I don’t often deal with sequels because, well, I only get to do this once a month. But I do visit them when I think it gives me something to say about storytelling.
Here’s the short version: This story is fine. If you liked Ready Player One, you’ll like this.
You have probably picked up on my tone without me having spoken a word, though.
Let me put it this way. One problem I have with sequels, especially from breakout stories that find great success but weren’t necessarily planned as a series is this: They tend to learn the wrong lessons about what the audience wants from future stories.
This doesn’t happen as often in books, however. It’s far more common in movies. I feel movies like Pirates of the Caribbean floundered with their sequels because they chose the wrong elements to focus on. I saw the same characters, the same setting, and even some of the same villains, but it didn’t really feel the same. It tried to be more, but more of the wrong things.
I get some of that from Ready Player Two. Part of the charm of the first book was the idea of this entire youth culture that centered around nerd nostalgia from the late 20th century. I even felt it did a decent job of making that feel plausible. When nerds get obsessed with a thing, they tend to go all in. Consider how the Marvel Cinematic Universe has permeated mainstream culture to the point where you could talk comic book heroes with a random person and there’s a good chance they’ll know what you’re talking about.
The RPO setting worked… within the confines of the first book. It was part of the story, the reason for the plot, the motivation of the characters. Now we have a story set in the aftermath and that nerd culture starts to feel a bit tacked on, and a lot more silly.
That said, the story does go in some interesting directions. Wade Watts, the hero of the first book, is now running a company that makes Amazon or Facebook’s grip on our lives look adorably unintrusive by comparison.
It’s not long before he’s got his hands on a revolutionary upgrade in VR technology, one that removes the need for goggles or haptic gloves, a way to plug your brain directly into the Oasis and experience everything as if it was truly real.
Cline explores the ramifications of his dystopic world a lot more, acknowledging the damage to the environment and general screwed-ness of everyone but the One Percent, of which Wade and his friends are all now a part of.
And that’s part of the problem. These guys and gals are now beyond mega-rich, which means there is a lot of focus on just what being mega-rich can afford them. And having Wade in charge of the release and distribution of a world-changing VR system feels like putting a teenager in charge of the president’s nuclear football.
Anyone who’s seen The Matrix knows this VR thing isn’t going to end well… and so does Wade’s girlfriend, Artemis, who quickly dumps his ass, and Wade spirals from there into becoming, well, a jerk.
On top of that, a new puzzle from the long-deceased creator of the Oasis announces itself, and it’s not long before everything goes to hell.
One of my complaints about the original book (and his other SF book, Armada) was how he wrote women. Cline’s attempts at empowerment really didn’t detract from the fact that they still felt like trophies… it’s just they were trophies that wore studded leather jackets instead of cheerleader outfits.
On that front, I feel Cline has improved, but it also feels like he’s testing the social barometer and trying to show just how aware he is of gender issues.
Now, to be clear, I am all for this. The problem is that he goes so far out of his way to show how not a big deal the gender spectrum is that he actively draws attention to it, which ends up feeling like he’s trying to score points. An author like Neil Gaiman would pull this off far better without showing the strings. Still, you gotta applaud the effort.
When it comes to world building, details are important. But just as important is knowing where details are needed and how much. I felt RPO got this balance just right, but this time there is a bit too much self-indulgence with its technology, and at times it just feels like bragging.
Like the interstellar spaceship Wade has built that will carry a copy of the Oasis and a bunch of human embryos as a failsafe plan for humanity, or the personal weaponized mech suit that Wade sleeps inside of in an underground bunker whenever he uses the new VR tech…
Oh yeah, these guys aren’t just light years beyond Jeff Bezos rich, they have personal drone armies and defenses around their mansions that Tony Stark really should have considered having back in Iron Man 3.
You know, with all the movie references I keep making, I realize just how much like Wade I am, and why I liked the first book so much. In many ways, the language of Cline’s world is my language, just ramped up. But with this second book, I think I’m starting to re-examine my priorities.
But don’t let that dissuade you from reading the book. It’s fine.