There’s the potential for a sharp satire of nerd culture, obsession, the internet and the way those three things can intersect into dangerous and pointless nostalgia buried somewhere in Ready Player One.
The problem is that the book is wayyyy too far up it’s own butt for that to coalesce, so instead it’s just kind of a silly fun dystopian adventure, with nods to 80’s pop culture as it’s unique hook.
Wade Watts is a nerdy teenage boy who lives in the slums of Oklahoma City in the not too distant future, where the power’s run dry and humanity is on it’s last legs. The only thing good in Wade’s life comes from his connection to The OASIS system, a sort of VR internet that connects the whole world. Wade is a member of a unique subculture “gunters” who are searching the system for a hidden treasure left there by the OASIS’s enigmatic and brilliant designer, which designate the winner his sole heir. Since that designer was overly fixated on his childhood and adolescent obsessions, the gunters too over analyze the popular culture of the 1980s, looking for hints and quests. Wade finds a long sought clue and it sets off a race against the clock and (obviously) a faceless evil corporation that wants to control the OASIS.
It’s all very boilerplate, and I was engaged and amused through the whole reading.
And that’s fine. Really. Except it still left me with a sort of sick feeling, and that’s more personal than anything. Ready Player One seems to glorify as noble and heroic all of the things that kept me away from “nerd culture” for a really long time. The distaste for and dismissal of “noobs,” gatekeeping by way of trivia quizzing, full on disconnection from reality and most of all, dismissal of community and cooperation as somehow inauthentic. (Until the last 40 or so pages where we learn that the true treasure is the friends we made along the way, but also you know, actual treasure.)
I came to nerd culture by way of small time theater, where auteurs are scoffed at, teamwork is paramount and celebrated and no single person’s vision or plan is more important than the production coming together as a whole. “There are no small parts,” and all that. Not that there wasn’t cattiness, overly competitive people or toxicity, those things are a part of pretty much every subculture. But they tend to be minimized when you’re all pulling in the same direction. Therefore the, “I’m out for me and screw anyone in my way, even my friends,” attitude of the main characters, which is sort of endemic in nerd circles, especially the gamer dude ones described here, has always really rubbed me the wrong way.
Also women. Ummm…not great…There are three women to speak of. Wade’s mom, who was a junky prostitute who died of an overdose when he was 10. So, there’s that. Then there’s his aunt who raised him after that, a shrewish welfare queen who neglects and steals from her nephew. Who also dies. So, you know, two for two.
And then there’s Art3mis. *SIGH* Art3mis is Wade’s love interest. She’s also a gunter, and she’s almost better than him! But only almost. Her favorite movie is Highlander, and she’s super hot but not in like a conventional way. Wade basically stalks her and she’s very chill about it, even flattered. She can hang with the guys and is cool with all their lame trash talk, even giving as good as she gets.
Art3mis is Gillian Flynn’s “Cool Girl” given the skin of nerdy women. She’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s “Ping Pong Girl.” (If you are unfamiliar with “Ping Pong Girl,” get familiar.) She made me want to find Ernest Cline and shake him while shouting, “HAVE YOU EVER SPOKEN TO A WOMAN WHO SHARES YOUR INTERESTS? BECAUSE WE ARE GENERALLY NOT LIKE THIS!”
This is a teenage girl, who exists in an elaborate subculture obsessed with the 1980s and never utters the phrase, “What’s your damage, Heather?” nor really mentions Winona Ryder at all nor references Dirty Dancing, or Strawberry Shortcake. While there’s some reference to her only showing Wade the sides of herself he’d like, it’s not enough.
Because seriously, even as a caricature, this girl should be obsessed with Winona Ryder, and want to talk about nothing else.
But those personal hangups aside, it’s a fun book, well constructed with a neat gimmick at it’s center, and I can’t wait to see the movie, if only because seeing Spielberg take on the visuals and action is going to be spectacular. Also, when adapting novels, Spielberg tends to take the bones of the book and make something completely different. After all Jurassic Park by Michael Chrichton is a thinky slow burn thriller about the dangers of technological overreach and chaos theory and Jaws by Peter Benchley is (as I understand, having never read it) a trashy pulp novel full of untenable subplots and unlikable characters. In Spielberg’s hands, Jurassic Park became an incredible action movie that still had something to say about technological overreach, and Jaws a flawless masterpiece of a horror flick with intense themes of man versus nature.
So he might manage to strip away the bravado and self congratulatory cleverness and get at something real. I hope so, because there’s so much potential here.
The female characters will still probably be garbage though…*sigh*
Up next is Lauren Graham’s Someday, Someday, Maybe because I’m still in fluff mode, but I badly need to read something not written by a dude.