Last month I reviewed Armada, by Earnest Cline. Though I liked it, I felt it was seriously flawed in a number of ways, and undermined its own dramatic tension through its overuse of meta techniques and pop culture references. But it did make me curious about Cline’s earlier work, Ready Player One—a book that seems to be universally loved.
In a way, I’m glad I read Armada first. If I hadn’t, I think I would have been questioning my reaction to the novel. I might have assumed I simply had Cline Overload or something, and would have tried to make excuses for the problems I had with it.
I say this because Ready Player One uses almost all the same techniques as Armada, except here it works almost flawlessly.
Both books use a first person narrative to tell the story of a young man on the cusp of graduating high school, who is thrust into extraordinary circumstances where the stakes are high and they feel completely out of their depth. Honestly, the protagonists of each book are somewhat interchangeable, with only some changes to their background and family situations. Their personalities, however, are still similar.
Both books also make heavy use of geeky cultural references and meta literary techniques. What makes it work here, however, has a lot to do with it setting. Set in a dystopian 2044, RPO centers around a race to find the ultimate video game Easter egg.
With the world suffering from a major energy crisis, economic stagnation and your general Cyberpunk level haves and (mostly) have-nots, most people find escape in a massively multiplayer virtual reality world known as the Oasis, which is far beyond any VR or MMORPG we have now—but are familiar enough to us in how they work that it’s not hard at all to imagine getting there from here. And just about everyone in the world uses it.
When the creator of the Oasis, James Halliday, passes away, his will is in fact a contest: his entire fortune will be left to the person who discovers the keys he’s hidden within the VR world, which will unlock his hidden Easter egg. His fortune is worth countless billions.
This is where all the cultural references come in. Halliday was obsessed with the culture of his youth, the 80s and 90s, and had been into everything geeky: books, movies, video games, pen and paper RPGs, you name it. His entire puzzle revolves around this knowledge. Those searching for the keys end up studying everything he enjoyed growing up, looking for clues.
As a result, the world experiences a kind of mass cultural nostalgia kick, where everything old is new again. This explains all the cultural references that will be thrown at the reader between the book’s covers, especially since it’s being told through the eyes of one of its obsessive treasure hunters.
Five years later, with even the first key not yet discovered, and interest in the hunt is dying off except for the most obsessive of gunters (“egg hunters”), when our hero, Wade Watts, has an epiphany in Latin class, and manages to find the first key…
Unlike Armada, there is something about this story that resonates as true to the reader, and I think that comes from the fact that it’s set in the future. Armada was set in the present, but to make its logic work, it also required a mental rewriting of our past. Fun as an idea, but increasingly hard to buy into as the story progresses. For me, it killed the verisimilitude.
But having it used as the future looking back at the past? That works, in part because many adults are kind of doing that already, and partly because we’ve always cut SF slack when it comes to its views of the future. I had no problem buying into this world. In some ways it even feels prophetic, not for the retro nostalgia elements, but the fractured world where everyone, even the homeless, try to escape to the Oasis.
However, both Ready Player One and Armada have one slightly uncomfortable story element in common. The love interest in each feels like a trophy. Don’t get me wrong, they are not perky blonde cheerleaders. They are presented as strong and capable—in some ways even more capable than the hero. They dress unconventionally or have realistic rather than idealized bodies.
But even as the heroes praise these women for being different, it’s still in an objectifying way. As one critic pointed out, just because they don’t look like a Barbie doll doesn’t mean they’re not being treated like one. Their interactions play out in a quirky, abrasive, yet somehow idealized way—as if it’s a guy’s daydream of how such conversations would unfold, rather than reality.
To be fair, the heroes are teenagers, and teens are, as a rule, stupid. Male teens doubly so. But this to me feels more like a failing of the author. In creating this fantastic blend of modern science-fiction and retro memory lane, I feel he might be blinded by his own nostalgia when it comes to relationships.
If he ever decides to write Ready Player Two, he should consider writing it from the perspective of a woman instead.
As a fan of Virtual Reality, I think you might enjoy this video by Extra Credits, part of their Extra Sci-Fi series. Check them out:
Originally Published in KODT #251