Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Random House, 2011, 374 pages
You know that cliche about old men yelling at everything that displeases them? I’m basically going to embody that for this review of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. This book — this book — took me seven months to read. I say this not at all to shame people who prefer a more leisurely reading pace than myself, but to point out that even books that I just kind of dislike I finish in a week or two at most. It’s not unheard of for me to read a book in a day and, in my proudest moment, I read three books in one day (and, no, they weren’t picture books). The point is, I had a really hard time getting through Ready Player One, but everyone who had read it that I knew insisted it was great and the end had a great pay-off, so I read on.
Ready Player One is the story of Wade, also known as Parzival in the online virtual reality society is pretty much addicted to in the somewhat-near future. After the creator of this virtual reality dies, he leaves behind clues that promises riches and such if a user can successfully navigate those clues and arrive at the end of the puzzle. As a semi-casual seeker of these clues, Parzival stumbles upon the secrets that professionals have been searching for for years, but he’s not without competition in the form of a cute girl, known as Art3mis, his best friend, Aech, and two Japanese brothers known as Shoto and and Daito. Plus, there’s the evil corporation working as a giant team to not only win the prize, but take Parzival and his friends down.
I read Ready Player One on my Kindle, so I relied on the percentage icon to let me know how deep I was into the book. For months, I was stuck around 33%, feeling like no matter how much I read, I was never going to progress any further. The book had to end sometime, right?! After slogging through the prose for the first 33%, I finally realized what was making the book so slow: Cline is a lister. Ready Player One is like a Buzzfeed listicle on Eighties pop culture nostalgia that is about 373 pages too long. I love War Games as much as the next reader, but Cline spends 98% of the novel name-dropping every possible artifact from the collective consciousness of Eighties pop culture and, while it’s cute for a while, it quickly becomes a chore to read through. The problem is that the nature of the book sort of requires you to read through all those lengthy explanations of movies you only-just remember the premise of or obscure arcade video games you’ve never heard of and don’t care about beyond the confines of the book. If you want to solve the puzzle along with our hero, Wade/Parzival, you’re stuck reading every bit. You could argue that this puts you in an interesting position — it essentially gives you first-person perspective on the book, which is almost like a video game if you’re playing along. Cool effect, but maybe better suited for a novella or short story.
But even beyond the tell-heavy prose style, I had a hard time getting on Wade’s side. Maybe Cline is just pulling from teenage boy stereotypes (some of which may be accurate, given that Cline was once a teenage boy — I wouldn’t know), but Wade is kind of unlikable. He’s arrogant, first and foremost. He’s also something of a bigot, which plays a huge role of the twist of the end, which I felt was a major point of exploitation. I’m all for unlikable characters so long as there’s something for me to latch on to that will make me care about them anyway (and that doesn’t necessarily have to be some kind of redeeming personality quirk). Sure, Wade’s poor — but who isn’t in this universe? And does it really matter when he spends 90% of his waking hours in this virtual reality where his poverty has little impact on how he lives there? He has enough to sustain himself and he uses the virtual reality as an escape, but it’s pretty evident that the virtual reality isn’t an antagonistic feature in his life, other than the fact that it makes him lazy (or, it enables it, anyway). I wasn’t cheering for him to lose, I don’t think, but I didn’t particularly care if he won, either.
Speaking of Wade’s poverty, I never got a true sense of what the world outside the virtual reality was like. Wade’s immediate community is painted pretty well with stacks upon stacks of living quarters piled around each other to create super-vertical communities, but beyond that…nothing. If Cline wants to project his idea of what the world will look like in fifty years, I’d hope he’d spend more time developing what that world is like. The politics of the world’s future are brushed aside in favorite of rolling about in the throes of Eighties nostalgia. Writers should write for themselves and their own entertainment, I agree, but Ready Player One was just a long underdeveloped plot in which Cline indulges himself again and again.
I get why people love the whole pop culture thing. It’s fun to reminisce about old favorites and imagine a world in which their importance is greater than we imagine. But at what cost? Ready Player One didn’t do it for me but it’s gotten an impressive rating on Goodreads and is generally favored throughout the reading community. Give it a shot, if you like, but be prepared for a novel listicle.