted and unsubtle (and btw Wade is just as guilty since he signs endorsement deals and runs commercials on his video stream – but Cline never seems to acknowledge that or have the characters acknowledge it).
G. The depiction of Shoto and Daito was borderline racist and stereotypical. Two Japanese guys who are only into samurai shit, bow at people, and put -san after everyone’s names? YIKES.
H. The only cultural reference I really enjoyed was Tranzor Z/Mazinger Z as I had watched that show as a kid and it’s relatively obscure.
1. I think the story would’ve been better if:
Wade takes IOI’s deal and struggles with his decision, perhaps leading IOI to the egg and then living with regret (or by convincing himself he did the right thing by trying to control the inevitable within the system) or even intentionally sabotaging them – Aech and Art3mis would’ve hated him for taking the job but would never know he’d actually made it possible for them to obtain the egg. Tragic!
About 1/2 way through the book IOI finds the egg and the rest of the book is about the gunters either fighting back or finding out how to find meaning/a new identity now that their entire life’s work and goal and meaning has been taken away from them.
Long story short: This book is like eating a stale Oreo. Don’t waste your time. Don’t even rent it.