Two years ago I picked up a novel that I got for free in a Loot Crate as a way to pass the time in airports and on planes while going on vacation. That book was Ready Player One. I wrote one of my first blog posts about it, since I had enjoyed the experience and it had presented some ideas that I thought were kind of neat. I figured that Ready Player One was going to remain fairly obscure; a love letter to geek culture that only people who like to analyze geek culture will pick up. We can see now that I was wrong. Insignificant novels rarely get remade as movies by Steven Spielberg.
I have noticed that there is an undercurrent of hate for RPO and I don’t think it’s entirely justified. It’s not very loud at all on the mainstream media hype machine. If everything you know about RPO is what you learned when you saw the trailer at the theatre when you were there to see Black Panther then it might even surprise you that there are people who aren’t stoked to go see this film. But a quick search of Twitter will show you that in between the fanboys, some people see it as a mirror of the rebirth of mainstream fascism. From what I can gather, the sharpest criticism for RPO falls into one or more of these categories:
- The pop culture references are empty and the prose is indulgent, therefore the novel is trash.
- The book doesn’t address the dysfunctional relationships that white guys have with their fandoms.
- It elevates the “nerd” stereotype into places that it shouldn’t be.
- Not having read the book, just complaining about something like the fact that there is imagery of an Iron Giant fighting others and that’s totally wrong.
My intention is to respond to these in a way that doesn’t flinch at the bad parts, but does explain why my experience as the reader was a good one that will drive me to go see the film.
Let’s start with the first one. Is RPO trash? Yeah, it is. It’s not just trash, though, it’s my trash. The nostalgia it peddles is tailor-made for white heterosexual late-GenX/Xennial nerdy men. C’est moi. I have seen several people compare this to Twilight for the demographic I described. That’s entirely fair. Twilight doesn’t specifically cater to me. I didn’t have to like it. I did go see the film and did enjoy it because I knew better than to take it too seriously. But even if I didn’t find it entertaining, I would respond by ignoring it rather than performatively hating it. And when you think about it, guys like me going out of their way to hate things that mainly appeal to women, and ignoring their own trash, is kind of suspect. So please don’t to it to me.
It’s not a likely candidate for being considered among the finest literature to be studied in universities for hundreds of years. It is a novel that entertains its target audience. If that’s not you, fine. Go enjoy something else. I don’t begrudge Nickelback fans their joy in hearing a new album or seeing the band in concert. But the fact that I am inclined to take a pass on more Nickelback doesn’t make them objectively bad. If Nickelback pivoted towards promotion of white supremacy rather than doing what they do best then it’s no longer a matter of taste. But as far as RPO goes, I find it hard to believe that it is inherently bad to indulge Monty Python and D&D fans. One can say that it goes beyond indulgence and into praising unhealthy relationships with fandoms, which brings me to the second point of criticism.
Does the novel address dysfunctional relationships with fandom? Not explicitly, but it does in my head. This is the part where I am going to compare RPO to Norman Spinrad’s novel The Iron Dream. The premise of Spinrad’s book is based in an alternate universe where Adolf Hitler never rises to political power, and instead becomes a science fantasy author who publishes a novel called Lord of the Swastika. The layer of narrative between the reader and the novel-within-the-novel is a convenient space to make explicit to the reader what would otherwise be implicit: Lord of the Swastika is cryptofascist and that’s a bad thing. And when you think about it, how easy is it for typical hero’s journey type fantasies to go that way if that is what the author had in mind? It’s fine to love Tolkien but don’t stop being critical. Just in case you aren’t aware of what Spinrad is getting at in writing Lord of the Swastika, Dr. Whipple is there in the narrative frame to beat you over the head with it.
What does this have to do with RPO? Well, the dystopian corporatocracy that Wade Watts lives in when he is not adventuring in the virtual world is undeniably a terrible place. But let’s stop taking for granted that the OASIS is separable from and exists as the opposite of that world and think about what it means for the OASIS to be a part of that world. The key difference here is that Wade’s story is not nested in a frame narrative where a feminist pop culture critic jumps out and explains all the reasons how and why both Wade Watts and James Halliday are behaving destructively in different ways. It is left to the reader to fill the role of Homer Whipple. It is up to us to see the shades of Zuckerberg, Musk, Palmer, and Bezos in Watts and Halliday. It is up to us to see how making tech dudes into tech gods can go wrong very quickly. It’s not there in the text, but as the reader I experienced a critique of our dysfunctional relationships with pop culture fandom. There were many noble intentions behind creating OASIS and it does do some good in the world, but it is inescapably rooted in the faults and desires of a white and nerdy guy. That makes it a bit darker than just a festive mashup of all the pop culture that I like. It is showing me that, in trying to create that ultimate reward for the fanboy, a man can create a monster. The real ugliness of the world is not the mere existence of the stacks, but how OASIS is the only way out and that the only escape from the cruel outside world is into a shinier cruel inside world.
If I were to insist on taking the novel at face value then I would probably agree a lot more with this point of criticism. But I am not in the habit of refusing to exercise my ability to think critically about what I am reading even though the work itself mostly there to pay homage to other stuff that I like. I am not even sure that what I am reading into the book was even intended by Cline, which brings me to reconsider my previously stated opinions on death of the author. I still think that the intent matters, but my experience with RPO was one where the dysfunction is laid out as a criticism rather than a celebration even if that’s not what the author was intending.
The mostly-privileged “nerd” archetype is celebrated in the book, no doubt about that. A lot of people look at the protagonist Wade Watts when thinking about this, but I think of James Halliday too. As I read the novel and more about this initially-enigmatic man is revealed, I do not see a god worth bowing down to. I see a broken, sad, deeply troubled man whose gatekeeping bullshit is a coping mechanism for whatever unspecified illness and/or disability is causing him a lot of psychological pain. James Halliday is not beyond sympathy but he’s certainly damaged. He is not “good” in an unqualified sense just because he is a genius. The fact that he spent a huge amount of time and energy ensuring that OASIS would reward the kind of performative geekery that is necessary to find the Easter Egg is not good. Wade Watts becoming internet-god because he is the best at picking up what Halliday is laying down is not good. This is not a heroic narrative where everything is good in the end.
Why should we continue to assume that the guy who wins the day is necessarily a good guy? I would have loved for the book to go on a little bit longer, wherein Wade finds it impossible to manage OASIS all on his own, Samantha comes to the conclusion that she’s been treated as a prize to be won and leaves him, Helen starts calling him out on his failure to address rampant bigotry in the system, and Wade finds that a lot of the guys he ends up having to delegate to are kind of toxic and decreasingly distinguishable from the sixers. I see a lot of the validity in this third point of criticism precisely because this bites-him-in-the-ass aftermath I am imagining isn’t part of the original narrative. But it didn’t take a lot of effort me to imagine that, so I do think the novel lends itself to a reading that isn’t just all about how awesome Wade is because he is a successful superfan.
And lastly, I am more inclined to enjoy the critiques coming out from people who have read the whole book rather than just a screenshotted paragraph in which the prose is particularly indulgent and reference-laden. Using the Iron Giant as an avatar in a fighting game is not faithful to the source material, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that book where characters do that is an affront to the source material. It’s not as if edgy shitlords on our real-world internet are in any way faithful to the original context of where their avatars come from. Pepe wasn’t always a Nazi. Writing a story wherein neo-Nazis are making Pepe memes is not something I would see as an acknowledgement of a phenomenon more than an attack on Matt Furie’s creation.
My response to this fourth point is that the most effective critiques of a literary work are the ones that understand that work, not the ones that are attack-on-command. Any social media search done now will turn up a lot more hype than hate, but I don’t think either of those extremes are interesting. I am interested to see if Spielberg and Penn are able to fix the aspects of RPO that feel empty. I am interested to see how well it is communicated that the misappropriation of symbols in RPO is a reflection of what we as fans often do intentionally or unintentionally. I had to read between the lines to find it in the book, but I did find it.
All of that being said, this defence of RPO is not intended to convince you to like it. When I hedged my words by saying that the hate is not entirely justified, I did mean to convey that some of it is. There are some parts of the book that deserve a good thrashing from critics that might or might not be treated differently in the film. I genuinely feel that Aech’s true self gets shortchanged in the novel and hope to see a lot more of her in the film. Art3mis is initially presented as a woman with a personality of her own, but then does become the damsel and the reward in the end, and that was rather disappointing.
I won’t be surprised if my mom went to see RPO and left confused and vaguely dissatisfied. I can see that it will not be for everyone. My goal is to encourage people to think and talk about the ideas that RPO brought to my mind as I read it. Your attendance at this party is not mandatory; I merely ask that you refrain from standing right outside the party jeering at the attendees with a megaphone. But for those who want to come to the party: let’s discuss the role of immersive gameplay in a post-abundance economy. Let’s talk about how men deal with hurt and pain. Let’s talk about the stuff that comes to mind when a person reads Ready Player One.
So, the Canadian release is six days from now. I will most certainly show up for the nostalgia trip and the neat ideas. I will also show up to inform my criticism of the things that aren’t good about the film. I don’t expect everyone to share my enthusiasm for Ready Player One because that kind of demand is a bit too James Halliday-ish for me to be making.