Ernest Cline’s READY PLAYER ONE is a good example of how books are a product of their time, though like Skull the Slayer, it’s not always in a bad way.
Most obviously, a book that’s drenched in nostalgia for 1980s pop culture will inevitably lose its appeal as the decades and the generations go by. I don’t think this is such a terrible thing: writing a wildly successful, popular book (even if I couldn’t get into it myself) is no small accomplishment, even if it doesn’t become, as they say, an “enduring classic.” Very little of what any of us write will endure.
The setting — the Oasis multiplayer online gameworld/social network where everyone in the dystopian mid-21st century spends their lives — also reflects the book came out in 2011. Social networks had a much more positive sheen then, without concerns about trolling, cyberbullying, online harassment and misinformation. In Ready Player One the bad guys are out to take over Oasis and monetize it, where creator James Halliday was an idealist. The past twelve years have made it clear how the people who create social networks and run online platforms are anything but idealists.
Halliday, as most of y’all probably know, died some time before the start of the book, leaving his fortune and the rights to Oasis to whoever can solve a series of puzzles built around Halliday’s nostalgia for 1980s pop culture. Our protagonist, Wade, is one of the “gunters” trying to win the McGuffin along with his buddy Aech and fellow player Art3mis, whom he crushes on due to her witty, self-deprecating blog posts. Can any of them solve the riddle? Can they do it before the corporate drones succeed and thereby seize control of Oasis?
I’ve often wondered if “show, don’t tell” matters to anyone outside writers and editors and this book is an argument that it doesn’t. It’s very, very Tell: we learn about the creator’s life in incredible detail, most of which is completely unnecessary. Cline tells us lots of other stuff about 1980s pop culture, the Oasis world and more. It didn’t hurt the book’s sales at all.
One thing I wish he’d shown us is Art3mis’ allegedly witty writing. Telling us someone is funny or charming or silver-tongued doesn’t work as well as showing — though that said, it’s better than having them say something dull or trite and having everyone act like they’re clever. Art3mis breaking down John Hughes films into the Dorky Boys Trilogy and the Dorky Girls Trilogy isn’t terribly deep or witty so perhaps it’s good Cline stopped there. In fairness, I’ve seen much worse, like a book excerpt where “you’re still beautiful” is all it takes to qualify as “silver tongued.”
Criticisms about how Cline writes Art3mis/Wade and the gatekeeping aspects of nerd culture are, I think, accurate, but my own dissatisfaction with the book was more personal. The gatekeeping criticism refers to things like Wade effortlessly flaunting his superior 1980s pop-culture knowledge to crush other gunters. This kind of one-upmanship is entirely plausible (and not just in nerd stuff) but I found Wade annoying rather than cool when he did it. I know lots of stuff about Silver Age comics but I don’t feel the urge to use it in the same way (“I’m sorry, do you seriously think “Indestructible Creatures of Nightmare Island” was JLA #42? It was #40, you imbecile!”).
More than that, the sheer, endless quantities of trivia left me numb. It’s less like geeking out over at Atomic Junk Shop and more like talking to someone who can’t shut up about their passion: I admit I don’t follow the show so I can’t discuss the latest episode, they respond by sharing a scene-by-scene breakdown in detail. Sure, there’s billions at stake in the gunters’ exploits but that doesn’t make discussions of Swordquest games or quoting Wargames (Wade’s memorized every line, along with tons of Halliday’s other fixations) any better. Though like Harlan Ellison’s Jeffty Is Five I might have liked it better as a teen or twentysomething when I was much more immersed in fiction. As is, it’s like Lewis Shiner’s Glimpses — the book becomes a deep dive into the life of Brian Wilson and the music of the Beach Boys and I had zero interest in either.
Which is another way of saying that this presses the wrong nostalgia buttons for me. Cline, as he makes clear here, is writing his version of 1980s pop culture; mine has much more comics, more SF novels, different TV touchstones and very little videogames. That’s not something “wrong” with the book, it just makes it hard for me to connect with it, the same as if it were all about 1980s sports nostalgia. It”s also annoying that Cline claims some 1970s stuff, such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the TV show Land of the Lost as part of the 1980s. He may have been watching them in the ’80s but by that logic I Love Lucy could qualify as 1980s nostalgia.
Even though John Scalzi at the Cline link above describes the 1980s as “the Cosby era” (which of course is also of it’s time — who’d want to connect a book with Bill Cosby now?) the effect of Cline drawing on his personal nostalgia fest means it’s very white and very male: no Michael Jackson, no hip-hop or rap, more Family Ties references than Cosby Show, passing mentions of Transformers and Gobots but not Jem or anything else primarily girl-coded.
That said, I imagine Cline will do fine without my giving the book a thumbs up.
#SFWApro. Cover design by Christopher Brand, JLA cover by Murphy Anderson, all rights to images remain with current holders.