Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline, was published in 2011, but I only listened to the audiobook early last year, by which time the upcoming movie adaptation was well into development. I went into it cold, not knowing anything about it beyond the book description. I found it to be one of the most enjoyable books I read/listened to that year, and at the time, it seemed like other people online had generally enjoyed it too.
But now this appears to have changed, with the movie so close to its release date. Suddenly about 90% of people commenting on Ready Player One on social media seem to hate it, and criticise everything about it – this applies to both the book and what promotional material exists for the movie. This apparently abrupt turnaround in consensus felt surprising, and also dispiriting given that my own feelings about Ready Player One haven’t changed. It’s never nice reading about people criticising something you personally love. Indeed, for many years, I was reluctant to admit that Titanic is my favourite movie because of how public (or at least online) opinion suddenly turned against it.
I’ve been looking around, trying to find out just why Ready Player One is attracting hate. Some people feel it’s sexist, often posting out-of-context quotes on social media to prove the point. A common target is the way that Wade, the first-person protagonist, desperately tries to re-establish contact with the girl he likes after she rejects him, sending her lots of messages, and even standing outside her virtual reality home with a boombox playing love songs for two hours. Is that a healthy thing to do? Of course not. But let it be noted that Wade is a teenage boy who has grown up in a depressing dystopia and spends almost all of his waking hours playing in virtual reality; that’s probably going to have an impact on his social skills and his political correctness relative to present-day mature readers. Nor is the book necessarily saying that Wade is right to act the way he does. First-person narration is always going to create some bias in how the main character is portrayed, but even Wade sometimes highlights issues with himself and his life, even criticising himself for spending so much time in the OASIS:
“Each component of my rig was a bar in the cell where I had willingly imprisoned myself. 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.”
Other people say that Ready Player One‘s popularity is based on indulgent nostalgia, pandering to nerds, and little else. There’s no arguing that the book is crammed with references to Eighties pop culture, and some seem to describe it as nothing more than a laundry list of said references. Personally, I feel there is more to the novel than that. When I listened to the audiobook, I did think that the use of pop culture references was cool, even though many of them weren’t personally familiar to me; I’ve certainly never played the arcade games Joust or Tempest. But the main thing I got out of it really was the plot – the quest for the Easter Egg. The whole thing was an engaging adventure, and it had things to say about the real world too. The crumbling world that Wade lives in, laid low by climate change and an energy crisis, is much more plausible than many other dystopias in fiction. And the use of the OASIS to get away from real-world problems does feel like the next step in how many people use the Internet today. I do feel that there is more to Ready Player One than nostalgia – and even the nostalgia factor is not a bad thing.
Sure, the novel isn’t perfect; the writing is a bit clunky sometimes. And readers have every right to not like it if that’s how they feel; its approach isn’t going to appeal to everyone. It did appeal to me, though, and I just don’t think it really deserves all the derision it’s been getting.
Meanwhile, I’m very excited for the movie, and I’ll definitely be reviewing it here once it comes out!