Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One quickly divided the moviegoing and movie-talking public. While the majority of critics seemed to love it (it’s got an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes), a handful of prominent critics came out against the movie as a nostalgia-driven marketing ploy. Audiences, too, are split, with the movie driving solid, but unimpressive ticket sales. But one thing is clear, the blockbuster will drive massive sales for the original Ernest Cline novel, an attempt at boy-centric young adult fiction that coughs up a really great concept covered in the slime of the author’s own limitations.
A lot of the problems with the Ready Player One movie actually come from its source material. The plot is a video game pastiche and therefore extremely predictable, the dialogue is so undifferentiated that everyone sounds like a basement-dwelling 13-year-old, and the central premise – that one man’s nostalgia for 1980s pop culture could define world culture – feels kinda fascist. Still, a lot of dads are going to buy Cline’s book for a lot of kids who, unfortunately, might read it.
See the movie if you must, but Ready Player One is YA fiction at its worst. Hunger Games is better. Percy Jackson is better. Eragon is better. Harry Potter is way better. The Golden Compass is awesome. In creating a collage of other peoples’ better ideas, Ready Player One creates a strong case against itself. There’s only so much time and there’s a lot of good pop culture out there. Here are three reasons to avoid the book (even though reading is good and all that).
It’s Poorly Written
How did Ready Player One attract so many readers and Hollywood executives? The elevator pitch, not the execution. On a basic level, the book is about hero’s journey. It has the normal Conrad arc. But unlike Star Wars or other similarly plotted works, the world it builds is mangled. Specifically, it’s mangled by a lack of real characterization.
Wade Watts, the book’s protagonist, isn’t driven by anything except adolescent love, which is fine, and a reverence for 1980s pop culture, which is weird. Naturally, as his quest to save the world ramps up, these motivations start to seem a bit thin and Watts starts to feel oddly unexceptional. The key question the book poses is: “Why this guy?” It does not offer a coherent answer. Watts speaks almost entirely in references, favoring The Breakfast Club and Monty Python. This is supposed to come across as clever, but he just seems like another kid with a low EQ and nothing much to say.
The book’s most infamous passage is basically a multipage listicle of 1980s detritus that Watts musters to explain his own righteous militancy against a corporate threat. It makes no sense at all. It read more like a Toys ‘R’ Us shopping list left under a couch for decades than like a novel.
It’s a YA Book for Adult Men
There is nothing intrinsically unique about being nostalgic for your own childhood. Many people are and that means a lot of people from different background are nostalgic for a lot of different things. The worst thing about Cline’s dystopia — not the world he describes, the fan culture he created — is that requires that people be nostalgic for the stuff he remembers fondly. But why should a kid growing up in 2018 care about 1980s movies and music and video games? Maybe there is an answer to that question. There might be. Ready Player One offers nothing of the sort. It takes a consumer approach to culture rather than an interrogative one.
In other words, the book will make people in their 30s and 40s happy if they like to be reminded of shows they cared about breifly in 1988, but won’t teach kids anything about their parents’ upbringing or America or technology or human beings. Asking a kid to read the book is basically the same as forcing a child to sit through ALF re-runs.
It’s Transphobic, Mysognist, and Maybe Racist
Ready Player One is comically horrible to its minority and female characters. The main female lead, Art3mis, is nothing more than nerd eye-candy for Parzival; her motivations aren’t explained beyond “the main character needs a cute girl to fall in love with.” And even Watts isn’t interested in her so much as he is her vagina. That’s not to say he’s a cad, but to recognize that the whole “G.I.R.L. aka Guy In Real Life” riff in the middle of the book is probably transphobic and definitely very dumb. Hey kids, remember when we were jerks to each other in chat rooms? You don’t? Oh, well, that’s the future apparently!
Art3mis at least comes across as a human, whereas Watts’ two Japanese rivals never quite emerge from the pixels. The brothers, Daito and Shoto, are samurais inside the OASIS, and speak about honor all the time. They were inspired by the very real hikikomori phenomenon in Japan, in which people live as digital recluses in their family homes, but Cline never explores their lives or motivations. He doesn’t seem to care about all that.
The worst supporting character, though, has to be Aech, Parzival’s supposed best friend. The book tricks readers, for an obnoxiously and unnecessarily long time, into thinking that Aech is a boy. When it is revealed to Parzival that Aech is actually Helen Harris, a black lesbian, our protagonist feels betrayed and says he wouldn’t have shared his secrets with her had he known. He’s super pissed that his friend has chosen a more privileged identity in virtual reality. Rather than explore why she might have done that – given how Parzival talks about Art3mis, no one can blame Aech here – Cline lets the moment go. Watts treats Aech’s identity as a minor inconvenience.
Why does Cline leave it there? Because the book is nostalgic for not just the pop culture of an era, but the actual culture of an era. That’s literary selfishness. It’s also kinda creepy.