By: Jason Waddell
Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is unequivocally the worst novel I have ever read.
Let’s start with flimsy premise: the year is 2044, and the world has fallen into economic decline at the hands of the (not so) creatively named “Great Recession”. Worldwide, people escape from their dreary realities by immersing themselves in a Second Life-esque online game called OASIS. Upon his death, the game’s creator James Halliday releases a video detailing an in-game Easter Egg hunt, the winner of which will receive Halliday’s fortune and control of OASIS.
Ridiculously, the clues to finding the fortune can only be deciphered by those with an intimate knowledge of 1980’s trivia. We have the grounds for a lighthearted nostalgic romp, but Ready Player One never delivers. In lieu of actual character development, the characters that populate the novel are one-dimensional conglomerations of their particular 80’s pop culture vices. The books poseur du jour? A guy who claims to know more trivia than he does. The evil monolithic company? Hacks who dispassionately research 80’s trivia in sole hopes of winning the grand prize. Our protagonist? Enthusiastic 80’s trivia savant.
Rather than imbue the characters with any sense of personality, Klein’s characters stand as little more than a laundry list of Facebook likes. Our hero expresses himself by assembling a vehicle that is a mish-mash of various 1980’s pop culture franchises. It’s a Delorean infused with elements from Knight Rider and Ghostbusters. Even the book’s most laborious attempt at character development plays is tacked-on, forced and irrelevant: our protagonist’s best friend, presumed to be a nerdy white male, proves to be a chubby black lesbian when the two finally meet in person.
The book’s central draw, 80’s cultural references, falls flat as well. The references aren’t cleverly woven into dialogue and exposition, they’re just, there. It reads as a masturbatory laundry list of outdated culture. Hero plays a perfect game of Pac-Man. Hero memorizes the script of War Games. Names are dropped. Wil Wheaton is mentioned for no apparent reason.
The resulting world is one defined exclusively by outdated culture consumption. The characters contribute nothing to the crumbling world around them. Eventually our protagonist (spoiler alert) wins the contest, and receives a video from the deceased James Halliday, Halliday laments devoting a life to a long lost culture. He died alone, without love. He was too busy being an 80’s guy to cure his lone-itus.
Halliday hopes that whoever wins the prize will avoid Halliday’s fate, to find value in other people and not media obsessions. Which must explain why he set up a contest that propelled an entire generation into 80’s cultural obsession in hopes of escaping their crippling poverty?
To add a meta layer to this dynamic, author Ernest Cline ran a contest with the release of the book, the winner of which would win a, you guessed it, Delorean infused with Knight Rider and Ghostbusters. Cline himself drives one too. Halliday serves as the fictional parallel to Cline himself, and is, despite his wealth of trivia knowledge, the most tragic and pathetic character in the book. Maybe Ready Player One is just a cry for help. Perhaps Cline, an Austin resident, should take a page out of neighbor Romeo Rose’s playbook.
Ultimately Ready Play One is an awful depiction of nerd culture, one where its members are little more than a collection of their particular cultural obsessions. If you’re looking for a compelling novel that explores a world captivated by a Second Life style game, stick to Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash.