I am a nerd. A geek. I read comics, I play video games and board games and I know the history of Star Trek almost as well as I know the history of my country (and since I’m a history major, I know it pretty well). I was always the nerdy one, even if I was never bulled (I was also big and a good athlete in high school). My nerd credentials are impeccable. That being said, I have always had a strong dislike for certain aspects of nerd culture and the mindset of your typical nerd; I’ve seen the ugly side to many times for me to ever ignore it or not feel wary about it again. My reaction to Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is decidedly mixed because of my experiences in the nerd world. On the one hand, it is an incredibly fun, well thought out look both a dystopian future and a fun ode to the geek culture of the 1980s. On the other, it reeks of an aspect of nerddom and nerds that I have detested since I was a little nerd reading Dragonlance novels. Gatekeeping and callbacks to when things were allegedly better and cooler abound in the book and that has always, always annoyed me about nerd culture.
The year is 2044, and the world is mostly rubbish. Climate change, post peak oil and other human mistakes have finally come to fruition and the world is unpleasant except for the rich. Wade Watts is a poor high school student who spends most of his time in the OASIS, which is a huge virtual world where many, many things are possible. A lot of it functions like a video game, but others just do business, talk to friends or go to school (like Wade). Outside of safe hub planets, users can and do hunt each other down and fight in an advanced and complex version of PvP (player vs. player) from more modern day video games. The OASIS was founded and built by a man named James Halliday, a child of the 1980s and a brilliant video game designer. At the time of his death, he set up an elaborate and complex game within OASIS where users have to find a set of keys and gates and whoever does that will inherit the company, fortune and the OASIS itself of Halliday. In order to find these keys and gates, “gunthers” like Wade, his friend Aech and love interest Art3mis immersed themselves in the pop culture milieu of Halliday’s youth: the 80s. Wade and his friends develop an obsessive and deep understanding of the movies, tv shows and video games of that era. Meanwhile, an evil company is competing with them for the potential control of the OASIS. They want to charge users, raise virtual rents, and maximize profits at the expense of millions of users who would not be able to afford things in this new OASIS. Battles, levels, weapons and puzzles all escalate into a giant and fantastical fight outside of the final gate where Wade and his friends hold the line and win the day.
Lets start with the good. The adventure and “gameplay” of this book is delightful. The virtual world works really well and it’s a lot of fun to run around with Wade as he grows in power, wealth and prestige. The OASIS is essentially a virtual galaxy where the rules of each planet can vary greatly. One planet has magic, the next doesn’t; some have both. Some are monuments are to Star Wars, or Narnia or the hometown of Halliday. Some have every arcade game ever, or every movie ever and you can just wonder around watching movies forever. The guilds and clans that grow out of the hunt for Hallidays’ treasure are clearly modeled on today’s MMO and MOBA clans (just Google it). Everything about OASIS and how it works is pretty great and surprisingly logical. The world building is second to none and a lot of fun to experience.
The narrative and characters are mostly pretty good, but not quite as well done as the setting. The story is pretty standard; a young hero grows into himself and saves the virtual day. The book’s story covers about a year and Wade experiences a fair amount of growth and change as a young man. This in no way had to happen and it’s nice that Cline took the time to show Wade growing as a person. The times when Wade realizes the error of his ways and seeks to fix things with his friends and girlfriend are some of the best passages in the book; they show that he is a real person and they show that Cline gets that this is not just a run through of a game or level. His characters are people who deserve to be treated as such. The rest of the characters are pretty interesting, but they are much more static than Wade. Aech especially gets into a very interesting idea about the virtual world, race and sexual identity that was not explored as much as I would have liked but still a fun little nut to crack open and think about. The climax of the story is standard but fun and well done. At the very end of the book, Wade seems to have learned the lesson that the virtual world, while amazing and fantastical, is not as real or as important as the real world and real people. You get the impression that he learned something along with winning everything that will stick with him. Hopefully.
See? It’s a fun book go read it.
Now, why didn’t I fully like it, why do I have a mixed response to it? A couple of reasons. First off, everything in the book gets overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of the OASIS; Wade is constantly explaining things to us not because we want him to but because he has to otherwise the average reader would be hopelessly lost. Everything starts to feel like a video game, which makes a certain amount of sense because it is a videogame Wade is playing but that feeling goes to far and disconnects the reader from the story and characters. I love video games, but they work best as video games, not books. In comparison with the world Cline has built, the OASIS shines and everything else is dimmed by it’s light.
The other thing that left a bitter taste with me is the nerd elitism and gatekeeping that both goes on in the book and is represented by the book. Let me explain. There is a scene early on in the book where Wade demolishes a fellow student for not knowing some archaic and small detail of trivia about something from the 80s. The guy was a jerk yes, no doubt, but Wade is equally a jerk in that moment for the way he acts. He takes his absurd knowledge and uses it to lord over those who are not as smart as him. It’s obnoxious and really turned me off from the rest of the book. Hand in hand with this is the sheer amount of 80s trivia that the book contains. Look, I get it; the author is from that time and this book is a send up to all that he loved as a child. That’s fine, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s really annoying to those of us that didn’t grow up then, or at least don’t really remember it (I was born in 1985). Every generation thinks that it’s stuff, its culture was the best and while that mindset is always annoying, it’s especially annoying in this book because it’s not even the actual people from the 80s making these claims. It’s people from the 2040s going back and proclaiming the 80s as the champ. Think about what Halliday has done; by making a deep understanding of the 80s a requirement to save the OASIS, the single most important socio-economical entity in the world, he has stunted the social and cultural growth of a whole generation of people; the world is a garbage dump and millions of the smartest and most capable of it’s citizens spend their time watching John Hughes movies. The development of the world has literally been frozen for almost a decade in the pursuit of his company and money. It’s a terrible thing he has done! Halliday, like so many real life nerds, thinks that what he is doing is a good thing, but it’s not because he is protecting something that doesn’t need protecting. And that’s the worst kind of gatekeeping; the kind where the guards think what they are doing is for the greater good of what they are protecting, that people need to earn it or hit some magical level of knowledge and time that nobody really knows. It’s the attitude that gets mad at Marvel because they are shaking up the Avengers, or replacing dude Thor with Lady Thor. It’s the attitude that fears change not because the change is going to make things worse, but because it’s going to change things. It’s a fear of the change itself.. It’s hateful and harmful and I’ve seen it to many times to ever feel fully comfortable with something that mirrors it so much like Ready Player One. I know that the author didn’t mean any of what I just wrote and that’s fine. You and I should not blame him in any way. But art stands on it’s own, and this is my response to his art.
But here is the trick of this review though; I just nerded out and dove deep on a book that most people will just read for fun (as well they should). Art is at it’s best when it provokes and engages with the reader, and on that level, this book is great. No matter the reaction, I had a strong one to this book. The world building and the society that Ernest Cline has built is a well done one that provoked a lot of thought and reaction in me. Which is the best a book can hope for in my opinion.
Next Movie: Run All Night
Next Book: Unsure