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On the way home from registering with a new dentist one afternoon, I passed through Hillsborough’s shopping district and thought I would chance at some cheap books in one of the charity shops there. The one I entered was selling books for a pound apiece, which is not bad at all assuming you like genre fiction and celebrity tell-alls which were most likely written by someone other than the person on the front cover. As I was browsing through the two-a-year romance novels and massed Rankins, I happened upon Bram Stoker’s Dracula, one of those classics I had not yet had the chance to read. It was a Wordsworth edition, from a time before they had started putting pictures of models in garish period costume on the front, one frilly elbow or a feathered tricorne poking out of the frame and into the matt black surround. A few minutes later I found Hyperion, a highly regarded science fiction novel by Dan Simmons, a sort of space opera version of the Canterbury Tales. I’d been meaning to widen my reading away from “literary” fiction out to genre stuff for a while, so that was an easy pound to spend also. Almost immediately after that, my eyes fell on what I would come to know as “the atrocity”. This was Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.
Before the Spielberg blockbuster there was a book, and in that book there are words. And oh, what words! “Imagine the WORLD AT STAKE,” the back cover implores me. Given the state of the world right now, and forever, it would take more effort, and possibly be more enjoyable for me to imagine something else. But an “EPIC STRUGGLE” to complete the “GREATEST QUEST in human history” is perhaps a little bit more enticing. So, who’s struggling epically to complete the greatest of quests? Why, it’s Wade Watts! Wade Watts is a pale pasty overweight nerd and ain’t that just so gosh darned relatable? Well, let’s hope so, the book really depends on you relating to this character on pretty much that basis alone, because fuck if he has any other qualities. Oh wait, I’m sorry, he’s good at video games. And he watches a lot of TV. But I’m getting ahead of myself, first we need some history so that we can properly establish who Wade Watts is. Both of his parents are dead, so he’s kind of like Batman. Batman is a comic book character who debuted in 1937, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger for Detective Comics. Is that information useful to you? Of course it is. Like Ernest Cline, when I namedrop something I have to give a brief paraphrase of the introductory paragraph of the relevant Wikipedia article so that people can know—though never as deeply as I—what I’m talking about, because I am possessed of very specialised knowledge and I can’t expect you, the average reader, to have heard of such obscure things, and I certainly don’t expect you to look them up because then I wouldn’t be able to pad this out to such a length that I might fool myself, and apparently a long list of others into believing that I have achieved something in writing it.
So, Wade Watts. He lives in a stack. A stack is a multi-level tower of scaffolding with caravan trailers on each level. These were implemented as an alternative to building high-density projects for poor people. Since his parents died he has been living with his aunt, whom he does not like, and her boyfriend, whom he likes even less. He has his escape in an inconspicuous van, within which there is a heater and a computer which he uses to connect to the OASIS, an MMO that combines Second Life style trade of virtual and real items for real money with more standard RPG mechanics in a vast virtual universe comprising thousands of planets, each of which has a particular theme or pays homage to a particular game, movie, or whatever else. In the virtual world you can attend school, access pretty much any book, TV show, film, game, music etc. that you want, and also visit planets full of dungeons and grind for levels, but the big news right now is that, in the wake of the death of James Halliday, creator of the OASIS, a contest has begun. Halliday, in a video called “Anorak’s Invitation”, reveals that he has placed three secret keys and three matching gates in the OASIS, and once these have been found and unlocked, any player to do so will have a chance to find the Easter egg. Upon finding the egg they will inherit the creator’s fortune of several hundred billion dollars, control of his company Gregarious Simulation Systems (GSS), and the OASIS itself.
The contest adds another layer to Wade’s refuge from the outside world. By day he is Wade3 at one of the generic high schools in the game. By night he is Parzival, gunter. Yes, gunter. As in “[eg]g [h]unter”. Don’t look at me, I didn’t make this shit up. The gunters are at war with the Sixers, employees of the “Oology Division” of Innovative Online Industries (IOI, which Cline helpfully informs us is pronounced “eye-oh-eye”…), a generic faceless megacorporation of evilness that uses underhanded tactics to try and solve the mystery so that they can turn the OASIS into an ad-ridden corporo-fascist hellhole that will make them a whole lot of money. Wade tells us that gunters call the Sixers “the Sux0rz. (Because they sucked.)”, and if that doesn’t blast your sides into orbit, hang on, because there’s still 340 pages to go and they just keep getting funnier and more charming. But don’t worry, I’m not going to provide a page by page running commentary, mainly because who has the time, but also because one of the things this book likes to do is repeat itself, if not literally repeating paragraphs wholesale then repeating the forms in which the action, such as it is, takes place.
Throughout the book, Wade—or, let’s be honest here, Ernest—just loves to list things, and especially he loves to list names of things. Take this passage for example:
“When it came to my research, I never took any shortcuts. Over the past five years, I’d worked my way down the entire recommended gunter reading list. Douglas Adams. Kurt Vonnegut. Neal Stephenson. Richard K. Morgan. Stephen King. Orson Scott Card. Terry Pratchett. Terry Brooks. Bester, Bradbury, Haldeman, Heinlein, Tolkien, Vance, Gibson, Gaiman, Sterling, Moorcock, Scalzi, Zelazny. I read every novel by every single one of Halliday’s favourite authors.
“And I didn’t stop there.”
He does not stop there.
I won’t quote the whole thing, and you should be glad of that because he continues in a similar vein for the better (or worse) part of three whole pages. At no point does Cline comment on any writer, TV show, anime, film, album, game or anything else he lists, there are no insights provided into what makes these things special or interesting to him or to Wade (in fact, Wade does say that he likes the sitcom Family Ties because the scenario it depicts is so different to his own family and home life, but, like other details that might with flesh serve to provide character or pathos, this is dealt with in a single short sentence and never mentioned again) or even to Halliday—all he cares about is listing names. You could say that he’s just trying to embody narrator Wade’s personality in the prose, but Wade is supposed to be someone who masters every game technique, memorises every line of dialogue, and analyses passages of Halliday’s journal, Anorak’s Almanac, as if it were holy scripture (he does refer to it as his “Bible” on at least one occasion). Someone who takes such great interest in these things would presumably have something to tell us about them, this reads more like someone looked up a bunch of lists on Google and copied them into a text file, editing certain details later. The “Author Biography” in the back of the book is two lines long, telling us that “Ernest Cline […] devotes a large portion of his time to geeking out.” It is either fortunate or unfortunate that he doesn’t instead devote that time to reading and writing.
When Parzival figures out the puzzle that has kept gunters and Sixers (why one is capitalised and the other not, I do not know) alike from obtaining the Copper Key, the first relic in the quest for the Egg, he encounters Art3mis. Art3mis is a girl, so Wade is immediately smitten, as all males of a nerdish persuasion are. We don’t get Art3mis’s own narration, so I don’t know how list-prone she is, but I do know that every time she is present in a conversation she will latch on to any reference, no matter how obvious, and provide the title, the release date, and the name of the creator of whatever is being referenced. Since Wade and his best friend Aech—introduced some time before Art3mis, and whom I will save for later—both do this as well, I have to assume that Ernest Cline has never witnessed two or more human beings having a conversation before, or even read a book in which people talk to each other. This is maybe a little uncharitable. Since the bad guys, the leader of whom we shall soon meet, are corporate bootlickers who don’t know no ’80s entertainment trivia, it might be fairer to say that every character in this book is either Ernest Cline or a caricature of someone he hates. One of the few other named gunters, the one-note I-r0k, quite literally exists to show that people who don’t know as much about video games as Wade does are bad people. I-r0k’s introduction is too long to copy wholesale, but it goes a little something like this: he has just discovered the Swordquest games, but isn’t aware that they were linked to a famous contest, which of course Wade and Aech know about in all its details. To save you several pages of inanity (I offer no guarantees that this review will not count towards the overall total of such pages), here’s the closing exchange:
“Aech grinned and gave me a double high five, then added, ‘And if the contest hadn’t been cancelled, the winners of the first four rounds would have competed for the grand prize, the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery.’
“I nodded. ‘The prizes were all mentioned in the Swordquest comic books that came with the games. Comic books which happened to be visible in the treasure room in the final scene of Anorak’s Invitation, by the way.’
“The crowd burst into applause. I-r0k lowered his head in shame.”
But the Pulitzer goes to this line, delivered by Aech: “‘Try doing some research for a change, I-r0k. I mean, did you ever hear of Wikipedia? It’s free, douchebag.’” Cline sure loves that ‘pedia.
Upon acquiring the first key, Parzival becomes the first person in the history of the OASIS to achieve a ranking on the leaderboard on Halliday’s website. Following a clue inscribed upon the key, he reasons that the gate it opens must be in the virtual re-creation of Halliday’s home town, and more specifically the house he grew up in. He ain’t wrong, because of course he ain’t, and he finds the gate within a matter of pages. Where does the gate lead? Initially to a starfield with the “Sonnenaufgang” of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra playing in the background, but far from a reference to 2001, crafty Cline is in fact referencing 2010. He tells you as much, just to make sure you don’t misunderstand him. Thanks, Ernie. On the other side of that totally epic reference, Parzival finds himself in a complete interactive recreation of WarGames, and discovers that he must recite Matthew Broderick’s lines in time with the film itself in order to build and maintain a score. Basically it’s a rhythm game but with movie dialogue instead of a dance mat. Since Wade has “watched it over three dozen times” it is no problem for him to get through, and Parzival becomes the first OASIS avatar to clear the first gate. This makes him—and Art3mis, who soon achieves second place in his wake—an e-celeb of such magnitude that the social media of our time would not have the capacity to contain him. Everyone wants to know who he is, interview him, pay him money for sponsorship deals, put his name on products, and many other things. But hubris gets the better of him and he accepts an invitation to visit IOI’s virtual headquarters, a lavish digital reproduction of their physical HQ, where they wish to offer him a position of prominence in the Oology Division.
At this point we meet main villain Sorrento. Sorrento is the Sux0r (because he sucks) in chief, and on behalf of IOI he wants to make a deal. Parzival’s superlative mental catalogue of pop culture trivia in exchange for almost anything he wants. In case you think I’m not giving Sorrento his due by skipping over details of his masterful characterisation, I assure I’ve told you about as much as I can. He is the quintessential corporate drone writ large, everything he does would suggest that he himself was in fact cobbled together from however many banal teen movies about one kid going up against a monolithic evil enti- Say…! Well, as we shall see, teen movies about precisely that and slightly older movies concerned much with the same ideas will only make themselves more and more integral to Cline’s grand imitation as it unfolds. Putting that aside for the time being, Parzival gets sassy and says that he will do it if he is given Sorrento’s own position as master oologist, a demand to which IOI bigwigs in fact agree, before deciding that “nah, forget it” and yelling to Sorrento “yo holmes, smell ya later!” (The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was a sitcom starring rapper and actor Will Smith that debuted on NBC in 1990. Smith plays a fictionalised version of himself, a street-smart teenager from West Philadelphia who is sent to move in with his wealthy aunt and uncle in their Bel Air mansion after getting into a fight on a local basketball court.) But Parzival does eventually tell them to get lost, which is when Sorrento tells him that they know who he is and where he lives, and by golly they’ll kill him if he turns them down. He calls their bluff and they blow up the stack. The End.
Alas, Wade Watts was—as you’ll recall if your brain has not by now receded to a totally dormant state, just maintaining enough energy to support vital bodily functions—not at home, but at his other home, the abandoned van. The attack does of course kill everyone else in the stack, not just his aunt and her boyfriend, but also Mrs Gilmore. Who is Mrs Gilmore? Mrs Gilmore is an old woman who appears once, for an entire half of one page, maybe even a couple of lines over, early on in the book. She says hello to Wade on his way out to his van one morning, and gives him a bowl of cereal. Wade likes her so much and spends so much time talking to her that all he can say about her is that she is a nice old lady who is religious and knows things about the ’80s. One-hundred pages later she dies, having not once been interacted with or even mentioned in the interim. Is this Cline showing us that Wade’s immaturity leads him to spend so much time cooped up in the relative safety of his virtual life that this bare, basic perception of other human beings is all that he can provide; or is it that the author didn’t want to waste time building up characters whose deaths could otherwise have had emotional resonance with the reader, lest he make the book too long and have to render sacrificial that which was referential? I don’t know, I’ve never met Ernest Cline. Were we to bump into each other I would likely not realise it—not even after he would recite his own Wikipedia entry to me from memory. However, a sneaking suspicion, based on what amounts to what I feel should be a shameful three combined readings of his book, causes me to take a leap of faith and guess at the latter.
But apart from Mrs Gilmore, who are the other major players in the book? Well, we’ve already met Art3mis and Sorrento, and of course there is Halliday. But what about the other gunters? There are a few. Chief among them is Aech (pronounced like the letter H, not like you’re pretending to vomit, however appropriate that may be), who I mentioned briefly earlier in this article. Aech is Wade’s best friend. They hang out together spewing trivia at each other while playing various classic video games in an online chat room. Aech presents as male in the OASIS, and this is where the book gets super woke, so I hope you’re ready. Right around the end of the story, as Halliday’s colleague Ogden Morrow intervenes to provide safe haven against IOI for Parzival, Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto, to whom I shall get momentarily, Aech shows up IRL (pronounced eye-ar-ell, stands for “in real life”, a term used by people on the internet to distinguish between things that happen on the internet and things that don’t) in *his* RV, which *he* uses because *he* has no choice and also because now *he* must evade IOI’s hit squads. When Wade enters the RV, what does he see? It turns out that not only is Aech a woman, she’s black, she’s a lesbian, and she’s fat. Now, really, does it get any more diverse and progressive than that? In a single character and a handful of paragraphs, if that, Cline invites us to question our prejudices when he flips the script(!) on a well-established, well-liked, major character in the story. Or he might possibly have been doing that if Aech were any of those things and not just another trivia bot, this time stuffed awkwardly into a flesh suit modelled on an amalgamation of various minorities.
But what about representation of other minorities? Well, that’s where Daito and Shoto come in. You see, they’re Japanese. As in Japanese people who were born, raised, and currently reside in Japan. So not really minorities. Not minorities at all, in fact. But this is an American story so I guess it counts. But wait, there’s more. They’re samurai LARPers! Or is that just RPers? Honestly it becomes hard to tell because after Wade cashes in on his celebrity status he starts going on about how his “rig” is, like, totally the latest cutting edge haptic stuff, meaning that the game is almost indistinguishable from reality. If there’s no real difference, is it the same thing? Is this what they call the hyperreal, or is it just bullshit? I can’t even tell any more. Anyway, these two richly drawn characters are brothers (not really, but LARP really) and they are named, as Cline helpfully explains, for the two traditional blades of the samurai, one of which is long, the other short. Remember, folks: if you can easily look it up on Wikipedia, he’ll save you the trouble. Tall and short, big and small, older and younger, these are the only real qualities either of them possess, apart from that all they do is recite stock clichés about Bushido and honour. During a Sux0r (because they suck) raid on a Key location in the OASIS, Daito sacrifices himself so that Shoto can get the Key, but it turns out that IOI finds out where Daito lives IRL and they kill him for real. Never before has the internet been such srs bsns (this term is derived from “the internet is serious business”, a meme originating on the General Mayhem forum in 2003. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.). Between that and the bombing of Wade’s stack, the aforementioned Ogden Morrow—who is basically what I assume Ernest Cline himself wants to be: a beardy ageing nerd genius with a sharp wit and a private fortune so vast that he could afford to build himself a palatial home modelled on Rivendell from The Lord of the Rings, yet who is still an anti-establishment ROW ROW FIGHT THE POWAH teenager at heart—has ample reason to help them out in the fight against IOI, who are perverting the spirit of the game in order to secure a monopoly in the world’s biggest industry.
But before all of that, good ol’ Wade Watts (…yes, sir! Good ol’ Wade Watts… How I hate him!) has some preparatory work to do. Running up massive debts is his plan to get himself IOI’d with indentured servitude. But what’s this, you complain, weren’t they trying to kill him? Yes, they were, but earlier in the story, using the online black market auction service known as the L33t Hax0rz Warezhaus (god I wish I were making that up), he was able to buy access to the United States Citizen Registry and change his identity after the bombing. He moved to Columbus, where GSS and IOI are based, and lived under the assumed name of Bryce Lynch. So IOI come to apprehend Bryce Lynch, not Wade Watts. They take him to IOI HQ, where he becomes a drone for their operations, or so they think! In fact, Wade uses his own 1337 h4x0r 5k1llz (I am making that up, but you can tell he really fought against the urge to write the whole book like that, because nothing’s moar kewl than 1337 5p34k u guyz, not in 2011 and definitely not now…) that he has because he does in order to grant himself full access to IOI’s data, and copies vast amounts of it, including footage of Daito’s murder, before changing his identity again and sneaking back out the front door. This section, with the protagonist working as a low level agent of IOI’s faceless bureaucracy, aims at being an homage to Brazil, Terry Gilliam’s homage to Orwell and Kafka. Naturally, even though we’ve spent the best (or worst) part of three-hundred pages with Wade, he is still less of a character than Sam Lowry is even at the very beginning of the film. What is sad is that, coasting on cheap familiarity and without ever once directly telling you “this is a reference to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which came out in blah blah blah”, this might be the closest that the book gets to being readable without forcing a cringe, rolling your eyes, or lifting your head up from the book to stare vacantly at the far end of the room for a seemingly eternal few seconds while you take stock of what remains of your dignity.
Since my dignity has left me forever, let’s go back in time a little. I know with the premise of the book being what it is we’re all just a little bit sick of that already, but bear with me, because I want to spend a few column inches (yeah, right) taking a closer look at how the relationship between Wade and Art3mis rises and falls. The following dialogue commences “Level Two”, right after Wade is settled at his new digs following the IOI stack attack.
“Art3mis: You there?
“Parzival: Yes! Hey! I can’t believe you finally responded to one of my chat requests.
“Art3mis: Only to ask you to cut it out. It’s a bad idea for us to start chatting.
“Parzival: Why? I thought we were friends.
“Art3mis: You seem like a great guy. But we’re competitors. Rival gunters. Sworn enemies. You know the drill.”
Like most great fictional romances, the relationship begins with the boy totally misreading the situation and the girl trying to brush him off politely. Wade perseveres, and by sheer force of his charming personality sweet talks her into starting over. You know, the whole “let’s try that again. Hello, I’m…” routine from countless romantic comedies. He asks why they’re using text-only chat, she says that she would ramble on like a “flibbertigibbet” if they were in a live chat, he says that she is not such a thing and that rather she is “enchanting”. You could be forgiven for mistaking this for some kind of playfulness innate to the characters, but, as people made exclusively from pop culture references are wont to do, they conduct their dialogue in a volley of unironic clichés. Some back and forth raising each other up while putting themselves down (he’s ugly, she’s wonderful; she’s gross, he seems like a nice guy. You’ve seen it a million times.) later, Wade spills the beans…
“Parzival: I’ve had a crush on you since before we even met. From reading your blog and watching your POV. I’ve been cyber-stalking you for years.”
And a page or two on from that…
“Parzival: Now, spill it. Are you a woman? And by that I mean are you a human female who has never had a sex-change operation?”
Art3mis is right, he does seem like a nice guy. I can only imagine that, if I were a girl and some boy came up to me and asked me if my vagina was natural, I’d want to do him right there and then. But of course not: she’s taken a liking to Wade, but she’s still all about that egg. Gunting is life: ain’t no time for no penises up in this natural vagina. Nevertheless, Mr Are-These-Your-Real-Genitalia is somehow in her good books, and as the weeks and months go by her responses to his emails (sadly(?) not detailed) change the way he sees the world. He’s never had such a powerful, immediate connection with another human being before. Not even with Aech. How has she changed his view of the world? Cline once again gives us the bare minimum in character. She gets his jokes, and he gets hers. I get it, sometimes that’s enough to at least form a bond, I can think of a few admittedly disastrous relationships in my life that were based on less, but if you’re going to build one major strand of your story around it, a few brief paragraphs of “she was great” ain’t gonna cut it. There’s the old “show, don’t tell” rule, which gets bandied about often illegitimately in popular criticism, but a lot of Cline’s character development—generally, but especially in the relationship-oriented passages—really does feel like he wrote SparkNotes for his own book and then substituted them for the actual prose.
When Wade and Art3mis are not hanging out and getting each other’s jokes (I should mention that at no point are we allowed to read any of these, but I am sure they are all knee-slappers of the highest order), Wade is busy doing what gunters call “‘making the climb to ninety-nine,’ because ninety-ninth level [is] the maximum power level an avatar can attain.” This raises a question. Much as I am loath to concern myself with target audience and other such publishing industry bullshit, I have to ask: who was this written for? It’s obviously a commercial piece of literature, so it had to have been written for a specific audience, I just can’t fathom of which people that audience would be made up. On the one hand, you have a story set among the technological milieu of a world so au fait with the MMORPG format that the internet itself is essentially experienced as an MMO by pretty much everyone who uses it, a world in which ’80s pop culture, thanks to cyber-Jesus James Halliday, is as vital a cultural touchstone and as fundamental a source of idioms for people around that world as the King James Bible is for modern Western civilisation (maybe that’s the joke, that the Anorak’s Almanac is the King James Halliday Bible?); on the other, you have explanations of basic gaming concepts—to say nothing of references to popular TV shows, movies, and music—as if this story about games were intended to be of great interest to people who have never so much as held a controller in their life. So, even if it is intended that I look at this not as Ernest Cline writing for me, but as Wade Watts writing for people in his world, it still doesn’t make any sense. With what charity I have left for Cline, whether he is deserving of it or not, I suggest that much of the “explain stuff the target audience already knows” type writing could have been avoided easily by adding a glossary to the back of the book, or even footnotes on the page of each first instance. Wade, putting his dubious claim to charactership aside for one moment, strikes me as the kind of person who would delight in footnotes. I know this because he actually uses them multiple times in the first chapter. Had he stuck with this method for explaining references, Cline would have been freed up to write prose that reads less like a fanfic and more like an honest, hindsightful recollection of teenage nerd ephemera.
Back in Loveland, Wade, after discovering that part of the clue to the next key revolves around John Draper, the “Cap’n Crunch” phone hacker, realises that Art3mis is the only one for him. “I decided that whoever Art3mis really was, I was in love with her. I could feel it, deep in the soft, chewy caramel center of my being.” Like so much that I have written about this book, more so the things that I have quoted from it, I wish I were making that up, and the next part of the story is much the same. Ogden Morrow—The Great and Powerful Og, if you aren’t into the whole brevity thing—is hosting an ’80s dance party for all the gunters out there, and Parzival and Art3mis are of course on the guest list. Og’s DJ’ing at his zero-gravity nightclub Distracted Globe, located on (*sigh*) planet Neonoir, a cyberpunk themed world based on, you guessed it, Neuromancer. Wade snazzes up his avatar and hits the floor, or the ceiling, or wherever. I wish he’d hit Alt+F4, am I right my fellow nerds? (That’s a little in-joke for all my 1337 h4x0rz out there. *wink*) With Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” filling the Globe, Wade and Art3mis have their big “I love you!” / “You don’t know what love is!” / “Stay with me!” / “Not until I find the Egg!” / “Screw the egg!” / “I live for the Egg!” moment. Suddenly, the Sixers show up and try to kill Parzival and Art3mis, a move which, rather than bringing them closer together, only serves to prove her point that so long as the contest continues, gunters can’t even afford to hang, let alone bang. You might say “but maybe he just wanted it to be platonic.” Read on.
Wade, depressed and lonely, obsesses over his lost love. He always has her live video feed “Art3mivision” displaying on one of his monitors, and apparently all she does with it is show episodes of Square Pegs, DynaGirl, ElectraWoman and Wonder Woman. Well, that doesn’t quite cut it for him. This is the point in the book where Wade invests in a haptic sex doll and a VR brothel simulator (I guess RapeLay wouldn’t have been sympathetic…?). It’s also the point in this review where I want to make a little stop in rural Cline Country and talk about a poem—never let it be said that I am not generous—called “Nerd Porn Auteur”. For those of you who don’t know, Cline removed this text from his website shortly before the Spielberg adaptation of Ready Player One was released to the public. No doubt this was pushed on him by Warner Bros., but I wonder if he was reluctant to do it or if he was in fact embarrassed by it and agreed instantly. You know, here’s your big moment, you’re going to have so much money that you could just about live forever and never have to work again, but there’s this thing you wrote that everyone can see, and it contains lines like “First I want to copy her Trig homework, and then I want to make mad, passionate love to her for hours and hours until she reluctantly asks if we can stop because she doesn’t want to miss Battlestar Galactica”, and “These vacuum-headed fuck bunnies don’t turn me on. They disgust me. It’s not that I’m against porn. I mean, I’m a guy. And guys need porn. Fact. ‘Like a preacher needs pain, like a needle needs a vein,’ Guys need porn.” He talks about making porn with girls from Latin Club and shouts “Summa cum laude, baby!” when he has his orgasm (note the clever bilingual pun). The end reads like a seedy Craigslist ad: “If you’re an intelligent woman who is interested in breaking into the adult film industry, and if you can tell me the name of Luke Skywalker’s home planet, then you are hired. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re overweight or unattractive. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re not beautiful. You are beautiful… And I will make you a star.” So Cline really, really wants to bang some college-aged chicks. Through Wade, the dashing virtual hero and least well-obscured self-insert this side of fanfiction.net, he has just such a chance with the mysterious maiden Art3mis.
As we already know, after his little sojourn in 1337 h4x0r 14nd, Wade gets back on good terms with Art3mis, and Ogden Morrow arranges to have them flown in, along with Aech and Shoto (“Shoto was speechless for a second—then he bowed low. ‘Arigato, Morrow-san.’”), so that they can conduct the final battle from the security of his own home. The gang strap on their haptic gear and haptically hop into sensory deprivation balls which also function as omnidirectional haptic treadmills. Haptic. That’s a word that means something. And boy does Ernest Cline like using it. I can only assume he was trying to get some of that heavy handed William Gibson-y tech talk into his own writing, but the difference is that when William Gibson wrote Neuromancer he actually had a vocabulary and a talent for using it, even if he didn’t really know much about the subjects he was discussing. Ernest Cline knows one technical term, and it is “haptic”. To that end, he employs the word “haptic” whenever and wherever he can fit it in. I don’t get paid nearly enough to take it seriously enough to count the instances (I don’t get paid at all, I’m doing this for fun—fun!), but I feel like probably a quarter of the book’s chapters feature at least one instance of that word. He’s not using it incorrectly, but after a while you will already have internalised the logical progression of technology that Wade has at his disposal, so it’s pretty much a given that, after Mrs Gilmore’s pathos ridden death and Wade’s subsequent flight, whatever he’s using to interact with the OASIS will be haptic—though it may be worth pointing out that he has haptic gloves to begin with. There is in fairness a section after the Brazil “parody” and before the denouement, in which Wade must rent an OASIS booth at some kind of VR parlour, and he doesn’t have all his fancy gear there. Oh, wait, never mind, just looked it up and it turns out that’s haptic too. False alarm! It’s not so much that everything being haptic is a problem—it’s the future, sci-fi (ahem, real nerds call it “SF”, thank you very much), of course everything’s haptic, I mean, come on, who doesn’t love the hap?—it’s more that when you get through x number of rigs, all of which are haptic, you only need to mention when something isn’t haptic because that’s actually somewhat notable.
Sticking with Neuromancer for a moment, seeing as it is identified by Cline as some kind of inspiration, if not literally then at the very least through reference, it is fair to say that Cline’s lack of ambition when it comes to describing the sensation of being haptically projected into the OASIS is… I hesitate to use the word “disappointing”, perhaps “grim confirmation”…? Yes, it is grim confirmation that for all the reading Wade, and presumably Cline, did, none of it sank in. In Neuromancer, William Gibson introduces the concept of the “simstim”, which protagonist Case uses to see through his partner in crime Molly’s eyes. In addition to sight, it extends to other senses, causing him to hear what she hears and feel what she feels, the sensations of clothing rubbing against the skin, of pain, of adrenaline, even of drugs. Gibson spends entire paragraphs describing this at various stages in the book, as well as the sensation of jacking into the matrix, Neuromancer‘s visual representation of an Internet-like mass of servers which has inspired countless science fiction and hacker movies:
“And in the bloodlit dark behind his eyes, silver phosphenes boiling in from the edge of space, hypnagogic images jerking past like film composed from random frames. Symbols, figures, faces, a blurred, fragmented mandala of visual information […] flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity. Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of the Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spirals of military systems, forever beyond his reach […] and somewhere he was laughing, in a white-painted loft, distant fingers caressing the deck, tears of release streaking his face.”
Poetic, some might say, others flowery—Gibson certainly is no stranger to the purple in his writing. This draws us into Case’s ecstatic perception of the matrix. There is a vivid picture painted in the prose, it has the power to burn into the mind and become the vision to which we are recalled each time Case jacks in. Cline meanwhile offers us the bare minimum reassurance that, like each year’s Call of Duty, the OASIS got dem grafix son:
“My virtual surroundings looked almost (but not quite) real. Everything inside the OASIS was beautifully rendered in three dimensions. Unless you pulled focus and stopped to examine your surroundings more closely, it was easy to forget that everything you were seeing was computer-generated. And that was with my crappy school-issued OASIS console. I’d heard that if you accessed the simulation with a new state-of-the-art immersion rig, it was almost impossible to tell the OASIS from reality.”
You might say this is merely indicative of Wade’s needs being different from those of Case, that for Wade the act of escape is all, and so the OASIS being almost indistinguishable from reality is the salient point, for he can live out his fantasies while also believing they are real. Wade is religiously devoted to his god, a dead man, and his scripture in the form of the journal the dead man left behind, the OASIS being a grand museum and shrine to the immortal Anorak. In Neuromancer the matrix is not the text of Case’s religion but its living flesh, jacking in is an act of communion with some unfathomable super-entity, and this is a realisation we arrive at through the strong description of how it feels for him to be inside of it. Conversely, Cline at no point deals with the question of how it is to be in the OASIS, only what the OASIS is, nothing beyond the (virtually) material exists. This should come as no surprise given that the narrator is presented in the first chapter essentially as an angry, strident New Atheist clone, rattling off “magical sky fairy” type rhetoric. Were there any satirical element to the text you could read it as caricature. It is not mentioned again at any point in the book, but I think it offers some insight into what is basically a spiritual void at the core of the whole thing. I’m not proselytising for the church here—you’d have to pay me a lot of money for that, and with my readership you might as well be flushing it down the toilet—but Cline’s stereotypically shallow atheism is not a freeing thing, not some affirmation of the self and its agency, nor is it a licence to embrace the absurdity or mystery of living a short life in a random and indifferent universe, but a device by which his characters, whether through the author’s incompetence or through his wilful laziness, are denied not only “spirituality” but also any depth of emotional life. Ready Player One has no soul.
Earlier on I said I wouldn’t write this in the “review by plot synopsis” style of so many dreadful would-be comedians masquerading as film critics on the internet, but I have done just that, my one saving grace being that I don’t have a camera. But does it deserve any better, this half-baked ready mix cake of a love letter to the ’80s, with its prose style reminiscent of some cheesy video game creepypasta? (All we need is some hyperrealistic blood, “pixelated” laughter, and Wade’s aunt’s boyfriend’s ghost haunting a bootleg Mega Man 2 cartridge and we’re toeing the threshold of indistinguishability.) Maybe it doesn’t deserve better, but maybe I do. Maybe I should have some goddamn self-respect and do this properly. But believe me, I’ve left a lot of plot out of this already far-too-long article. I didn’t even talk about the part where Wade magically knows how to play guitar like Alex Lifeson just because Rush is one of Halliday’s favourite bands. At least Marty McFly actually played guitar you fucking hack. That isn’t really plot, but in fact if you reduce Ready Player One to plot, what you’re essentially left with is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy reunites with girl. That’s any number of other stories. What makes this story unique is… Uh…
Because I’m terrible at doing things in a linear fashion, there are a number of loose ends to go over before and during the final showdown. First off, Sorrento has the key, but he doesn’t know how to use it. Why is that? It’s because he doesn’t know Schoolhouse Rock! (“‘Dilettantes,’ Art3mis said. ‘It’s their own fault for not knowing all the Schoolhouse Rock! lyrics by heart. How did those fools even get this far?’” In fact, while I’m at it, Art3mis grins at Wade when he replies “By cheating[.]” This makes his knees “go all rubbery”. He’s sitting down, right? How does that work? Are his knees haptic too?) See, if you knew the song “Three Is a Magic Number”, then you would know that you need three people, all in possession of the final key, to open the door to Castle Anorak—which if Halliday had intended to be all secretive about it, why put it there? Well, so Wade and friends can hop in their mecha replicas and slaughter some Sixer goons. Sure, they could have done that pretty much anywhere, but at this point either your brain has gradually turned into grey slop and started to leak out of your face or you are the kind of person who thought this book was good from page one—either way you’re in no shape to be doing much thinking.
With the puzzle solved the only obstacles remaining are the Sixer army that has set up camp around the castle and the final gate itself. To that end, Wade sends out an email to every gunter who ever gunted, asking for their help. The email contains the word “knavery”, by which both Aech and Art3mis are impressed. “Were you using a thesaurus when you wrote this?” asks Art3mis. He was not. Wade is wordy (in a manner of speaking) in extremely select circumstances. And by “extremely select” I mean that there is only one circumstance and this is it. Of course the email works, but the gang are nonetheless worried, for even with the entire gunting population of the OASIS storming the castle, the Sixers still have an extremely strong shield set-up around it that makes entering impossible. Impossible, that is, for non 1337 h4x0rz. Wade was planning further ahead than gunter and Sixer alike could have imagined. When he was doing his Sam Lowry LARP at IOI, his hacking involved not only the retrieval of their dossiers on him and his allies, but also strategy for the upcoming showdown. With all-level clearance and Wade’s instructions, a service droid (one of many, all of which look like Johnny 5 from Short Circuit, which we are told is “[due] to a lack of imagination on the part of the original designer”. Sure thing, Ernie.) being used by the Sixers picks up a bomb from their armoury, carries it to the point from where the shield is being generated, and detonates it. The shield goes down.
“A fierce battle cry rose from the sea of avatars all around us”, and I can’t quite work out if I’m disappointed or mildly relieved that he doesn’t specify whether or not it was “Leeroy Jenkins”. As the gunters charge in, Wade and friends stand still and watch, for they are each of them secured in the cockpit of a giant mech which might crush their allies were they to run in alongside them. Art3mis is piloting Tranzor Z, Aech the RX-78 Gundam, Shoto Raideen, and Wade Leopardon. (Earlier: “A roar swept through the crowd as I flew in low over the shield and rocketed to a halt above the others. I rotated my orientation so that Leopardon was upright, then cut the engines and dropped the remaining distance to the surface. My robot landed on one knee, and the impact shook the ground. As I stood it upright, the sea of onlookers began to chant my avatar’s name. Par-zi-val! Par-zi-val!”) Opposite them, Sorrento is piloting Mechagodzilla. This is the big ol’ mecha bash you’ve been waiting for, or that you can’t wait to be over. Either way there are just 40 pages left. How bad could it be? Well, to cut a long story short, the gunters stop the Sixers from forming Voltron, which, okay, good job, I guess, and Wade, Aech, and Art3mis head for the castle to put their Schoolhouse Rock! knowledge to good use. Shoto hangs back to hold off Sorrento and disables his right arm with Raideen’s swords. “Looks like you’ll be wiping with your left hand now, Sorrento!” Just like they used to say back in the Tokugowa shogunate! I draw your attention to this because it is so obvious that the entirety of the short sequence surrounding this line was meant to be an epic samurai’s last stand sort of affair, some face-saving gesture of vengeance no matter how trifling, and he caps it off with a quip straight out of a mid-2000s Spider-Man game. Ernest Cline, you’re fulla somethin’.
Well, right or left, it doesn’t matter, Shoto ends up getting wiped by both of Mechagodzilla’s eye-lasers, which also cut Leopardon in half. Of course, Wade ejects and turns into Ultraman. This is Shoto’s and indeed Daito’s true revenge, for the Ultraman transform gadget was their gift to Wade, this despite his protest that Japanese things belong to Japanese people (I hasten to add that during said protest Wade insists on saying “Uratoraman”). Now, I was hoping to go on to finish this review without quoting much more of the book because I feel like I’m just padding it out at this point, but holy shit if the start of this fight isn’t written like what’s actually going on is Wade and Sorrento are stood in the men’s bathroom at a gay nightclub comparing penises and almost definitely about to get it on. “Now [Sorrento’s mech’s] head slowly tilted up, taking in the size of its new opponent, until our glowing eyes finally met. I now stood face-to-face with Sorrento’s mech, matching its height and size almost exactly.” Ultraman makes quick work of Mechagodzilla and Sorrento is done for, at least in the virtual world. Really he’s fine, because it’s a video game, and everyone seems to have forgotten that, but his avatar, like Shoto’s, is wiped from the scoreboard. He’s officially dead as far as the OASIS is concerned.
The intrepid trio make their way over to the entrance ready to magic number their way to victory, and then, just when the gate opens, everyone dies. Yeah, just gotta keep layering the twists on. But it’s okay because Wade once spent all day playing Pac-Man and won a special coin which turns out to be the rarest of rare things, an extra life in a permadeath game. In fairness I should say that this is detailed in an earlier chapter, it isn’t a random ass-pull. I mean, it might have been just such a thing at the moment of conception, but Cline at least had the decency to go back and insert a passage about it earlier in the book. But how did everyone die? Well, teh Sux0rz, because they sucked, had the least game friendly weapon imaginable in their arsenal. The “Cataclyst”, a WMD of such magnitude that it literally wipes the entire planet, was set off the moment the final gate, now the only thing that remains, and suspended in the air for some reason, was opened. Once again, in fairness, this weapon is mentioned as having been auctioned off to some anonymous bidder earlier on in the book. Basic concepts of plotting are not beyond our intrepid author, the other stuff—you know, all the things that make good novels enjoyable to read, like well drawn characters, complex relationships, interesting events captured in vivid prose—might need some work, but he’s got this part down!
Wade’s one up procs, but this is only a small comfort, as he has lost everything in his inventory. The only things besides the gate that were not destroyed by the bomb are “artifacts”, such as the Ultraman transformation item, which is just dandy because wouldn’t you know it, Art3mis just so happened to be carrying indestructible rocket shoes in the form of Chuck Taylors. Because of course she did. So Wade searches for the shoes. You might be thinking that if ever there was a time to have a list of famous items from fantasy and science fiction, this would be it, as Wade frantically searches through the debris littering what once was a battlefield hosting a vast cornucopia of people who love those things more than anything in search of the magical pair of Converse. Well, you would be wrong. All we know is that Wade searches for seven minutes before he finds the shoes.
So, at last, we are about to enter the final gate. What could lie beyond it? Well, the first gate required Wade to recite all of Matthew Broderick’s lines from WarGames, and the second gate tasked him with playing Black Tiger in 3D via a Voight-Kampff machine from the movie Blade Runner. You might be wondering why I didn’t write about the second gate. The reason I skipped it is because it is literally a few pages of “Halliday loved this game and now he had recreated it in 3D!” and “it was just like playing Black Tiger, but in 3D!” Those aren’t exact quotes, but as paraphrases go it is rare to find two so accurate and so close to one another. Speaking of being close to one another, have you guessed what the third gate entails? If you guessed it was a two round special consisting of a game followed by a speak-along movie, you win nothing but you’re absolutely correct. So what’s a gunter gotta do to get an egg around here? First, he has to play Tempest, and beat Halliday’s whopping high score of 728,329. Fortunately, there is a trick to make this easier than it initially seems:
“‘Looks like you only get one game,’ Aech said. ‘All or nothing.’
“‘Guys, I haven’t played Tempest in years,’ I said. ‘I’m screwed. There’s no way I’m going to beat Halliday’s high score on my first attempt.’
“‘You don’t have to,’ Art3mis said. ‘Look at the copyright year.’
“I glanced at the bottom of the screen: ©MCMLXXX ATARI.
“‘Nineteen eighty?’ Aech said. ‘How does that help him?’
“‘That means this is the very first version of Tempest,’ Art3mis said. ‘The version that shipped with a bug in the game code. When Tempest first hit the arcades, kids discovered that if you died with a certain score, the machine would give you a bunch of free credits.’
“‘Oh,’ I said, somewhat ashamed. ‘I didn’t know that.’
“‘You would,’ Art3mis said, ‘if you’d researched the game as much as I did.’
“‘Damn, girl,’ Aech said.”
Alas, no crowd is present to clap and cheer this incredible display of nerd knowledge—which, since it is coming from a woman, is either sexy, or threatening, or a little bit of both—so we must make do with a “damn, girl”. Anyway, Wade performs the exploit and has forty credits to play with. All looks grim as he whittles away his stock of extra lives, not coming anywhere close to Halliday’s score. But on his last life he is able to “slip into the zone. Spinner, zapper, super-zapper, clear a level, avoid the spikes.” One batch, two batch, a penny and a dime. It is not an overstatement to say that the way this plays out in the book is about as dramatic as my streamlined retelling: he was not doing well, then he was doing well, and he continued to do well. His continuing to do well of course means that he can let his last life go and reach stage two! And prepare yourselves because this one is a real doozy. Wade has to reenact the entirety of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which is of course no problem for a nerd such as himself for lo and behold: “Over the past six years, I’d watched Holy Grail exactly 157 times. I knew every word by heart.” Dante himself could not have conjured a crueller vision of hell. Amazingly, Ernest Cline devotes more space to quoting the first scene of this film than he does Wade’s description of Mrs Gilmore, whose death, as you’ll recall, we were supposed to feel mighty broken up about. But forget that, it’s time to ratchet up the tension some more. It turns out that Sorrento has commandeered a Sixer account that was off-planet when the bomb went off, and is a mere nine minutes behind Wade… which means that he can’t actually catch up. Uh… But he’s there! Threatening! That is, until the final puzzle is revealed.
Wade is transported to a room full of games consoles and computers from days of yore, the only one of which presently working being an IMSAI 8080, which is the computer Matthew Broderick uses in WarGames. Back to square one. After trying a bunch of different passwords, he eventually tries “LEUCOSIA”, which is the name Ogden Morrow’s deceased wife, Kira, used in D&D. Halliday’s unrequited love is the key, and this starts up all the other consoles. Wade knows that the Easter egg has something to do with Warren Robinett’s Adventure, an Atari 2600 game which is mostly known today for having contained an Easter egg, and wouldn’t you know it, in the place where the original Easter egg is supposed to be, the real Easter egg is there now. If that isn’t genius then I don’t want to know what is. Once again, in fairness to Ernest Cline, he telegraphs that this will be the ultimate solution way early in the book. The video “Anorak’s Invitation” which Halliday uses to kick off the hunt—or gunt, if you prefer, and why wouldn’t you?—features Halliday talking about the time he discovered Robinett’s Easter egg, he then says that he has created his own Easter egg. So yeah, of course the latter is literally where the former should be, but only in this one extremely specific cart. Here we go again with the video game creepypasta clichés.
Well, that’s it. Wade wins. Some kind of Anorak AI appears, congratulating him, telling him it is all his now, and then is gone. With his new God avatar, Wade calmly deletes the Sorrentoid Sixers who failed to catch up to him in the third gate, and resurrects his buddies, but only his buddies. All the other gunters who got wiped can go shit, and possibly wipe with their left hands. “[Shoto] ran over to me, grinning ear to ear. ‘Arigato, Parzival-san’ he said, bowing low.” Even with the GREATEST QUEST over and done with he’s still LARPing it up, or perhaps I should say Cline still hasn’t figured out a way to give Shoto a personality. Aech logs in and pops up a newsfeed so they can watch Sorrento being led out of IOI HQ by the police. He doesn’t get a big “meddling kids!” moment, nor does he get to curse his assistants for letting him be outsmarted by a bunch of brats, which is actually kind of disappointing. I was hoping that when all was said and done there would be some sort of bad guy meltdown, but that would vaguely humanise him and so give him almost more depth of character than any of the alleged heroes.
Good ol’ Wade Owen Watts (yes, of course “WOW” would be his initials, this cat just too fuckin’ cool ain’t he) splits the Halliday fortune evenly with his three friends, determined that he will use his winnings to make the world a better place—and just think of all the immersion rigs and VR brothels you could buy with that kind of money. Finally he goes outside IRL(!) and sits on a bench with Art3mis, whose real name is Samantha, and who still has no personality. They have their awkward leading-to-kiss moment, straight out of romcom hell, and it’s pretty much what you’d expect. “We can take things as slow as you like. I’m a really nice guy, once you get to know me. I swear”, Wade sez. They kiss, and the incels of the world shed a tear, realising that the real Easter egg was the friends we made along the way. But we’re not done. Well, you might be. I’m just warming up. The true Ready Player One starts here! I can’t remember the last time I felt that I was wasting my life so profoundly as I do right now.
Throughout the time I’ve spent reading the book and writing this article, one question has remained central. I asked it earlier but was unable to answer it. Who was Ready Player One written for? Fortunately, the book’s front and back covers, as well as several pages within, are devoted to review quotes from authors and newspapers, so I guess we’re about to find out. The front cover proudly displays USA Today’s endorsement: “Enchanting. Willy Wonka meets The Matrix.” I would dispute that on all counts, but it isn’t the only review to make such comparisons. A quote from Ain’t It Cool News—this one does not credit a specific author, but it might be worth pointing out that AICN founder Harry Knowles would appear to have more than a little bit in common with the narrator of “Nerd Porn Auteur”—reads: “Think Willy Wonka, The Matrix and Avatar all rolled into one … then add every 80s thing you’ve ever known […] BUT-this isn’t a Nostalgia novel[.]” I would dispute this claim even more strongly. I have a suspicion, and I think you will agree by now that it is not an unfounded one, that this book was written for people who were teenaged or slightly older in the 1980s and have not moved on from that time in any tangible sense. People like New York Times bestselling author John Scalzi, who you may recall is namedropped in the book itself as an entry in Wade’s reading list, and who says: “Imagine Dungeons & Dragons and an 80s video arcade made hot, sweet love, and their child was raised in Azeroth. If you’re not already experiencing a nerdgasm at the thought, I don’t want to know you.” Believe me, John, the feeling is mutual. Joseph Delaney, an author born in the 1940s, meanwhile makes a comparison that is hair-raising: “This is the best book of its type since ‘Neuromancer’; Ernie Cline is the new William Gibson.” Oh boy. Now, I already talked about why exactly Neuromancer and Ready Player One aren’t even on the same planet, let alone playing in the same ballpark, but Delaney is not the only one who seems to think they’re some Old and New Testament of VR fiction. “[C]all this novel what you will, but READY PLAYER ONE will defy every label you try to put on it. Here, finally, is this generation’s NEUROMANCER,” writes New York Times bestselling author Will Lavender. (Even better, Lavender prefaces this statement in true Cline fashion with an unqualified list of such labels that Ready Player One will defy, and “a book of ideas” is the first.) I’m not Neuromancer‘s biggest fan—it is certainly a better book than Ready Player One, but then so is a bunch of squares of used toilet paper stapled together—but it is pretty well written overall and does not deserve this kind of treatment. Anyway, ill-conceived attempts to place it among some imagined SF pantheon aside, who was Ready Player One written for? Ernest Cline. Him and people like him: Neverlanders physically existing in the present but forever projecting into some dream of a 1980s that probably never existed.
Regardless of who it was written for, Ready Player One is a miserable grab bag of consumerist nostalgia lacking in both style and substance. Its characters are cardboard cut-outs of humanoid figures with post-it notes stuck all over them, each note having been filled with lists of names of intellectual properties and their material offshoots to be presented as substitutes for actual personality traits. While its attitude towards and conception of “minorities” could be considered offensive in its shallowness and narrowness, its view of humanity as a whole is so lazily and monotonously ignorant that no character but the protagonist has more than one dimension to their portrayal. Nobody wins: take any combination of ethnic heritages, weights, heights, whatevers, they’re all exactly the same, and might as well be some nanomachinoid grey goo apocalypse. In some ways you could call it utopian, everyone who is good thinks exactly alike, even the central romance rises and falls not to the beats of two different hearts but the dictates of a cheap universal formula. The protagonist only narrowly escapes into two-dimensional space by having the good misfortune of being a half formed stand-in for the author. And even then, who is Wade Watts? A collection of trivia, a catalogue of trinkets, stuffed into a suit of flesh, that’s the peak of complexity here. In a sense Ready Player One is the perfect book for now: intellectually smothered in a blanket of pop culture detritus, enamoured of material objects to the exclusion of almost all else, and fiercely tribal to the point of denying selfhood. Either you are one of us, one of them, or you do not exist. Sweet nothingness, here I come.