Since its release in 2011, it’s been difficult for any fan of pop culture to escape the ubiquitousness of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. The novel touched on nearly every nostalgic pressure point for a generation of readers and made it an easy book to recommend. “You like ’80s movies? You like video games? You like virtual reality? Well, have you read this yet?” And with the Steven Spielberg-helmed film adaptation on the horizon, excitement surrounding the nerdy puzzle-laden story is at an all time high. At least for some.
For others, like Alex Nichols at The Outline, the recent release of the trailer for Ready Player One is a perfect opportunity to remind everyone that this book sucks. In his blunt and aptly titled article, “Ready Player One is a terrible book and it will be a terrible movie” Nichols breaks down the glaring flaws in Cline’s story that fans are far too eager to gloss over. While this may seem like a case of a curmudgeon explaining why a universally enjoyed thing is bad, Nichols actually makes some good points.
Part of Ready Player One’s charm is its use of reference. The central characters live in a world where real life is so miserable they readily escape into nostalgia-steeped fantasies in which they can happily regurgitate pop culture references for the reader’s supposed enjoyment. But, as Nichols puts it, “Ready Player One goes so far beyond a reasonable reference-to-plot ratio that it often feels more like binge-reading 1980s-related Wikipedia articles than reading a novel.” Cline’s references don’t usually provide crucial narrative information to the reader. He’s simply trying to get a base acknowledgment of recognition from his audience, like a hacky stand-up comedian that’s coasting on nostalgia so he doesn’t have to write punchlines.
His point is that Ready Player One embodies some of the worst qualities of modern nerd culture. It’s a fantasy in which the hero is rewarded and praised for alienating themselves from the real world and dedicating an inordinate amount of time to absorbing pop culture. And not just any pop culture, but the very specific brand of pop culture that Cline himself is a fan of. When reading his lengthy descriptions of entry-level ’80s video game references, it can sometimes feel like Cline’s impetus for writing the book was simply to prove how much he knows about this stuff. It’s like someone who spends 10 minutes asking a non-question at a Comic Con panel just so they can show everyone what a fan they are. As Nichols scathingly sums up the novel, “a fantasy this mundane is barely a fantasy at all—just a desire to be unjustly rewarded for mediocrity.”
On the other hand, it looks like the movie version will have the Iron Giant in it! Remember him?