Writing a book is hard. Trust me, writing a blog and maybe a poem every other week is enough for me. So I give a thumbs up to Ernest Cline, the author of Ready Player One, and everyone else who decides to make art. So in this post, I’ll give RPO a thumps up with one hand and use the other to write (yes, this was all on paper originally) my critique.
The pervading problem with this book is that it is way too extra for me to enjoy, allowing for both contradictions and superficiality that lessen the immersion and importance of its subject matter. The paragraphs will focus on poverty, A.I., Wade’s skills, Wade’s love interest, a list of other ways the book was extra, a passionate discussion of Aech, a complaint on how the’80s theme was handled, and a conclusion. So While I encourage you to read all of it, becauuse it all points a thesis that I hope you’ll agree with, if not also feel in your bones, at least there’s a guide if you just want to pick and choose from my buffet of complaints.
One of the first contradictions that this book makes is between the overwhelming poverty in its dystopian setting and the isolation Wade feels for being poor in the OASIS. This book doesn’t really hold back on describing the world as being impoverished: energy crisis, mass migration, stacks, etc. So on one hand there is a world of poverty, which is fine on its own. On the other hand, there is a social elite, complete with virtual space ships, teleporters, planets, expensive virtual clothes, etc. So lots of stories explore this dichotomy, but they are consistent in a way that RPO is not. In this story, Wade seems to be the only poor person in school, and this is a major factor to his character and narrative. Every time Wade mentions the poverty or the rich people in his school, I found myself asking: where are all the poor students? Wade barely had decent grades, and halliday made sure that the OASIS public school system would receive funding forever, so why was Wade given a headset and no one else who was poor? This is a relatively unimportant contradiction, but it was the first I saw and it was repeated often, so I thought I’d start here and give harsher criticism later.
Another way that being too extra makes a thematic contradiction in this story is when Wade plays against the A.I. guarding the first key. On one page, he says that A.I. could never be like humans because the software can’t “improvise,” (82). In the story’s logic A.I. could never beat humans because they cannot do what humans do, so thus they are definitely not human. This would have been fine, but then the book goes further by having Wade also think that he “was actually playing against Halliday,” (83). He could have thought that he was playing against Halliday’s creation or something, but instead he breaks his own internal logic by saying both that A.I. can never be like humans and that the A.I. is Halliday. This is a simple contradiction that could have been easily avoided if the book wasn’t trying to be so extra.
Speaking of being too extra, let’s talk about how much praise the book gives Wade for his video game skills and 80’s knowledge. Wade, after not playing a game for 2 years, beats the A.I. on his first try. Then he goes on to beat every other challenge without breaking a sweat. This means that our hero never fails, never has to reflect on the fact that he isn’t a perfect gunter, because he is. This really takes out the tension of each challenge and makes the story less interesting, since we don’t know how Wade reacts to not being perfect, which is something that everyone deals with. Not only this, but it is also unrealistic for him to be so good. UNREALISTIC!? But it’s just a book, who cares. The author, for one, seems to. He also seems to think that we will, since he goes into a lot of effort to show how much time Wade puts in to playing games to justify his perfection. In bragging to us about how much Wade knows, Wade concludes by telling us that he studies “Twelve hours a day, seven days a week” (64). If we factor in 40 hours for school and only 7 hours of homework a week, that means that he only sleeps for 37 hours throughout the week, which is just 5.3 hours per week every day during the school year. I’m no doctor, but I’d imagine that if someone only got that much sleep for the school year for 5 years, he’d be dead, or at least unable to function even in the virtual world. His knowledge, talent, and obsession is just too extra to be realistic or entertaining narrative-wise.
Wanna talk about the character of Wade being extra? Let’s talk about how far the author goes to show how genuine and accepting he is. When describing how his crush is pretty much the only person in OASIS to have a female avatar to not have “the absurdly thin yet wildly popular supermodel frame, or the top-heavy, wasp-waisted porn starlet physique” we get the impression that his crush is genuine because he likes her for who she really is (35). First, the stereotype of almost everyone changing their body in such stereotypical ways is too much to even be called cliche; second, the fact that she is one of the few who break it is such a “she’s not like other girls” trope used to – third – show why Wade isn’t like other guys, because he likes the genuine girl. Also, he has a crush on her. No, not a crush, more like an unhealthy obsession, going so far as to keep a picture of her to look at. Next, lets look at her narrative: she gets helped (read: saved) by the protagonist for parts of the egg hunt, opens up about her personal life to someone she really doesn’t know and thus of course falls in love with him, breaks up with him to work on her own, then realizes what a great guy he is after the final battle and gets back together with him. Her journey revolves around realizing how genuine the main character is. Blegh.
I could talk about a LOT more: Halliday’s inconsistent, unimportant platitude to live in the real world, Wade’s lack of reaction about the deaths he caused by refusing Sorrento (wow look how alpha and determined he is!), their portrayal of internet culture with I-Rok and how the WORST aspects of the internet were staged in front of a cheering crowd without any deeper reflection (for heaven’s sake, they call him a retard and two derogatory terms for gay people without a blink of an eye), the constant insistence that just because Wade knows a lot about 80’s culture means that he somehow deserves to win the prize attached to the contest (does anyone remember how he wanted to spend it all on escaping Earth?), Halliday’s creepy and unrealistic, and seemingly justified obsession with someone who doesn’t like him, the total lack of anything but superficial character growth, predictable ending, the constant use of deus ex machina explained after-the-fact (oh he bought a tool to hack IOI’s network! and Pacman gave him the extra life!), the undeserved and superficial reference that turns out to be totally irrelevant of ““No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful,” (199), the constant spelling-out of references, and the amount of times that the book gives us the same exact piece of exposition over and over again (how many times have I read that about Halliday’s backstory?). Sure, this is all extra, but there are two more topics that I want to talk about in more depth.
The first is the reveal of Aech. I’ll start with the artistic decision to make her a checkmark for every victimized identity he could think of: female, black, lesbian, and heavy. This would be amazing if Aech’s character was actually influenced by her identity. Instead, we get a short backstory that seems to only explain why she has a van and why she doesn’t live with her parents. Before and after this, Aech’s identity DOES NOT MATTER. It impacts nothing, and we learn nothing more. Is Wade interested in how she feels about not representing her race/gender and thus not providing a good model of those minorities? Surely she has some opinion on that. What about how weird it is that she feels discrimination in the real world and not in OASIS? Or how her family feels about this? Or about how her behavior is sort of encouraging her to be ashamed about her identity? What about how she feels when people talk poorly about any of her identities in the game (what about when Wade calls I-Rok a twink or when I-Rok calls them fags?). There is a wealth of characterization here, and we don’t get more than two paragraphs about it before we return to how Wade feels about all of this.
All of this, all of her identity checks, backstory, possibility for characterization, is all just there to show that Wade is a good person and that he will still be friends with Aech despite this. F*ck that bs. I already disliked this book a lot, but this made me throw the book against the floor. Marginalized identities to a side character should not be used to make the main character look more accepting. They should not be used as just a plot twist. And they do not deserved to be ignored, as Wade so easily does by continuing to refer to Aech as a “he.” Does he ask her which pronoun to use? He couldn’t care less. How Wade wants to refer to Aech is all that matters, her identity is nothing more than Wade’s interpretation of it (much like how Cartman is treating Token in the picture above). But so, while for a brief moment there could be an interesting character in this book, is then taken away because the author really doesn’t want to explore the issue beyond how it can make the protagonist look tolerant. In short, the book is so extra in making Wade look genuine that it makes one of its characters fit every marginalized identity and explores it with as much brevity as possible to keep the focus on how Wade is so great for accepting Aech. This alone is pathetic enough to make me hate the book.
One more thing. The book is filled beyond the brim to ’80s references. The narrative is constantly interrupted with explanations about references, and many more are name dropped in there. This would be fine if there was more, but that’s it. There is no theme to connect everything. It’s just there, and it could easily be replaced with anything else and not change anything. The ’80s references are just there as wallpaper, having no significance beyond letting the reader feel good about remembering some references. What is significant about the ’80s that Halliday became obsessed with it? Why does it pervade everywhere? No reason, just that he was a kid there.
It’s more of a trivia challenge than something interesting. The author could have expanded upon how the escapism of that culture matches that of the OASIS, or it’s origin in the powerful economy of the ’80s and how that relates to their society, or something. Instead all we get is a list of things that people remember from the ’80s. And I didn’t care. Nothing about it was interesting.
In conclusion, this book isn’t so much suffering from a few flaws as much as it is filled to the brim with problems. That is why I can’t just find it fun. However, I don’t mean to offend anyone who did enjoy the book, since reading is a subjective and personal experience. I’m just suggesting that if you want to swim in this book’s water, don’t dive headfirst; brain injury may occur in shallow waters.
Hint about my username: Art isn’t easy. ___ is a major decision.