Thursday, August 30, 2012

I'm Not Game: Ernest Cline's "Ready Player One"

There's a marked difference between reviews and hype, with a few exceptions, I don't read as many book reviews as most people, especially ones about books I'm reading or plan to get to in the future. Even then, I'll limit this to one or two samples, and only if it's the occasional instance of me being confused on a certain plot point or theme. Hype, however, is a different animal, and in the book world, it generally seems to revolve around trashy bestsellers and, far too rarely, remarkable works. For example, I went into Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding with a wary attitude, since it was surpassing positive reviews and getting into the hype atmosphere, but I ended up loving it. For the last year, there's been a lot of hype surrounding Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, and while I heard much about it, I went into my reading with only a general preconceived notion of the plot, and knowledge of two divergent opinions from people with whom I have shared book tastes. An old co-worker (and current independent bookstore manager) gave the book enthusiastic praise on his store's website, and Terrance Terich, my former Borders manager in Washington, wrote a very detailed, explanatory critique on his blog back in January. I had read Terich's review when he posted it, since he was so shocked with the enthusiasm surrounding Ready Player One, but with so much time passing between his reading and my own, I had to read it again following my completion of the book.

The book is set in the year 2044, and the world is a grim place with an increase in violence, ghettos, and general instability. Citizens pass their time in OASIS, a sprawling virtual world created by the late James Halliday, who in a posthumous video explains that he has hidden an (Easter) egg within that world. Finding it requires a complex knowledge of 1980s pop culture, details of Halliday's life, and a series of daunting challenges to uncover the three keys to get to the egg. Finding it grants the winner Halliday's fortune, and millions of "gunters" (egg hunters) attempt to decipher the clues to get the keys. Wade Watts (known by his avatar name Parzival), the teenage protagonist living in a futuristic trailer park in Oklahoma, is one of the gunters, having obsessively read the history of Halliday's life and spending hours and hours familiarizing himself with caches of 80s TV shows, music, and games. In his virtual world, he's friends with Aech, and in the progression of the book becomes friends with a love interest (Art3mis) and two Japanese gunters, Daito and Shoto. Evil corporate egg hunters working for IOI (a monopolistic internet service provider), collectively known as the Sixers, are also on a full-scale hunt for Halliday's egg, with the goal of monetizing OASIS and turning into a paid world full of advertising, going against the mission of Halliday's original creation. Wade becomes the first person to find the first key, becoming an instant OASIS celebrity, but also getting himself into a world of danger and complications, as the whole "world" is following his exploits and attempting to navigate the riddles, games, and puzzles to find the other keys, as well as getting closer to Halliday's fortune. This is just a basic sketch of the plot, but if you read it and follow your gut instincts, the outcome of the book has been spoiled. That was my feeling throughout my reading Ready Player One.

Halliday's obsession with the 1980s becomes the source material, the driving force of the novel as readers wade through references to films such as WarGames and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, arcade games like "Pac Man," and cultural figures like Max Headstrom. As Terich points out in his review, it far too often stops being a novel and reads like a detailed list of Cline's favorite items in pop culture. Combined with tired dialogue, it becomes grating almost right away. For example, here's a sample of dialogue between Wade and Aech:

"'It's not really up for debate, Homer,' I said. 'Ladyhawke is an eighties classic.'

'It's fucking lame, is what it is! The swords look like they were made out of tinfoil. And that soundtrack is epically lame. Full of synthesizers and shit. By the motherfucking Alan Parsons Project! Lame-o-rama! Beyond lame. Highlander II lame.'

'Hey!' I feigned hurling my Intellivision controller at him. 'Now you're just being insulting! Ladyhawke's cast alone makes the film canon! Roy Batty! Ferris Bueller! And the dude who played Professor Falken in WarGames!' I searched my memory for the actor's name. 'John Wood! Reunited with Matthew Broderick (Cline 48)!'"

This shouldn't matter, but I'm not the book's target audience. There are bits and pieces of the 1980s that I enjoy, but I'm not one for the intense nostalgia of the era. The best example I can think of is one not included in this book. When I was a child, I was obsessed with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles--I watched the show religiously and was a one-child storm of consumerism, collecting the toys and posters and cherishing my TMNT backpack. I devoted a lot of my childhood to this, but as I grew older, the show became a memory. I don't relish it like some people do--for instance, if a rebooted TMNT movie came out this year, I wouldn't see it. I'm not at all disparaging people for loving and fondly remembering the 1980s, but after awhile, Ready Player One stops being a novel and starts being Cline's personal list of 1980s awesomeness. The outcome of the book is never in doubt, and reading it like I do with any book, with an eye for literary criticism, I found myself annoyed with Cline's dialogue, transitions, and reliance on easy plot devices to carry the story. Items magically appear, characters make rash decisions at the last minute that quickly carry them out of harm's way, and some of the characters mysteriously vanish. A nemesis named I-rok appears, and one assumes he's a challenge to be overcome:

"That afternoon, I-rok sent e-mails to Aech and me, attempting to blackmail us. He said that if we didn't tell him how to find the Copper Key and the First Gate, he would post what he knew about us to every gunter message board he could find. When we refused, he made good on his threat and began telling anyone who would listen that Aech and I were both students on Ludus (Cline 138)."

This plot point is what brings Shoto and Daito into Wade's consciousness, but I-rok disappears shortly thereafter, replaced by a new villain named Sorrento. Og Morrow, a former associate of Halliday, appears in an interview, sharing vital information about Halliday's life that factors into the egg hunt, and then magically appears yet again to further the plot. Little things also jumped out at me. Wade makes more than once reference to YouTube, which struck me as odd. OASIS is a virtual world with seemingly endless resources, platforms, video feeds, and information. In this high-tech, futuristic plane, a website like YouTube would seem quaint. No other real websites are mentioned, therefore making this reference stick out as an odd inclusion.

I'm genuinely trying to be constructive with my critiques of this novel. Ready Player One feels like a young adult novel, and that itself is not a bad thing--this would be a great read for a younger person curious about 1980s media and sources, but for adults, the fact that this is a novel seems to be besides the point. Cline's eye for details and emotions feels juvenile, and sometimes comes across as embarrassing. For the most part, Wade is constructed like a confused, hormonal teenager, but his narration is full of these tics as well as his supreme intelligence, and this balance doesn't work. Cline's descriptions are sometimes banal and repetitive, with far too many cliches and overused metaphors:

"I might never escape from this place. I felt buried under an avalanche of self-doubt. Had my dual obsessions with the egg and Art3mis finally driven me insane? Why would I take such an idiotic risk to win over someone I'd never actually met? Someone who appeared to have no interest in ever talking to me again? Where was she right now? Did she miss me? I continued to mentally torture myself like that until I finally drifted off to sleep (Cline 296)."

Cline does an excellent job of creating the virtual OASIS in all of its details, but I get the feeling that the novel's praise is not because of that, but because of his references. It reads like being in a video game, which I'm neutral about, since as an adult, I've neither hated or loved gaming, having sporadically played the occasional video game since my teens. Frankly, I would have preferred an essay collection by Cline, since he obviously has his share of genuine passions and opinions. The outline of the book, in addition to its easy transitions and constant cliffhanger chapter endings, also reads like a screenplay treatment. Ready Player One's film rights have already been sold, and I definitely see the video game aspects forming an enjoyable film in the right hands. Going through all of this, my biggest complaint is that this shouldn't have been a novel. The book's ending, for example, contains a passage about embracing reality over virtual reality, but the entire book is set up to show how the virtual has become accepted and commonplace. There are far too many small details referenced for the sake of pop culture winks, and Cline would have been far better off exploring his loves in a different format.

Internet criticism lends itself far too easily to snark and the ability to criticize while hiding behind a personal website, blog, or avatar. Granted, we all have our opinions about certain pieces of media and creativity, and like Terich, I'm in a minority, since most of the people who have read this book absolutely love it. I'm definitely going to read some of Cline's non-fiction, and again, he's obviously intelligent with a terrific attention to details. However, I just cannot buy him as a novelist, when this book is merely his curated list of 1980s cultural touchstones. While I'm not the book's target audience, Terich states at the beginning of his piece that he is the type of person to whom Ready Player One would greatly appeal. I'll close with his thoughts, which articulate some of the feelings I have, but from the point of view of someone with a much better understanding of where the desire for this novel was coming from. There's nothing wrong with nostalgia, but a fixation for its own sake with no revelations is far too common. I wanted Cline to be more engaging. He needs other formats. Terich's view:

"The novel is floor-to-ceiling full of what I am consistently weary of, the unending abyss of nostalgia. At one time, writers, artists, and filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard introduced the idea of the pop culture reference as a reflection of modern society and consumerism. While this was certainly meta-commentary, much of today’s culture lacks a dimension of reflection. We now live in a world in which movie studios and record labels prey on a consumer’s unnaturally exploded sense of nostalgia, with artifice playing a far greater role than substance, in examples such as the films of Transformers, G.I. Joe, Speed Racer, and others based on board games and theme park rides, as well as an eternal parade of nostalgic band reunion tours. (For more on this, Simon Reynolds has a book that deftly explores this subject, called Retromania). We continually seek to please ourselves with mere dog whistle reactions to the things we grew up with, instead of seeking out original, challenging, and contemplative material."

Work Cited:
Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. Copyright 2011 by Ernest Cline.

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