Review: ‘Ready Player One’ by Ernest Cline

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m not the audience for “Ready Player One,” Ernest Cline’s novel that’s been classified by some as YA literature.

By that I don’t mean I’m not a Young Adult. No, I mean I’m a reader who wants something more from his reading than an endless stream of poor writing and dropped names.

(This is not to criticize YA. There are plenty of fine, inventive and well-written YA books that can be read by fully grown adults.)

To put the plot of the book in terms that the book would understand, it’s like “Willy Wonka” meets “Tron” in a “Soylent Green” world on the set of “Family Ties.” (I’m trying to think of the most ’80s TV series possible, but “Family Ties” is a lousy example because it quickly grew beyond its ’60s-meets-’80s conceit. But I digress.) Wade Watts is a gamer in the barren world of 2044, when the U.S. has fallen apart. Everybody pretty much lives in the OASIS, a virtual world where they don’t have to deal with rusting cities and crappy roads of realit — uh, RL. The OASIS was created by James Halliday, a genius coder who made billions off his creation before dying and leaving his fortune to whomever can solve the layered game he left behind.

Oh, there’s also an evil corporation, IOI, that wants to get its hands on the OASIS so they can keep the world in servitude FOREVER!

(I’ve always thought it would be interesting to write a book from the point of view of an evil-corporation worker drone. Where do Doctor No’s lab assistants go at night? Do the Storm Troopers take smoke breaks and complain about the Empire’s sin taxes?)

The key to it all is Halliday, who grew up in the 1980s and immersed himself in its pop culture. So that’s what Wade — known as Parzifal — and his friends do, too. The ’80s will allow them to claim Halliday’s Easter egg and his fortune.

There are hints of cleverness in this journey, but they’re ruined by Cline’s endless ’80s name dropping. Very few of the references have any point besides demonstrating that, wow, Cline sure remembers the ’80s. Parzifal, in fact, often says he’s seen this movie or that complete TV series or listened to the entire Rush catalog (including bootlegs and concerts!) or read some book or played some video game “dozens of times” or hundreds of times or … whatever. He’s supposed to be 18 and yet he’s devoted every waking hour to memorizing ’80s pop culture and has barely missed a thing. Are there that many hours in an 18-year-old’s life?

Also, I LIVED through the ’80s, and I don’t remember half of it, because like much pop culture, a lot of it wasn’t worth remembering — not in such detail, anyway. Besides, Reagan was threatening to blow Russia up in five minutes.

Anyway, all this is told in a Tell, Don’t Show style. Don’t get the references? Tough, because you certainly aren’t going to get a feel for the characters and settings from Cline’s adjective-heavy writing. He does get in a nice plug for understanding differences — one character has an issue with her looks, and another is not who he pretends to be — but Cline can’t get back to his plot quickly enough. It’s a shame, because there’s one paragraph midway through that suggested the deeper book that could have been:

Standing there, under the bleak fluorescents of my tiny one-room apartment, there was no escaping the truth. In real life, I was nothing but an antisocial hermit. A recluse. A pale-skinned pop culture-obsessed geek. An agoraphobic shut-in, with no real friends, family, or genuine human contact. I was just another sad, lost, lonely soul, wasting his life on a glorified videogame.

But then it’s back to OASIS and the agoraphobic is gone. It would have been interesting for Cline to balance the two — the brilliant gamer and the agoraphobic geek — while still allowing for the plot.

Now, maybe I expected too much of “Ready Player One.” You can argue that, as a kind of videogame-tech book, it’s the equivalent of a breezy action novel, or a pulpy romance, or some such genre work. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s gotten such attention for its pop culture references that I thought I was going to read something that worked on a few levels. What Lemony Snicket could have done with this material!

(Steven Spielberg has optioned the book and is making it into a movie. I imagine the movie will be a lot better, though I hope Spielberg has plenty of winks for the audience.)

Anyway, like I said, the book wasn’t for me. As it is, I never got that far in “Missile Command” and I still haven’t seen “Ladyhawke.” Maybe that would have helped.

Still, if a stew of ’80s references and pure videogame-style action are what you’re looking for, “Ready Player One” will be your kind of play. But, to put it in terms the book would understand, I’d prefer a nice game of chess.

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