Ready Player One’s Wade, wallowing in CG nostalgia.
Ready Player One is a festering mound of garbage, with barely any redeeming features. Neal Stephenson did it first, and better, in Snow Crash and Nick Cole did it better, and with more human drama and emotion, in Soda Pop Soldier. Next to them, Ready Player One is a billion dumptrucks’ worth of worthless crud.
Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One exemplifies that strange, contradictory mix typical of our debased modern entertainment: it’s simultaneously simplemindedly naive and deeply cynical. It is the product of a person who unquestioningly accepts all the tenets of postmodernism, who is a true believer in them to a degree so intense as to shame the merely fanatical: the writer’s false beliefs are so fundamental to how he sees the world that he simply cannot imagine it might be any other way. This produces a mix of foolish pseudo-Utopianism and gargantuan cynicism.
Just one example: IOI (“Innovative Online Industries”), the requisite Oh-So-Evil Corporation and primary villain, casually slaughters a couple of hundred people just to assassinate one gamer, engages in state-approved debt slavery (literal lifelong slavery for failure to pay a credit-card bill), and plans to take over (essentially) the entire Internet and rule it with an iron fist. This is cliched, obvious, and unoriginal. (See: Max Headroom, Alien, every cyberpunk novel ever written, etc.)
“Cliched” perfectly describes most of the book, in fact. It wallows in cliche, is composed almost wholly of cliches, and never rises above the level of cliche.
Here’s some more of the book’s many other flaws:
- The book is built around an endless series of in-jokes and (ostensibly) obscure references to 1980’s pop culture. Indeed, mastering and repeating back such trivia is the entire point of the in-world quest. Yet, for a book centered around “REMEMBER THIS THING FROM YOUR CHILDHOOD? BATHE IN THAT NOSTALGIA!”, its references are stunningly, boringly obvious and not at all clever or thoughtful. Shallow, inapt in-jokes don’t make for a great book.
- It hits every single Crapsack World cliche on the books: Peak Oil, One Percenters uber alles, OMGOSH DAS CRIME IS OUTTEN DAS CONTROL… I think they might even have slipped a little Ozone Depletion in there, but I might be mixing RP1 up with every other cliched environmentalist-tract-posing-as-science-fiction-novel I’ve read over the years.
- One MMO—OASIS—becomes the OS for everything and replaces the Internet? Makes no sense. Especially when your in-game wealth and digital property disappear with a single death. (The book’s climax wipes out somewhere between 1/27th and 1/2 of the global economy, because of a randomly generated artifact-level loot drop.) NO WAY that game becomes super-popular, much less the backbone of all entertainment and commerce and everything else, any more than the Oculus Rift port of Ark: Survival Evolved will grow to replace the iTunes Store, the New York Stock Exchange, and everything else online.
- The book is plastic, superficial, and utterly ignorant of real people. The flirting reads like something an alien who knows what flirting is, but who’s never actually seen it, would write.
- The main character, Wade, is a LOSER. He stalks a girl for years, when he finally meets her and she doesn’t vomit at his mere appearance, he instantly proclaims his true love and begs her to love him back. It’s PATHETIC. Then—unaccountably—she somehow starts to like him and he does it AGAIN. When she finally says no, he abandons his quest—the thing that has dominated his life for five years—and runs off and has sex with a motorized Real Doll for a couple of weeks before self loathing drives him back to the plot. (And yet, somehow, she later falls for the loser stalker. See above, about “written by an alien”.)
- A diversity checklist Intersectionalist Bingo winner—oppressed black overweight lesbian woman kicked out of the house by her judgmental Christian mother—makes an appearance. This specific mixture has become something of a cliche, I’m given to understand, especially lately and especially in comic books. In any case, RP1’s is a doozy.
There are, it must be said, strong resemblances between Soda Pop Soldier, Ready Player One, and Snow Crash, to the point where I wonder if Nick Cole didn’t look at Ready Player One and think “I can do that, but better!” and Ernest Cline didn’t look at Snow Crash and think “I can do that, but worse!” (Both succeeded.) In any case, Soda Pop Soldier is better than Ready Player One in every single way (but three), so let’s list a few!
- Soda Pop Soldier has MUCH better action scenes. Given that—like RP1—they primarily take place in a virtual world, Cole does a great job of presenting the stakes (much better than Cline does). We care about PerfectQuestion’s real life struggles, so we care if he wins his battles in his futuristic Call of Duty clone.
- SPS has a more textured world. WarWorld, and the rest of the “Internet” makes more sense than RP1’s OASIS ever could.
- The SPS romance subplots—and there are two—are both more real, more actual than anything found in RP1.
- SPS has a villain WHO’S A FREAKING VILLAIN, instead of a pile of unconvincing cliches. (Basically, RP1’s villain is a shallow Carter Burke clone.)
- SPS’s “in jokes” aren’t gratuitous, shallow, or ubiquitous. They’re organic parts of the story—just peep the Aliens sequence.
Both Soda Pop Soldier and Ready Player One have in-world virtual worlds the protagonists must quest through, and the person and personality of the creators of those worlds matter a great deal to how these sequences play out.
When comparing Soda Pop Soldier’s Wastehavens to RP1’s OASIS, Wastehavens wins hands down, whether we’re talking about the world as a game world or the histories of the creators. The story of Wastehavens’ creator laboring to bring his vision into existence, only to see it corrupted, is far more poignant and relatable than RP1’s unthinking cut-and-paste of Walter White’s backstory. (See? I can do references too! Though mine are perfectly apt, and somewhat subtle.) Cole knows people, and it shows.
As for the three places Ready Player One beats Soda Pop Soldier…
- Both books have uninspiring titles, but RP1’s at least evokes nostalgia, so has a slight edge.
- The buildup to RP1’s climax felt more epic than SPS’s. There were literally world shaking stakes in both, but you felt it more in RP1.
- RP1 is a more commercially friendly work. SPS is more real, but at the cost of including things mainstream audiences will find jarring (most especially in The Black). By way of analogy, RP1 is a slutty Pop Tart’s hit album (Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream”, for example) to SPS’s raw, personal, wrenching Heavy Metal concept album. The second may be better, in a musical, thematic, and moral sense, but the first is more pleasing to the ear, so just sells more. (Most of Cole’s books share this non-commercial sensibility, except his “Galaxy’s Edge” series, coauthored with Jason Anspach. Not coincidentally, they’re also his most successful works, AFAIK. Interested in seeing if he ports that almost-commercial sensibility back over to his solo books.)
RP1 is superficial and artificial, a plastic world filled with plastic androids interacting with other plastic androids, in a way vaguely reminiscent, yet utterly unlike, real human beings. It has the same relationship to reality as the sex doll Wade bangs has to a real woman. It isn’t real, even for the attenuated notion of “real” that applies to fiction.
For all its squalor and nastiness, Ready Player One is the product of a mind that’s fundamentally ignorant of the Real World. Soda Pop Soldier has some shocking stuff, but it’s wholly human and fundamentally REAL.
Jasyn Jones, better known as Daddy Warpig, is a host on the Geek Gab podcast, a regular on the Superversive SF livestreams, and blogs at Daddy Warpig’s House of Geekery. Check him out on Twitter.