Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is a YA Novel for middle aged men about a horrible dystopian future in which cities are being nuked and everyone lives in a giant MMO run by Will Wheaton, Cory Doctorow and the ghost of a dead Steve Jobs knockoff while listening to songs from the 80s.
Cline, a “spoken-word artist”, is a professional geek. Like Will Wheaton and Cory Doctorow. That means he’s a medium talent hipster frantically pandering to other hipsters who work in advertising, but buy Star Wars toys that they play with while drinking craft beers.
Hipsters are earnestly cynical. That’s Ready Player One, a pile of shameless fan service that starts its pandering on page one and never stops.
Ernest Cline panders to pals who can help him promote his novel. Will Wheaton and Cory Doctorow run his future MMO where most of the book takes place. John Scalzi is listed as one of the greats of Science Fiction between Roger Zelazny and Jack Vance.
He’s equally shameless about pandering to his audience. Ready Player One is mostly set in a giant virtual reality holodeck that’s equal parts D&D, EVE and World of Warcraft. It’s named OASIS and in this future world, which is cyberpunk without the punk, everyone spends their time leveling up. Unless an evil corporation named IOI or OIO or something stupid like that gets its way and makes everyone pay a monthly fee to play the game.
Cline could have just left it at that, but then Ready Player One wouldn’t have been a hit. Pandering to teens who think that a WOW fee hike is the worst thing in the world doesn’t get you a Spielberg deal. So even though Ready Player One is a YA novel complete with a whiny teen protagonist who lives on his own, is unpopular at school and has a crush on a girl, Ernest Cline took aim at the manchild demographic by dumping in 80s nostalgia.
If you know anything about Ready Player One, you know it’s all about 80s nostalgia. Ernest Cline does the least bit of work on worldbuilding that he can get away with. (Everyone’s poor, except the rich, there’s climate change, also cities getting nuked, now let’s reference three 80s movies.)
The plot has the inventor of OASIS, a Steve Jobs knockoff whom Cline admits in the book is a Steve Jobs knockoff (you know you’re derivative when you not only copy a character, but your description all but admits he’s derivative) run a contest to let anyone who solves his puzzles inherit his company and all of OASIS.
Since Jobs 2.0, a guy named Halliday, is obsessed with the 80s, The puzzles require watching War Games, playing classic arcade games and recognizing 80s references.
Cline describes Halliday as autistic and into geeky things, but he’s much more into John Hughes movies and generic 80s pop culture. Probably because Cline is. So Halliday becomes an obsessive nerd who collects SF and fires employees who don’t recognize a cartoon, but is also into Duran Duran, John Hughes movies and Heathers. He even lectures the protagonist on spending less time on the internet and getting out more.
(It’s a YA novel, even if it’s targeted at middle aged men, so it has to end with the main character learning and growing.)
The plot is predictable. He panders ruthlessly at every opportunity and the worldbuilding is hardly there. Even when he reveals the identity of Aitch, the character’s best friend, she’s a black lesbian because Cline has to check as many fake social awareness boxes as he can in one character.
And Cline is bad at characters. He’s bad because he doesn’t even try. Everyone is one note. The villain, Nolan Sorrentino, a game designer working for the evil IOI or EIO or IOO, could have been drawn as a more compelling villain with a little subtlety. Instead he twirls his mustache and acts like the dumbest hammiest villain in a bad movie.
The evil corporation brought back slavery and controls so much of the country that it can kill anyone who gets in its way, but will honor the results of an internet contest.
It’s all like that. The teen heroes are aided by a Wozniak knockoff. The main character falls in love with Art3mis because she’s a girl. There’s zero subtlety or depth.
OASIS, the center of the book, is a ridiculous mashup of the internet and an MMO. GSS, the good corporation running it, makes users pay to travel beyond its portal. The heroes are fighting to protect a system where you have to pay to visit websites. People put on goggles and gloves to visit chat rooms. It’s all lazy, stupid and played out.
But while Cline may not get worldbuilding or any other aspect of writing, he does understand pandering, which is why Ready Player One is such a hit. It’s bad SF wrapped around a YA novel wrapped around a ton of 80s nostalgia making it the perfect BuzzFeed book.
Don’t think of Ready Player One as a novel. Think of it as fourth wall fanfic, a book about people mentioning the things you like. It’s unboxing the novel. It’s BuzzFeed lists with more of a plot. It’s that guy linking to people more popular than him in softcover.
It’s absolutely shameless. And that’s why it’s successful.