A love story, an epic quest, an interstellar adventure, and a carnival of Gen-X nostalgia with booths devoted to D&D, classic video games, and wood-paneled basements, Ernest Cline's Ready Player One succeeds as a lovable, super-referential romp through a simulated world of '80s geek chic. Ultimately, however, it never quite lives up to the source material which it exists to celebrate.
Set in the mid-twenty first century, Cline's novel presents us with a world that has broken in all the ways we feared and a few we never thought to imagine. Oil has peaked. Energy is scarce. Climate change has ruined lives. Livable space has dwindled to a point, in fact, that trailer parks have been deemed inefficient uses of space and resources. The solution? Pile one trailer on top of another so that trailer parks become trailer stacks, with high-rises of RVs dotting the edges of cities. Wade Watts lives in one such stack. His life is not so wonderful. Think Charlie of Charlie in the Charlie Factory poor but with a less lovable family. He spends most of his time in search of an escape from the unsatisfactory reality into which he was born. For Wade, as for most people in the future world of Ready Player One, this means a super-realistic VR simulation called the OASIS. The brain child of one James Halliday (legendary '80s geek and heroic-level programmer), the OASIS consists of whole galaxies of self-made worlds, many programmed by Halliday himself—most of these being designed to pay homage to his beloved '80s childhood. One such world might be inspired by a single text-based adventure title. Another might be entirely populated with block after block of replicated versions of the Ohio neighborhood in which Halliday grew up.
In the novel's beginning, we learn of Halliday's death and the great contest he has set it in motion. As it turns out, this billionaire's billionaire—so isolated in life by a natural aversion to, and difficulty with, interacting with actual and non-fictional people—has set out in his will that in order to decide who shall inherit his vast fortune (not to mention complete control of the OASIS), there should be a global competition. And what shall be the nature of this competition? An essay contest about how one might use the fortune to better the world? Of course not. How lame. Halliday opts, instead, for something far more palatable to his inner Goonie, designing for all would-be inheritors a quest through the virtual realm of the OASIS, one made of riddles and challenges meant to test which participant possesses the most extensive knowledge of the pop culture so beloved by Halliday himself. In death, as in life, it seems that Halliday believes that the only way for one human to prove his worth to another is to master a specific set of cultural symbols and codes. All that matters is how much of a geek you are for the things that he loves.
For better or worse, the same might be said for Ready Player One.
Whereas the many references in a show like Community or a graphic novel series like Scott Pilgrim—both super-referential narratives in the mode of Ready Player One—seem to exist in service of the characters and the story being told, in Cline's novel, it seems as though the reverse were true, that the characters and story exist in service of the references being made. As delightful as it is catching the many allusions and direct nods scattered throughout Ready Player One, the novel's characters and story often feel trapped within the clutches of their author's love for one particular set of cultural artifacts. Cline's characters resemble, for the most part, a collection of perfectly enjoyable representations pulled from a pantheon of ancient, geek archetypes. Wade Watts, aka Parzival in the OASIS, being the impoverished and outcast nerd with a shitty life. Art3mis being the love interest with some hidden shame, or weakness, who might just be more of a nerd than our hero and seems destined to help bring him out of his shell and into the real world. There is also the hero's best friend, Aech, who spends most of his time in a simulated basement, and a Japanese duo, Shoto and Daito, who name themselves after swords and are always good for a discussion of honor when the occasion calls.
As well, the quest-story within the OASIS follows a generic video game progression of obstacle faced/obstacle overcome/new obstacle. Wade enters a creepy dungeon located near his virtual school. He remembers the D&D campaign it's from and walks around the memorized traps. He finds the treasure. He plays an arcade game of bird jousting. He remembers the trick. He wins. He enters a new challenge where he must recite memorized movie quotes, playing the part of Mathew Broderick in War Games. He wins. Why wouldn't he? He's seen the film dozens and dozens of times. Later, he collects the Ultraman prize. He then has to do battle with Godzilla. Etc. So forth. So on.
It is the point of the thing, of course—we are inside a video game that, on some level, exists to celebrate the very birth and evolution of video games—but after a while, one wishes that the story could have found a way to surprise its readers, and author, with something more than the exactness of its replication of a particular experience. If, for example, these obstacles could have truly challenged the hearts of the characters facing them, rather than testing their memorization skills—as Scott Pilgrim's arcade-style battle with Ramona's league of evil exes served as both a test of his love for Ramona, and as a reminder to Ramona herself that a past you run away from will almost always catch up with you and subsequently attempt to kill your present happiness—then, perhaps, Ready Player One could have been something truly kick-ass, rather than something only kind of fun.
Perhaps, though, Cline never intended his novel to be anything other than a video game style walkthrough of one level of nostalgia after another. Maybe his only hope was to delight fellow aficionados and ignite the passion of a few new devotees. If that is the case, then the novel succeeds, more or less. I did smile at the appearance of certain vehicles (the Delorean and the more recent Serenity, among them). I did feel a momentary thrill at the idea of living through Monty Python's Search for the Holy Grail. And it is possible that some young kid, unversed in the films of John Hughes or the giant robots of Japan, might find here a reason to delve into one or another new subgenre. But, for me, the thrill never lasted long, as one after another object or quest received the uninspiring description of being "exactly" like this or that bit of pop culture. Nor do I think that Cline truly intended for his book solely to serve as an introduction to, or reminder of, the past. From the story's own attempts to imagine a dystopian, end-of-culture future, as well as the character growth moments scattered throughout (learning that true love exists "outside" of virtual worlds, for example), a certain amount of ambition and awareness can be surmised on Cline's part. He knows that for his story to be worth telling it needed to strive for something more than cultural copy-and-paste. On this second intent, though, the novel finds less success.
John Hughes's The Breakfast Club was released in 1985. That film became a cornerstone of popular culture because it challenged its story and characters to be more than what we, and more importantly they, ever thought they could be. One day, Cline may write a story that strives and succeeds in the same manner. Ready Player One, as full of love and passion as it may be, is not that book. It doesn't challenge its characters to be much more than they already are. It never reaches the higher levels of pain and emotional stakes contained in the works of art it so often references, nor does it score as high as some of its recent competitors in the realm of pop culture propelled narrative. Cline has more than one life as a novelist, though, and if, on his second go-round, he attempts something more personal and emotionally engaging, perhaps he can surprise us with a story both totally cool and truly memorable.
Chris Kammerud is a writer and teacher living in Seoul, South Korea. He enjoys believing in things. Previous work has appeared in The Interstitial Arts Online Annex, Fiction Weekly, and Strange Horizons (see our archive). For more, visit his blog, The Magnelephant Review, or follow him on Twitter.