When Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One came out in 2011, it was received with lukewarm reviews. It was a fun, sci-fi, YA sort of jam. But since the announcement and, now release, of Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation, eyes are back on the novel and they are far more critical.
The story, for those of you who haven’t read it (it’s on the Amazon Top 10 List, so I assume a lot of you have) or seen the film, takes place decades into the future when the Earth is overpopulated and people are poor and starving. A believable enough premise, as it is already somewhat our reality. And while the majority of the world doesn’t have adequate housing or nutrition, what they do have is the OASIS, a virtual reality world where they can be any avatar they can create and essentially do whatever they want. The story follows Wade Watts, who goes by the alias of Parzival; he’s a typical white bread, self conscious, awkward, outsider-who-is-clearly-superior kind of high school nerd. Wade is a “gunter,” meaning that he is engaged in the epic hunt for Halliday’s Easter Egg. James Halliday, the eccentric creator of the OASIS, left the controlling shares of OASIS stock and all of his riches to whoever could find the three keys and the egg first in his impossibly difficult ‘80s pop culture themed hunt.
I read the book when it came out and, as a seventh grader, I loved it. When I picked it up again before watching the movie, I felt differently. Was I tainted by reviews I had read? Was it merely a result of growing up? (I still love a lot of YA, I read Ender’s Game almost twice a year so it’s probably not that). Here are a few things that have changed since 2011:
1. The targeted YA reading audience has drifted almost another entire generation further from having any connection with the 80s.
After watching Spielberg’s version, I couldn’t help but admire how he used the ‘80s references almost as easter eggs, like seeing Beetlejuice hidden in the crowd congratulating Parzival. This was pretty different from the novel, which beats you over the head with explaining all the different ways that a piece of clothing or an Atari game was relevant to ‘80s culture. The headline of the NYTimes review of the film states that Spielberg is playing “The Nostalgia Game,” whereas there is no playing in Cline’s novel -- the whole novel is “The Nostalgia Game” itself.
2. Female representation in all kinds of art becomes more of a societal conversation every day.
I first added this point on basis of the movie alone, but realized that it applied to the novel as well. The issue is Art3mis. Movie Art3mis starts out as a badass gamer girl, just like the novel, but soon swoons for Parzival although they’ve barely interacted, and feels comfortable sharing her quest progress with him. All the badassery goes right out the door when she finally tells Wade Watts how sure she is that he’s going to win. Why? She’s supposed to be this insane gamer, why can’t she be given the same stake in the competition as she is given in the novel? So those are some issues with the movie. Back to Cline’s novel, where he definitely gets some points for the (comparatively) slow burn cyber romance and Art3mis’s reluctance to talk about the keys and clues. But still, Wade never really views Art3mis as a threat, she’s like a manic pixie Gamer girl and the fact that she’s a good gamer is a quirky, sexy, cute attribute rather than a legitimate skill.
Also, Art3mis ends up being really hot. Which isn’t an issue in itself, I’m not saying that girls that appeal to society’s stereotypical beauty standards can’t be good gamers, but it’s just a kind of let down in a world where they could be anyone. In the movie, Art3mis is played by the stunning Olivia Cooke and she does a decent, yet forgettable, job of playing such an empty character.
3. VR still hasn’t changed the world very drastically, even for gaming.
In 2011, we had a lot of hope. And we still do. Virtual reality is currently still viewed to be the final platform for consuming art and entertainment. But the advancements have fallen short. We’re not going to be in the OASIS anytime soon. That’s really all I have to say about that.
A final thought as to why it’s easy to be critical of this book: as we hurtle towards the dates in which Cline’s dystopia exists, with the same issues breathing down our necks, we find it unthinkable that the whole world would look back to the ‘80s with such all consuming nostalgia. It’s disappointing. Cline points to that with Parzival’s final conversation with Halliday (spoiler) where Halliday shows him that button that will turn off the OASIS when he thinks it’s necessary. But it’s not super believable that it would ever be acted on, or that the author really buys into this twist, after he just spent almost 300 pages relishing in ‘80s references.
Cline’s book is still fun and so is the movie. I know that I just kind of bashed on it, but it’s a quick read with all the bad guys, good guys, romance, drama, and tech to satisfy that YA urge.