Title: Ready Player One
Author: Ernest Cline
Genre: YA dystopia
Dates read: 24/03/18 – 27/03/18
Consider yourself warned.
Ayeesh. According to GoodReads, this is only the third book I’ve rated one star, in my 7 years on the site. It’s the first time I’m reviewing a book I’ve given that rating. To be fair, I wasn’t quite sure if a 1 star rating was exactly right, since that means “I didn’t like it” (going by the GoodReads system, which is what I use) and there were parts that I thought were okay. But the more I thought about it, the more disappointed with the book I became. I will say that I think there is a reasonably okay YA dystopia somewhere in this book. It just got overshadowed by inconsistent world-building, dudebro characters and the author’s smugness.
Let’s start with the world-building. Giant VR that everyone is just always plugged into? Sounds cool! A competition based on the creator’s obsession with the 80s? That sounds fun! Except the descriptions of the world inside the OASIS were inconsistent. First we were told that Wade can’t touch or feel anything within the system, but then there are references to him doing exactly that. This could be explained by the fact that he upgrades his equipment throughout the book, but things like downing a drink made no sense even then.
The fact that so much of the action took place in a VR also meant the stakes weren’t very high. There would be a dramatic end-of-chapter cliffhanger, “X was dead.” Except, in most cases (to be fair, not all), it was just his avatar. Sure, he lost all his progress within the game, but they can always start again. The real world was shown just enough for us to supposedly understand why everyone would prefer to live in OASIS. But it was all tell and no show. Instead of Wade avoiding sinister characters who might mug or rape him, we just got a throwaway line about how you had to be careful outside because there were people who might mug or rape you. The idea of trailers stacked on top of one another does give a sense of trailer park environment in a high density situation, but it didn’t really make actual sense when I thought about it for more than two seconds.
The constant barrage of pop culture references actually didn’t add anything to the story. The narrator would name-drop a whole bunch of authors, or movies, and then do very little with them, if anything. In a lot of cases, it became unclear exactly who the target audience was, since people who understood the references already didn’t need the huge explanations of them, but those who did not would still be able to tell they were getting a condescending “Oh, you didn’t understand this one? Guess you’re not a real geek” explanation. Even when the references weren’t shoehorned in necessarily, the way they were reffered to made no sense. This was particularly true of song titles, which were always referenced in the format of “Song Title, sung by XXX and released by LABEL in 1985.” No one talks about music that way!
The main character, Wade Watts, is literally the white male geek who is overweight, doesn’t have any friends and lives in his mother’s basement. Just switch out basement for rusty abandoned car, or sparse rented room later on. He is the most knowledgable, super-geeky, super-good-at-video-games, super-clever at solving the competition puzzle geek who ever geeked. I literally don’t understand how he has time to go on in-game quests, work a full time job and still watch dozens of movies and TV episodes the way he says he does. He’s only had five years. It’s actually not that long when you consider how much media he has suppoesdly consumed.
He’s also the epitome of the Nice Guytm. The “romance” in this book is fairly typical of the type that white guy nerds with no friends who live in their parents’ basements think they are deserving. Wade has a crush on a character called Art3mis, who he has followed from afar on her blog, and meets during the competition. They hang out together for a while, they even become close friends, but when Wade tells her he’s in love with her, and she tells him to back off, he of course does the opposite of that. He sends her chat requests and emails, and even stands outside her avatar’s base blaring 80s music from a boom box. Of course, she falls for him in the end, too, because persistantly stalking someone until they change their mind is romantic, y’all. Actually, after the spoiler about Aech, I really hoped that Art3mis was the online girlfriend she referred to. But that was too much to hope for.
One of the “spoilers” that has me putting a spoiler warning on this post is that there is a diverse character. This SHOULDN’T BE A SPOILER. But it is, because for literally the first 325-odd pages of a 375 page book, we think she is a white male, because that’s what her avatar is. And while Wade of course questions Art3mis on whether she is actually a woman (because could a woman really have all that geeky knowledge? Girls are usually fake geeks, amirite?), the same never goes for Aech. It was also like Ernest Cline was told he needed diverse characters, so he just created a fat, black, gay woman and ticked all his diversity boxes with one character. Who was still shown and referred to as a white man thereafter. (Okay, caveat to this bit of the rant: it was actually a clever idea that a black woman would choose to create a white, male avatar and thus create her own privilege in possibly the only environment where you can do that… but this was never really explored, so why even bother?).
While I was reading Ready Player One, I couldn’t help making comparisons with Marie Lu’s Warcross, which I read at the end of 2017. The characters actually had personality and there were stakes outside of the Warcross game as well as within it. I would recommend reading that one (or basically any other book with a similar concept) rather than this one.