Once Hyped, Now Found Hackneyed, What’s The Deal with Ready Player One?

By Grady Meyer, Volunteer

Oh, how the mighty fall. When it was published in August of 2011, praise was lavished on Ernest Cline’s debut novel Ready Player One.

The respected New York Times critic Janet Maslin gave the book a positive review, complimenting “the breadth and cleverness of Mr. Cline’s imagination.”

Geek.com opened its review of the book with the following passage:

“It’s not often that a work of science fiction is able to appeal to geeks and non-geeks alike, somehow managing to engage fans of the genre and people who are just looking for a good read. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One does that, making for one reason it’s poised to be the hottest sci-fi book of 2011.”

The book received an “A” from The AV Club, which wrote that,

“There’s a high learning curve to all of the details Wade throws out about the world, and for anyone who doesn’t understand or love the same sect of pop culture Halliday [a major character in the book] enjoyed, Ready Player One is a tough read. But for readers in line with Cline’s obsessions, this is a guaranteed pleasure.”

I could go on quoting reviews, but you get the idea: people loved Ready Player One, even if it wasn’t a masterpiece. With such a hit, of course a movie was on the way. In June of 2010, Cline was able to sell the book’s movie rights to Warner Brothers in a six figure deal, before the book was even published. Soon, Stephen Spielberg was attached to direct, and the project began production.

The first trailer for the movie finally dropped on July 14th at Comic Con San Diego. People spent a lot of time analyzing every single shot in it….and then backlash emerged. Suddenly, it became trendy to denigrate the book, the trailer, and the upcoming movie as lazy vehicles for pop culture references, designed to cash in on nostalgia. The AV Club, which gave the book top marks in 2012, wrote (emphasis mine):

“Spielberg’s still a virtuosic filmmaker, and it’s always good to see him use his considerable largesse to make a big-budget sci-fi movie, but it’s also fair to wish he’d apply his talents to a more worthy piece of fiction. He’s a creator of culture; wallowing in postmodern references is below him.”

Ouch! Extreme reactions to trailers are nothing new: See the reactions to Ghostbusters earlier this year, and to Star Trek: Into Darkness before that. Regardless, several years later with a movie due for release in 2018, it’s still worth asking the question: With the hype passed, how good is Ready Player One? Why do people have such strong reactions to the premise?

First, a primer on the story, which is set in a post-apocalyptic future. The societies of Earth have (for the most part) collapsed, as they are prone to do in a post-apocalyptic future, due to multiple crises: “The ongoing energy crisis. Catastrophic climate change. Widespread famine, poverty and disease. Half a dozen wars.” In the midst of this unrest, an inventor named John Halliday died. Halliday was the creator of a massive multiplayer online game called OASIS, which by the time of the book’s present has evolved into a whole virtual society, ala Second Life. But Halliday leaves a bequest to the entire world: an “easter egg,” hidden deep in the game, and the prize for the first to find it is Halliday’s entire fortune. This led to the creation of a subculture of “gunters,” players obsessed with knowing as much about 80’s pop culture as humanly possible so they could find Halliday’s easter egg.

The book begins a little over a decade later. The easter egg was never found, the gunters have faded, and humanity has retreated en masse into the escapism of OASIS. Here we meet Wade Watts, an orphan (of course) from the slums (of course) who finds himself locked in a heated race to find the easter egg, pitted against stop-at-nothing corporate interests (of course), but allied with a wily five man band of fellow gunters (of course.)

If I have made the plot sound extremely cliched, it’s because it is. One of my biggest gripes with RPO is how predictable the story is at every step. There’s nothing even slightly original here, plotwise, and that really drags Ready Player One. The characters don’t get all that much development, either.

But it is Cline’s distinctive setting that really does help to compensate for the cliche plot. It’s a prescient setting that feels relatable to a reader today. The previously mentioned current-day online society “Second Life” really is the best comparison for OASIS. For example, there is a thriving virtual real estate market in Second Life; people have made and lost real money there; and a few have totally lost their grip on the real reality outside of Second Life. So a future where everybody uses the Internet to create their own reality isn’t farfetched at all. This, I think, is why the story is so unsettling to many readers — it’s uncomfortably close to our own reality. It’s worth noting that much of the derision I talked about earlier has been happening on the Internet, on social media. We look at Wade’s unsettling reality, and we see our own.

And so criticism of Ready Player One ties into the book’s ultimate message, which is a nice one: It’s unhealthy for media to consume your life, but it can help enrich it. In fact, the book’s final scene, which brings this point to the forefront, is lovely, as Wade embraces a romantic relationship with a human in real life, outside of OASIS. The book is also a net neutrality allegory about the perils of Big Corporate Interests lobbying for more power over Internet regulation, as represented by the corporation IOI, which seeks control over OASIS so it can commercialize it and fill it with ads. The allegory is about as subtle as a sledge hammer.

That’s another one of the book’s key flaws — it’s not very subtle. Cline feels the need to spell everything out for the reader. He consistently fails to “show, not tell,” and spends many pages on exposition dumps, some of which aren’t necessary to the plot at all. These exposition dumps really throw off the book’s pacing, making it feel like there’s a vivid world, but next to no actual plot. 

This flaw (and many others) may come from the fact that as a screenplay writer, Ernest Cline has little experience with novel writing. This actually explains a lot about the book’s flaws and strengths. The sometimes-clunky dialogue, the vivid world in comparison to the thin characters and plot — all of these are things that would fly in a movie, because you watch a movie. That, ultimately, is the key to RPO; it’s a book that really wants to be a movie. And now, it is.

So the ultimate verdict? The book’s true quality lies somewhere between the initial praise and the current derision. Ready Player One the book is good, but not great. It’s a decent read and highly accessible for almost any reader. But a book may not be the best format for this story. This story belongs on the big screen, where we can truly admire its spectacle.

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Grady Meyer is a sophomore at TCNJ, majoring in History and minoring in Interactive Multimedia. He grew up in Pennington attending Toll Gate, Timberlane, and HV Central High School. He has always been a voracious lover of books, movies and music of all genres. He is also involved in TCNJ Lions Television, and creates electronic music scores for student films. He also collects Sherlock Holmes pastiches and stories.