Ready Player One May or May Not Deserve Your Hate

This article was originally written on the old Avocado Disqus site last year, and is being reposted here in preparation for the release of the film.

Back in 2014, before work on an adaption got seriously underway, a friend recommended Ready Player One to me. I was born too late for the story’s heavy reliance on ’80s nostalgia to speak to me personally, but it also wasn’t like I’d never heard of Back to the Future or Ghostbusters. We live in an acknowledged age of pop-culture recycling, and the idea that ’80s trivia awareness could be a key to personal success was probably the least horrifying of the book’s speculations about the future. When I finished it, I told my friend I thought it was pretty good. Then I forgot about it until the movie version started releasing promo stuff and it turned out that everyone I follow on Twitter hates this thing.

Since then, I’ve been caught in a weird limbo. I don’t like glomming onto the internet’s love/hate zeitgeist when I’ve already formed my own opinion about something. At the same time, I’m not here to defend Ready Player One. I never felt it was good enough to love, but I also don’t think it’s bad enough to hate.

Author Ernest Cline has caught flak on two overlapping charges: 1) this book is effectively written from the POV of the Member Berries, and 2) when he does venture into independent thought, it’s often icky. A much-hated twist near the end of the book is that

Spoiler

the protagonist’s best friend, a black girl in real life, has a virtual reality avatar that makes her appear to be a white boy. The protagonist only finds out who she physically is when he meets her. The explanation she gives when she reveals this is that her mother told her she would be more accepted if she was a white male.

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I remember reading that and thinking it was regrettably plausible. But Cline never really digs into the twist; it’s just presented as a sad thing. I definitely feel like he did something wrong here, but was his sin that he failed to fully consider what the idea meant, or that he raised it at all?

Then there’s the ’80s nostalgia. It’s incessant, but Cline weaves it into the story in a hundred ways, some of which could be called thoughtful. The protagonist starts out obsessed with it as means to a puzzle-solving end (as illustrated in a particularly graceless passage in which he lists pop culture items from the ’80s) but ends up enjoying it for its own sake. What I think Cline was trying to do here is give Gen X hope that the things they cared about will also matter to people in the future. That the narrative has to involve such a complex reason for kids of the future to care about stuff their grandparents liked suggests this affinity is unlikely to happen naturally. I tried to imagine a puzzle-prize scenario like this unfolding in present day, based around pop culture from the ’50s. What I ended up with an idea for an even-goofier National Treasure movie. Call me, Hollywood.

This is a book that has an easier time imagining the ’80s as a template for future culture than the acceptance of someone being black and female online, and that’s bad. This is also a book that hopes that the things we care about truly have some intrinsic meaning that will outlast us, and that’s good. It’s a book where the hero is a blank and the heroine exists as someone for him to woo; that’s bad. It also has a number of striking sci-fi visuals, like vertical trailer parks and a version of Second Life that doesn’t suck; that’s good. The sci-fi visuals contain potassium benzoate.

What all this adds up to is a book that’s just okay. I’ve read a lot of books like that. Obviously I didn’t set out to experience mediocrity, but I also rarely got mad when that’s where I ended up. This was absolutely not a book that deserved a Steven Spielberg adaptation, but it’s not like we all went to the polls to decide that. What I think is happening is that Americans are getting sick of processed nostalgia, the Funko Pop-Industrial Complex that sells us something when we’re kids and then sells us back the memories 20 years later. If so, I’m 100% down for that. Ready Player One is not the kind of book I’d have the patience for today. But since I already read it, and liked it at the time, I’m not convinced it’s the vessel most worthy of anti-nostalgia rage. Getting mad at Ernest Cline’s hacky-but-upbeat commercialist love letter is like elbow-dropping a wet cardboard box.