With the Ready Player One movie coming out soon and beginning to generate buzz, I decided it’s time to subject the masses to my thoughts on this novel. Rarely have I read a book that I had so many feelings about and also the ability to articulate them.
This time, I could. So I did. (Spoiler alert: I hate this book.)
Strap in, my dudes. Here’s my review of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It’s a longer post, so get comfy. Grab a snack and a drink of water. Maybe go pee first. We may be here awhile.
I admit I’m writing this post in a bit of a hurry, and it’s been a few years since I read this book, so this summary is from Goodreads.com:
In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade’s devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world’s digital confines, puzzles that are based on their creator’s obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them. When Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade’s going to survive, he’ll have to win—and confront the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.
So here are the fine points to remember:
- If you win the Easter Egg hunt, you inherit the fortune, giving you untold wealth and riches if you are good enough at pop culture and video games.
- Everybody is online via OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation) all the time and that’s where life happens, including work, school, etc. You need money to do anything in OASIS, and you can earn money by completing quests, winning fights, etc. Y’know, classic video game stuff.
A few important characters to know:
- Wade Owen Watts, aka Parzival: 18-year-old protagonist living in poverty who eventually completes the Easter Egg hunt, becomes an absolute legend, and inherits Halliday’s fortune.
- Helen Harris, aka Aech (pronounced like the letter H): Wade’s best friend in OASIS. Aech’s avatar is a white male, but Aech is later revealed to be an African-American woman.
- Samantha Evelyn Cook, aka Art3mis: A high-level gamer in OASIS, who Wade has a crush on and pursues throughout the novel.
- James Donovan Halliday, aka Anorak: The creator of OASIS. Halliday designed the Easter Egg hunt around his favorite video game and pop culture references from the 1980s.
A final note: by the time the story starts, Halliday’s Easter Egg hunt has been live for several years but nobody has even found the first clue.
My Initial Reaction
I really didn’t like this book, which surprised me. I expected to love the book because I fell into the typical demographics of the target audience: young-adult pop-culture nerds online in the early 21st century. And that, as it turned out, was exactly the problem.
The story was interesting; I’ll give it that. There are few genres I like better than treasure hunts and mysteries (hi, Dan Brown!). But the writing and the worldbuilding were so atrocious that I wound up hating this book.
Every few pages, I would stop and yell about it to Dexter, who was trying to play a video game and probably didn’t appreciate that, let’s be real. (Also, this review isn’t a slight against video games. It is a slight against arrogant douchecanoes, though.)
It’s a book steeped in gamer and 80s pop culture references, but the people who would get and appreciate those references are too smart for this book. We live in a world that is saturated with 80s pop culture. Yes, it’s worse now than it was when the book was published (2011), but people still knew and loved 80s movies and games like E.T., Back to the Future, and Ghostbusters.
And Wade is a Mary Sue (Marty Stu? Gary Stu? They keep changing this on me) if I ever saw one, which is just lazy writing.
Wikipedia defines a Mary Sue as “an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character. Often, this character is recognized as an author insert or wish fulfillment. They can usually perform better at tasks than should be possible given the amount of training or experience.”
A Closer Look at Why I Didn’t Like It
Ready Player One was extremely, thoroughly predictable. To quote from Pitch Perfect, “The guy gets the girl, and that kid sees dead people, and Darth Vader is Luke’s father…”
I was in no way surprised when Wade finished the treasure hunt first and won the fortune. At the end of the story, he even wants to unplug from OASIS and go outside even though it was established that he is agoraphobic. You can’t just spontaneously recover from a debilitating mental illness! (More on this later.)
And of course he ends up splitting the treasure with his friends even though he had planned to keep it all for himself, because why wouldn’t he do that totally out-of-character thing?
This book is absolutely chock-full of 80s references, so much so that all the namedropping just feels like throwaway stuff meant to take up space and show the reader how “hip” Wade (and by extension, Ernest Cline) is. Just take a look at this paragraph describing the car Wade created for himself at the height of his fame in OASIS:
ALSO I LITERALLY JUST NOW JUST FOUND OUT THE AUTHOR WAS DESCRIBING HIS OWN CAR AND I CAN’T HANDLE IT:
I’m going to go throw up in a bin. brb.
Ok. Back to the lazy-ass worldbuildng in this novel.
Does Ernest Cline seriously expect me to believe that, in a virtual-reality sim where absolutely everyone is obsessed with and studying 80s pop culture in the hopes of winning the fortune, nobody was able to solve the first clue until Wade came along?
The first clue was a Dungeons and Dragons reference. Guess what, Cline, it’s 2017 now, and basically all my friends play Dungeons and Dragons or variations thereof. It’s not that obscure, my man. It wasn’t even that obscure in 2011. Otherwise, why would they still be printing and creating new manuals? Give me a break.
There was another clue based entirely on the Schoolhouse Rock song “3 Is a Magic Number.” Like… you’re kidding, right? I realize that this book takes place in 2044, but an entire planet of 80s-obsessed treasure hunters would still be able to solve this riddle easily.
Because the clues are so easy to solve, it is in no way plausible that Wade has this continuous attitude of “If I couldn’t solve it, I knew nobody else would be able to beat me to it,” like he’s the Smartest Man Ever and nobody else can figure out really common 80s references. And this just added to the gross feeling that this whole novel is just a self-insert gamer wet dream (which we’ll get back to in a minute).
I kept expecting the book to get around to becoming a cautionary tale against the OASIS, teaching readers that being plugged in online 24/7 to escape the real world is a bad thing, but it never did. Even though Halliday (as Anorak) said that he didn’t want people to become like him and he encouraged Wade to destroy OASIS, or at least to go outside and enjoy the real world once in a while, that advice doesn’t feel believable in the context of the story.
The only reason Wade is anybody, the only reason he has any fame or money or friends, is because of OASIS. And by creating the Easter Egg hunt, Halliday ensured that everybody would become just as tech- and 80s-obsessed as he had been. I’m getting some seriously conflicting messages from this guy: “Don’t be like me even though I created this whole quest to basically find and/or create someone exactly like me.”
Self-Insert Wish Fulfillment
Wade being such a Mary Sue and being, somehow, the Smartest Man Ever Who Knows All the 80s References was particularly offensive and disappointing because I lived through the online fandom culture in the early 2000s and it was a mess.
Virtually every other fanfic was a self-insert, Mary Sue story. But we learned from it. We grew up. We learned how to actually write and how to craft unique and complex stories.
Ernest Cline, apparently, didn’t. Even Dan Brown does self-insert fiction better than this guy because at least Dan Brown’s stuff is plausible. Robert Langdon is an art professor, so it’s not unbelievable that he knows all this stuff about art. It’s his actual job.
But you know what is unbelievable? That one random teenager could solve a Dungeons and Dragons riddle after five years during which literally all of humanity was trying to solve the same riddle. (And apparently search engines didn’t survive until 2044.)
Ernest Cline is clearly a nerd from the Revenge of the Nerds era, so it makes sense that his protagonist would be a quintessential geek. But guess what: that was over 30 years ago. What was once “nerdy” is now mainstream. Self-insert nerd-triumph fiction doesn’t carry the weight it may have in the past—unless, of course, you’re one of those nerd/geek/gamer guys who feels like the so-called originals or classics are the only media worth consuming.
Ableism and Sexism
This is an admittedly shorter critique, but it was still something that stood out to me.
First of all, it’s established early on that Wade suffers from agoraphobia and narcolepsy, but we never actually see how these conditions affect his life. He manages to be plugged into OASIS nearly all day, every day, without suffering negative effects from his narcolepsy.
Then, at the end of the story, he actually does go out to enjoy the real world… but doesn’t he suffer from agoraphobia? You don’t just spontaneously get over that because you won a lot of money.
Mental illness and disability aren’t substitutes for actually creating a fleshed-out character, and they aren’t just flashy words you can throw around in place of adjectives. They are Actual Things That People Have In Real Life, and they suck. They’re not for authors to use as cover-up for lazy writing.
It also really bothered me that Aech turned out to be an overweight (yes, Cline goes out of his way to mention this) African-American woman instead of a thin, white male. OK, hold on. It sounds super awful when I say it like that… Let me start over.
It really bothered me that Helen’s avatar, Aech, was a thin, white man while she herself is an overweight African-American woman, because it reinforces that the only way a person can succeed in the gamer/tech world is by being a thin, white male.
Now, I don’t blame Helen for making this decision, but I blame Cline for making it necessary. Do you really expect me to believe that, in a literal virtual utopia, people would still be assholes to a heavy Black woman?
Meanwhile, Art3mis is decidedly not interested in Wade/Parzival at all, but he continues to pursue her. No matter how many times she rejects him, he doesn’t give up. He stalks her online and refuses to leave her alone, even going so far as to stand outside her home with a boombox playing “In Your Eyes.”
At the end of the story when they finally meet in real life, it turns out that she has a birthmark on her face and is worried that Wade won’t find her desirable. Not to worry, though, because Wade is a Nice Guy™ and can look past this obvious flaw.
Art3mis goes from a confident, talented character to a crying, insecure girl over the course of the novel. Honestly, this made me so angry that I blocked it out and only remembered it as I was doing research for this review.