This is the first time that I have ever started writing a blog post about a book before we’ve recorded the episodes for said book. Such is my hatred for Ready Player One. In my Goodreads review for Ready Player One I called it “the worst and most intellectually lazy book that I have ever read,” and I mean that from the very bottom of my heart. Ready Player One is worse than the worst self-published book I have ever read. It borrows more heavily from it’s reference material than most fanfiction. I did not expect to like Ready Player One, but I never thought I would find it this offensive.
I’ve wrestled with how I wanted to discuss Ready Player One publicly. There have been books we’ve read in the past that I knew were deeply flawed. I’ve tried to avoid dismissively referring to the entire work as simply “bad.” Ready Player One is a book that I feel deserves this dismissive label, though. I have three criticisms of this book, and the final one erased whatever sympathy I had left for this novel.
Before we get into the meat of this post I want to give a disclaimer that I’m sure I will be giving on the podcast as well. Though I may hate Ready Player One, I do not hate you, Dear Reader. Whether you share my opinion, or whether this is your favorite book in the whole world and you’re going to read it again just to spite me, I sincerely appreciate your time and attention. I enjoy my fair share of media that is objectively not good. I like to think that this does not make me a bad person. I do think it is important to think about the media we consume, though. We may like something despite it’s flaws, but we should be aware of what those flaws are. As I said in our Twilight episodes, it is fine to enjoy a romance novel where the relationship is toxic as long as you don’t go out and try to emulate it. With that said, I’m going to tear this book apart. Don’t take it personally.
Ready Player One, unfortunately, has a message.
The true theme of Ready Player One is not the one that is clumsily shoehorned into its final pages.
“I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world. I didn’t know how to connect with the people there. I was afraid, for all of my life. Right up until I knew it was ending. That was when I realized, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I said. “I think I do.”
“Good,” he said, giving me a wink. “Don’t make the same mistake I did. Don’t hide in here forever.”
Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One (p. 364). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
This quote stands in such stark contrast to the rest of the book that I would almost wager it was not in the original draft of Ready Player One, and was added at the insistence of a publisher.
We all know that this should be the theme of a book about characters who have an unhealthy obsession with pop culture. That one must leave comfortable surroundings in order to grow is the theme of most heroes’ journeys. Ernest Cline likes heroes’ journeys, or at least he has an encyclopedic knowledge of many of them. The problem isn’t that he doesn’t know what a hero’s journey should look like. It’s that he isn’t interested in writing one.
Ready Player One isn’t a story meant to inspire its readers to loftier goals. Wade doesn’t learn lessons. He learns trivia. Wade doesn’t grow emotionally. He grows richer. If I had to sum up the actual message of Ready Player One in one sentence it would be: “The things I like are awesome and a life lived online is just as valid as a life lived in reality.”
In Ready Player One, the world is crumbling into environmental collapse and *checks notes* …thermonuclear war. You would think that full scale nuclear war would make it difficult, bordering on impossible, for dirt poor refugees to access a highly sophisticated virtual reality game. There you would be wrong.
The Oasis allows the impoverished citizens of a dying Earth to spend all of their time pretending to be in a world that is not dying. Once people had The Oasis to escape into, any political will to fix the world’s problems evaporated. There is only one character, Art3mis, who places any value on the real world. She became a gunter because she believes that the world can still be saved. A belief for which she is mocked. Repeatedly. By our hero.
“What would you do if you won?” she suddenly asked. “How would you spend all that money?”
“I’d have a nuclear-powered interstellar spacecraft constructed in Earth’s orbit,” I said. “I’d stock it with a lifetime supply of food and water, a self-sustaining biosphere, and a supercomputer loaded with every movie, book, song, videogame, and piece of artwork that human civilization has ever created, along with a stand-alone copy of the OASIS. Then I’d invite a few of my closest friends to come aboard, along with a team of doctors and scientists, and we’d all get the hell out of Dodge. Leave the solar system and start looking for an extrasolar Earthlike planet.”
“But you do realize that nearly half the people on this planet are starving, right?”
I detected no malice in her voice. She sounded like she genuinely believed I might not be aware of this fact.
“Yes, I know,” I said defensively.
“The reason so many people are starving is because we’ve wrecked the planet. The Earth is dying, you know? It’s time to leave.”
“That’s a pretty negative outlook,” she said. “If I win that dough, I’m going to make sure everyone on this planet has enough to eat. Once we tackle world hunger, then we can figure out how to fix the environment and solve the energy crisis.”
I rolled my eyes. “Right,” I said.
“And after you pull off that miracle, you can genetically engineer a bunch of Smurfs and unicorns to frolic around this new perfect world you’ve created.”
“I’m being serious,” she said.
“You really think it’s that simple?” I said. “That you can just write a check for two hundred and forty billion dollars and fix all the world’s problems?”
Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One (pp. 97-98). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
There’s a little bit to unpack in this exchange. First, Art3mis does not point out to Wade that his idiotic spaceship idea would cost vastly more than $240 billion, and help a fraction of the people that her plan would. This is an important point because it shows that Wade is as ignorant as he is selfish. If the author was aware of that then it would be a good time for him to point that out. Ernest Cline does recognize Wade’s selfishness, but I don’t get the impression that he understands that Wade’s plan is far less practical than Art3mis’s. In fact, I know he doesn’t know that because Wade builds that spaceship in Ready Player Two. Spoilers, I guess.
This is a little petty, but I did some research because Wade’s dismissive Smurfs and unicorns comment annoyed me so much. The NASA Apollo missions, adjusted for inflation, cost around $283 billion. Estimates for interstellar flight are in the trillions. These estimates probably have an unspoken assumption that the world not be at war. Anyway…
I think Ernest Cline would agree that Art3mis is a better person than Wade. I don’t think he would agree that Wade’s position is unreasonable. Ernest believes that fixing this world is something only a saint would attempt to do. It’s certainly not something Halliday ever tried to do while he was alive, and it’s not something Wade or any of the other gunters even consider.
This is important because it establishes early on that Wade’s quest is not to save the world. It is to save his fantasy world. Wade’s only noble intention is to keep The Oasis from falling into the wrong hands. The Oasis is unambiguously a good thing, and GSS is unambiguously good for making sure that every person can spend as much time as possible inside The Oasis.
“The Sixers are really no different than a Gunter clan, albeit a well-funded one. We share all the same obsessions as gunters. And we have the same goal.”
What goal is that? I wanted to shout. To ruin the OASIS forever? To pervert and defile the only thing that has ever made our lives bearable?
Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One (p. 139). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Wade only entertains Art3mis’s goals as a means to an end, the end in this case being to date her. When she says that she would rather not date him until after the egg hunt is concluded, he has no problem revealing his true opinion.
“But, Arty … That could take years.”
“I realize that. And I’m sorry. But this is how it has to be.”
“So winning that money is more important to you than me?”
“It’s not about the money. It’s about what I could do with it.”
“Right. Saving the world. You’re so fucking noble.”
Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One (p. 187). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Our hero’s goal is to save The Oasis. Widespread overuse of The Oasis is hastening the destruction of our planet, and by extension, ourselves. This is not something that Ernest Cline is interested in examining. At all. The Oasis can’t be a bad thing, and Halliday can’t be a bad person for encouraging it’s unchecked spread into every facet of human life. If that were the case then this obsession with pop culture would be part of the problem. The pop-culture-obsessed might come under critical examination if we explored that. So we won’t.
Escapism is fetishized in Ready Player One. Hell, escapism is deified in Ready Player One. The study of 80’s pop culture for financial gain is the activity that brings Wade together with his found family of friends. Ready Player One has nothing to say about the vapid materialism, excess, and political misadventures of the 80’s. All things that one could argue are the source of Ready Player One’s dystopia. Instead, we see quotes like the following.
Being human totally sucks most of the time. Videogames are the only thing that
make life bearable. —Anorak’s Almanac, Chapter 91, Verses 1–2
Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One (p. 12). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Anorak’s Almanac is quoted chapter and verse, like the bible. Wade refers to it as his personal bible after going off about how God is dead. The Oasis is his God now, and Anorak his prophet.
“You aren’t in love with me, Z,” she said. “You don’t even know me.”
“Yes I do,” I insisted. “I know you better than I’ve ever known anyone in my entire life.”
Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One (p. 186). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
As we continued to talk, going through the motions of getting to know each other, I realized that we already did know each other, as well as any two people could. We’d known each other for years, in the most intimate way possible. We’d connected on a purely mental level.
Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One (p. 321). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
He’d also had Daito killed, and even though I’d never met him, Daito had been my friend.
Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One (p. 339). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Ernest Cline wants you to know that the relationships that Wade has with people in the Oasis are real. They are as valid, or maybe even more valid than face-to-face relationships. Nothing in Anorak’s quest requires participants to set aside The Oasis. Wade will not meet any of his friends in real life until the very end of the book, and even then, only because IOI attempts to kill them. If Halliday wanted a successor who valued reality, then he would have been hard-pressed to design a worse contest.
Wade spent months in physical isolation, inside a single room, shunning human contact, so that he could have this wonderful adventure with his friends. Shoto and Daito abandoned a hikikimori support group to become blood brothers in The Oasis and join Wade on his quest. Putting your mental and physical health in jeopardy to spend more time in a fantasy world is how you win in Ready Player One. This is what Halliday wanted his successors to do. This is what he had to know people would do to win this contest.
This is the real message. Slavish devotion to pop culture, to the point of illness and injury, is a valid occupation. Eschewing human contact and speaking only with people on the internet whom you’ve never met is a perfectly valid social support system.
In case you were wondering, this is a message that I disagree with. I’m going to state what may be an unpopular opinion, and may even surprise a few people who know me. Online-only friends cannot support you in the same way that people you know in real-life can. This is especially true if you do not know your online friends’ real names, faces, and locations. It is not desirable to only have online friends and a “purely mental” connection is no replacement for face-to-face human contact.
This does not mean that I don’t value my online friends. This does not mean that your online friends do not support you. It just means they can’t support you as well as someone that you know equally well in the real world. Your online friends may care about you just as much, but they don’t have the same tools and access to support you that someone who can actually see you in person has.
There’s nothing wrong with having online friends. Believe it or not, Nate and I started out as online friends. Before we met, though, Nate knew my real name, my real address, and had seen my real face. Even then, there were certain things about our personalities that we didn’t share until we met in person. Online we have greater control over how we present ourselves. In real-life you can still lie about who you are, but it is much harder to do convincingly.
In Ready Player One, Art3mis even tries to make this point to Wade, though the book will ultimately decide not to engage with this theme either.
Parzival: So, IRL, you’re nothing like the person I met that night in the tomb?
Art3mis: That was just one side of me. The side I chose to show you.
Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One (p. 171). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Ernest Cline comes so very close to the point only to reveal a few lines later that Art3mis is actually insecure about her appearance. It would have been interesting, and more realistic if Ready Player One addressed the mental health of its characters, which at times, is not good. I suspect that Ernest Cline knows that it is not uncommon for people struggling with mental health issues to seek refuge online.
I’ve struggled with anxiety in the past. I’ve struggled very hard with anxiety in the past. At one point, I was so crippled with panic attacks that I couldn’t leave the house for any length of time. I threw myself into World of Warcraft, a video game that gets multiple shout outs in Ready Player One. When I was playing World of Warcraft, I didn’t have anxiety. That was a side of myself that I didn’t show to my online friends. It was embarrassing.
If a girl that I was playing WoW with started falling for me and insisted that we should date, I would have reacted similarly to Art3mis. My anxiety is under control now, but at the time, a relationship was impossible. I actually had a relationship that dissolved because of it. At that point in my life I wasn’t able to be someone’s boyfriend, and it wasn’t something that I really wanted to talk about with anyone other than my therapist. My friends in real life couldn’t help but notice that something was wrong with me. My online friends had no idea how bad it actually was.
In The Oasis, Wade is a hero. In the real world, Wade is a deeply unhappy person. This is something that I’m not sure Wade even realizes about himself. I’m not sure it’s something that Ernest Cline realizes about Wade.
My gaze dropped to the bathroom mirror, but I didn’t much like what I saw there, so I closed my eyes until I finished urinating. I wondered (not for the first time) why I hadn’t painted the mirror black too, when I’d done the window.
Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One (p. 195). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
There was an arboretum on the roof of my apartment building. I had never visited it, but I’d seen photos and admired the view via webcam. A transparent Plexiglas barrier had been installed around the ledge to keep people from jumping, but it was a joke. At least three determined individuals had managed to climb over it since I’d moved in. I would sit up there and breathe the unfiltered city air for a while, feeling the wind on my skin. Then I would scale the barrier and hurl myself over the side.
This was my current plan.
I was trying to decide what tune I should whistle as I plummeted to my death when my phone rang. It was Shoto.
Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One (p. 239). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
These are emotions that we never see Wade discuss with his online friends. His friends can’t see how low Wade is in the way someone who knew him in real-life could. A friend in real-life might notice that you’ve suddenly started neglecting your appearance. That you haven’t left your apartment in literal years. That you’ve rapidly gained and lost weight. That you are suicidally depressed over the thought that you might lose the contest…
In that last quote, I don’t get the impression that Wade is joking. I really believe that Wade is prepared to kill himself if he does not win this contest. This is not a man (and believe it or not Wade is a grown man by this point in the story) who is ready to be in a healthy romantic relationship. This is a man in desperate need of psychological help. This horrific depiction of a human being teetering on the brink of death will never be addressed again. After this, Wade will go on to brag about how he has 2 best friends and the love of his life, despite never having met them. He will do so without a hint of sarcasm or irony. None of these people have any idea where Wade was mentally, despite having “known each other for years, in the most intimate way possible” and having “connected on a purely mental level.”
Speaking of Wade’s mental health…
Wade is a deeply disturbed human being who no person should ever emulate or want to be like.
Life was not kind to Wade Watts. His father was shot to death while looting a store during a blackout. His mother overdosed in front of him while he was still a young child. He moved in with his emotionally abusive aunt, who had a string of physically abusive boyfriends. Wade was mercilessly bullied in public school until he scored high enough in his tests to enroll in a virtual school in The Oasis. At the start of the book Wade has precisely one healthy relationship. That relationship is with Aech, a person he has never met, and whose real name he does not know. I feel sympathy for Wade, but I do not like Wade.
The reasons that Wade became a gunter are unclear to me. Obviously, he wants the prize. Control over The Oasis and the vast fortune that comes with it are reason enough for many, but it seems strange to me that Wade would put so much of himself into this dream. Practically speaking, Wade has a 1 in billions chance of winning this. Wade can’t even afford to participate in the contest, as far as he knows. If Wade’s motivations were purely financial, then there are more reliable ways for him to make a comfortable living. He could become a sixer, for example.
I tend to think that Wade’s true motivation for becoming a gunter is that he identifies strongly with James Halliday. Wade finds Halliday’s taste in media captivating. He loves virtually everything that Halliday loved. Halliday had an encyclopedic knowledge of 80s pop culture and video games, and so Wade has an encyclopedic knowledge of the same. There’s just one problem with all of this that Wade never seems to understand. James Halliday is a tortured shell of a man.
Halliday has alienated himself from every friend that he ever had. Halliday physically isolates himself from the world and spends every waking moment trying to escape from reality. He attempts this first by obsessing over pop culture, and then when that is not immersive enough he invents The Oasis. None of this brings him happiness. He dies alone and miserable. His final quest is designed specifically to find someone who is exactly like himself, and in that he finally succeeds.
I can’t help but think that, on a subconscious level, Wade loves The Oasis the way that Winston loves Big Brother. He has been physically and emotionally tortured from birth, until, at last, 2+2=5. The obvious contradiction in Ready Player One is that The Oasis has become both the solution to, and the cause of, all the world’s problems. This is a contradiction that Wade refuses to recognize. He both hates the world The Oasis made, and loves The Oasis. He hates soulless corporations that profit on the misery of the masses, and loves GSS. Wade could teach a masterclass on doublethink.
At a time of drastic social and cultural upheaval, when most of the world’s population longed for an escape from reality, the OASIS provided it, in a form that was cheap, legal, safe, and not (medically proven to be) addictive. The ongoing energy crisis contributed greatly to the OASIS’s runaway popularity.
Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One (p. 59). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Wade would literally give his life in defense of The Oasis. Wade would rather kill himself than live without access to The Oasis. The fact that Halliday has coded a worm that will destroy The Oasis if his heir wishes it comes completely out of left field. Wade will never destroy The Oasis.
Wade falls in (what he calls) love with Art3mis. He attempts to pursue a relationship with Art3mis, and against her better judgement, she starts to fall for him as well. The two spend more and more time together in The Oasis and less and less time gunting. Eventually Wade confesses his love to Art3mis and she tells him that they can’t pursue this right now. She has to find the egg, and that’s his dream too. They need to focus on that.
Wade responds to this by yelling at her and trying to guilt her into accepting his love. I mentioned this interaction before when talking about how Wade dismisses Art3mis’s personal goals, but let’s look at that quote again with some more context.
“To hell with our competition! And the egg!” I shouted. “Didn’t you hear what I just said? I’m in love with you! And I want to be with you. More than anything.”
She just stared at me. Or rather, her avatar stared blankly back at my avatar. Then she said, “I’m sorry, Z. This is all my fault. I let this get way out of hand. It has to stop.”
“What do you mean? What has to stop?”
“I think we should take a break. Stop spending so much time together.”
I felt like I’d been punched in the throat. “Are you breaking up with me?”
“No, Z,” she said firmly. “I am not breaking up with you. That would be impossible, because we are not together.” There was suddenly venom in her voice. “We’ve never even met!”
“So then … you’re just going to … stop talking to me?”
“Yes. I think that would be for the best.”
“For how long?”
“Until the Hunt is over.”
“But, Arty … That could take years.”
“I realize that. And I’m sorry. But this is how it has to be.”
“So winning that money is more important to you than me?”
“It’s not about the money. It’s about what I could do with it.”
“Right. Saving the world. You’re so fucking noble.”
Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One (pp. 186-187). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
After this Art3mis stops talking to Wade, who then proceeds to endlessly try to contact her against her wishes using every available means. I know that I defended Twilight, but I did point out that the relationships in that book are toxic. I feel compelled to point out that the above conversation is basically nothing but red flags from Wade. If you ever find yourself desperately screeching at girl, trying to make her see all the reasons why she should want to date you, stop.
At the end of their quest Wade and Art3mis meet in real life for the first time. Wade is not repulsed by Art3mis, nor she him, and they begin a relationship that is sure to last. Wade remarks that for the first time in his life he doesn’t feel like logging in to The Oasis.
Look, I won’t lie to you, falling in love is a very powerful dopamine hit. It can compete with drugs or other addictions, but eventually the dopamine wears off. The other addictions come back. At the end of the book Wade has not changed. His arc is not that he learns to find meaning in the real world. His arc is that he has become the new Halliday. Only, instead of having Halliday’s talent and genius, he only has an encyclopedic knowledge of Halliday’s favorite media.
Oh! Did I mention the time he basically dared a guy to shoot the hostages, and the hostages were his friends and family? He takes their deaths surprisingly well.
Ready Player One references (incessantly) without understanding.
I mentioned before that Ready Player One commits a sin so egregious that I feel inclined to go ahead and label it “a book that is bad.” This is the sin I was talking about. Ernest Cline has written what amounts to fan fiction. I do not know what percentage of the book’s text is references to other material, but I would hazard a guess and say it’s 25-33%. I don’t just mean name dropping here and there, though there is plenty of that. I mean thousands of words that do nothing but describe what a thing is, in detail. Sometimes Cline just starts listing things that he likes. I attempted to highlight all paragraphs that made reference to another, original, work of fiction. I was averaging 3 per page before I gave up.
Ready Player One is nothing without it’s references. This story, absent it’s propping up by 80’s nostalgia, would not have warranted publication. It certainly wouldn’t have warranted a feature film directed by Stephen Spielberg. I don’t think it takes an immense amount of hard work or talent to mindlessly reference a bunch of different properties in a cookie cutter story. Little kids pulling action figures at random from their toybox do the same thing all the time. Simply referencing a lot of things isn’t the problem, though.
In addition to making copious references to pop culture, Ready Player One also fails to engage with it’s references. For example, at some point in the consumption of William Gibson’s novels, you may begin thinking about the relationship of humans with their technology in a way that makes The Oasis a bit “sus”, as the kids say. If Gibson doesn’t do it for you, then Bradbury will. Frank Herbert’s Dune gets a name drop. I find it hard to believe that a Dune fan would be so dismissive of Art3mis’s ecological ideas. Even the inspiration for this book: Willy Wonka is grossly misunderstood. I’m convinced that Ernest Cline does not understand why Willy Wonka chose Charlie. I’m not even sure that Ernest Cline knows that there was a reason why Willy Wonka choose Charlie.
If a real person were to construct some kind of Easter Egg contest in which people had to comb through all of the creator’s favorite media, then wouldn’t the creator have chosen media that they felt impacted them? Wouldn’t they choose something that taught them lessons? Something that made them who they are? Many of the books, movies, and even the games that are referenced in Ready Player One express ideas and themes that are antithetical to the way that Halliday and Wade live their lives. Other references simply have nothing to do with Halliday’s life or character. They are just things that existed at the same time as Halliday.
What is the point of playing Joust for the first key? Why does Halliday want his successor to be really good at Joust? There is no real answer to that question. The answer is that Ernest Cline enjoyed Joust, and he wanted to remind you of Joust. If this book were just some light romp through days gone by, I might be able to look past that. But it’s sandwiched between “God is dead” and depictions of suicidal depression.
I don’t know if I’m supposed to laugh at Ready Player One. The characters in Ready Player One seem genuinely sad and lonely, and nothing they do in this story is going to fix that. They will ride the temporary high of winning the contest for a time, and then they will return to the way they were because they had no arcs and they learned nothing. This is not a book written by a “nerd” who loves pop culture. This is a internet meme, with an internet meme’s depth, and written with an internet meme’s level of understanding of the source material that makes up its frames.
Honestly, I could go on. We could talk about more about Ernest Cline’s problematic understanding of race and stereotypes. We could talk about his poetry, which…was pretty much the nail in the coffin for me. But it would be (has been) exhausting to go over every example of Ernest Cline driving his stupid DeLorean right up to and then right past The Point. At the end of the day, there is one major umbrella flaw under which all other flaws are covered. Ernest Cline, quite simply, has nothing to say.
The Stephen Spielberg adaptation of this novel is basically a rewrite, and I hope at this point that it is clear why that needed to be the case. Better story tellers than Ernest Cline recognized the failings of Ready Player One and agreed, for a moderate fee, to pour some water on the dumpster fire. I’ve heard that Ernest Cline was heavily “influenced” by Stephen Spielberg and others who worked on the movie while writing Ready Player Two. I haven’t read Ready Player Two yet, but I understand that it attempts to address many of the problems that I’ve laid out here. Particularly it gives Wade an arc in which he needs to re-evaluate his idolization of Halliday. I think that’s a step in the right direction, though I am skeptical that Ernest Cline really understands in his gut why that needed to be the case.
I’ve mentioned that there are plenty of bad books with terrible messages that I enjoy, but at least Stephanie Meyer wrote her own story. Ready Player One is just a list of references to better work. Its author did not seek permission to use those works. The creators of those cultural artifacts were not compensated for the piggyback ride they gave Ernest Cline to the top. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing for stricter copyright laws. I don’t think that what Ernest Cline did is, or should be, illegal. Copyright law is a subject for another time. I just think that the sheer volume of untransformed, unanalyzed reference material in this book is pathetic, and I wish publishers didn’t fall over themselves to acquire it.
I think Ready Player One is bad.