January 16th 2012 Ready Player One: Twilight For Nerds

Ready Player One

If you’re a geek with a soft spot for old video games and 80s nostalgia, you’ll love Ernest Cline’s debut novel, Ready Player One. While I enjoyed this novel—I polished it off in about a week, and afterwards felt like it was one of my favorite new books of 2011—I belatedly realized that I am not the target audience. The book certainly isn’t bad, but it has enough problems that, despite the fun I had while reading it, I’m hesitant to call it great.

(Warning: there are some spoilers in the remaining paragraphs, so read at your own peril. This review is more for people who have read the book, or have absolutely no plans to do so, I suppose.)

Firstly, Ready Player One is entirely too predictable; it’s a feel-good novel whose ending you can see coming from the first third of the book. Partly this is due to the fact that the novel relies too heavily on deus ex machina. I appreciate that the novel is an homage to cyberpunk stories of yore, and spins a classic David-versus-Goliath story, but you can tell from the beginning that the good guys are going to win, even though it seems practically impossible for them to do so. As a result, the ending is not only thoroughly predictable, but incredibly implausible as well.

I could get over that fact if the rest of the story had been suspenseful, but it was not. Ready Player One is told almost like a classic video game, its progress marked by preordained “boss fights”; but these boss fights are over within a couple pages, and it seems like Wade, the main character, barely has to put any effort into them whatsoever. I never really felt like the characters were in any real danger; they were all so powerful that it seemed unlikely that they could lose. And by the end, I realized that Cline was making liberal use of deus ex machina, so they weren’t in any danger. The climactic points were fun to read, but not really all that exciting.

Partly this was due to the fact that, like most cyberpunk novels, Wade triumphed because of brains, not brawn. In this case, though, Wade wasn’t so much cunning as possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of 80s pop culture. The protagonist literally triumphed by knowing how to beat arcade game bosses and memorizing the lines to WarGames. Had Ready Player One been more MacGuyver-esque, it could’ve been interesting, but instead it was snippets (sometimes running into several pages) of 80s trivia. Interesting, and perhaps exciting if you’re into that period of time, but ultimately it felt a bit flat.

Not as flat, though, as the characters themselves. Wade Watts is a classic Mary Sue. He’s an overweight nerd, as knowledgeable about the 80s as he is not about women, who spends all of his time online. He falls in love with a girl who, we are told, is awesome and cool and beautiful, save for a port-wine stain on her face that makes her self-conscious; of course, no one else but the protagonist has been able to see beyond her birthmark to the beauty inside. Yeah, we get it: the main character is more deep and caring than everyone else in this girl’s life, and we should file him under “S” for “Sensitive Nerd”, or perhaps “P” for “Perfect Boyfriend”.

The thing that annoys me most about the characters—particularly Wade—is that they never really grow. And why should they? They’re never really tested. The only really bad thing that happens to Wade is that his family is killed in the beginning—but in true cyberpunk style, he wasn’t close to his family, and, in fact, his family’s death enables him to spend all his time online, so no skin off his back. The only dramatic way the protagonist changes is that he gets in shape; but, of course, he gets in shape by literally working out while playing a video game, so he doesn’t even have to struggle with that. He may as well have taken a magic pill that made him thin and muscular.

I’d talk about the other characters’ transformations, but they’re so thin and cookie-cutter that we can’t even really see how they change because we barely even know them.

So why did I like Ready Player One? I really had trouble answering that. Scrutiny shows that the novel is mostly drivel, but damn, I had a lot of fun reading it. I honestly enjoyed plowing through the pages. Sometimes it even kept me up at night. These discordant feelings gnawed at the recesses of my mind.

That’s when it hit me: Ready Player One is basically Twilight for people who spent their summers at math camp.

Bear with me: Twilight is popular with young women (and middle-aged women…) not because the prose is florid or the story is original, but because it tickles a romantic part of their brains and also provides suspenseful fodder. It says, hey, you can be just how you are—insecure, unsure of yourself, maybe not the prettiest woman out there—and you’ll still have guys fighting for you. When scrutinized, the message in Twilight is unrealistic, and maybe even dangerous (do you really want a creeper like Edward interested in you?) but it still stimulates that part of the brain searching for romantic validation and excitement. It’s obviously an exciting and fulfilling read, if one that shouldn’t be take seriously.

Ready Player One does the same thing, but for geeks. It says, hey, do you spend all your time online? are you an organic encyclopedia of 80s knowledge? do you worry that you’re not really good enough and you’re never going to get the girl of your dreams? Never fear, because you can save the world and get that girl without changing who you are! And if you’re a nerd of the overweight variety, you can even shed some extra pounds by playing video games!

Unrealistic? Absolutely. And taken to the extreme, the underlying message in Ready Player One, like that of Twilight, is even dangerous. You won’t save the world from your parents’ basement. You can’t expect some girl to fall into your lap just because you’re you’re the only one to see past her (minor) flaws. You won’t get rich just by spending all your time jacked into the Internet. But hey, it’s a nice idea, right? If not taken literally, it’s okay to indulge yourself in that fantasy for a few hours.

Ready Player One and Twilight are the potato chips of the literary world: delicious, filling, but not to be eaten for every single meal, and not to be taken as seriously as spinach.