On a road trip to Colorado, I read all of Ready Player One. At the time, I felt bad because I didn’t love it. All my friends at the time were enjoying it. The buzz I heard was positive. I didn’t hate the book but I had a lot of reservations.
With the film coming out, I’ve discovered I’m not alone in my take about the book. However, I am one of the most nuanced in my opinion. In fact, I’m pretty mild. Let’s dig in.
Minor spoilers ahead!
First, I am a slow reader. With dyslexia, I take forever to read anything. The problem is, without a reading aid, I usually had to either read every line very deliberately or reread the line a few times to get it. Even then, I may have to read a page twice to make sure I didn’t mix anything up. My comprehension is great and I read at a high level. It just takes me longer than most people. With RPO, however, I burned through the novel in just a few days. It helped to have a long car ride and some down time with awesome reading spots. For reference, I started Order of the Phoneix in December and I’m nearly done now (though I haven’t been reading as much for fun with my thesis).
So, it was a quick read. It was a fun read. There were things about the world that I really enjoyed. I really loved some of the characters. The settings, technology, and culture of the RPO have a ton of interesting/thought provoking ideas that felt fresh in the video game fiction sub genre.
This said, there were narrative issues core to the work that undermined the entire story in ways that made it difficult for me to enjoy. These were(in no specific order):
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl Trope
- Nostalgia Overload
- Unlikable Protagonist
- Male Empowerment Trope
Just to get ahead of the comments section, nothing is inherently wrong with any of these things. My problem with the tropes was that they are way overused and RPO didn’t try to spin these in a new way. So, reading yet another story about a “normal boy” that meets a “girl that isn’t like the other girls” story was just kind of blah. Not awful, just not inspired. Additionally, some of these tropes can be harmful in the real world when they aren’t treated well in the fictional world.
For instance, the protagonist and his girlfriend have a split and she won’t return his messages. He becomes incredibly desperate to communicate with her to the point of obsession. It’s unhealthy for both of them. He describes her hiding in her moon base from him. Does that sound healthy for either party? If a woman you dated showed up at your house holding a boombox over their head, you’d call the police. Here, it gets treated as just the thing you do in this situation. The problem is, without addressing things like this, the book seems to endorse this kind of macho-man behavior. It doesn’t really make a point to rebuke this toxic harassment.
It’s like the empowerment fantasy. It could have been fine if the character had grown emotionally along with their power (example, Scott Pilgrim the movie’s ending). Thinking back, I just don’t know if the protagonists really changed at all. He was fat and got in shape but he stayed the kind of jerky-outcast-martyr he started as. He starts with a chip on his shoulder and it only deepens.
The manic pixel dream girl problem could have EASILY been fixed by just letting the character have more agency. So much of the story she is relegated to being a prize the protagonist can win instead of a person he can get to know. She seems like a legitimately interesting character but never really gets the page time to show that. At the very end of the book, she gets some depth but it quickly concludes after that. Her part isn’t terrible by any means, but there was a lot of room for her to be awesome that we never get time to dwell on.
The nostalgia overload was interesting (like a hard candy) but after awhile became overbearing (like too much hard candy). There is a reason in-universe why there is so much nostalgia for the 80’s in the far future (which is cool) but the references become so overdone that it just becomes overload (which is lame). I think on screen this will translate so much better (which would be rad). Cline is an experienced screen writer so that might just be a style issue. Allowing the references to just happen rather than get endlessly listed out will make the flow much smoother.
The worst thing about this book, however (weird teen mystery sub plots aside), was the protagonist himself. He is an overweight Okie living in a trailer park (I can relate) and goes to school online through a VR headset. He’s “just” a normal nerdy boy. However, he finds a clue that leads him toward digital treasure that makes him popular. The problem? He starts off being a little unlikable. Not terrible by any means. Just… not really compelling. While chasing the McGuffin, he gets in shape, moves to the big city, gets his own apartment and starts dating his dream girl. The whole time he never really grows up. He’s a good guy TM but just never really progresses past being the nerdy outcast in a meaningful way.
I think most of these issues could be cleared up with more chapters that weren’t directly related to the main plot. The tropes could have easily been turned just slightly on their heads and become fresh. The characters could have grown in small meaningful ways outside their main quest and been better for it. All this, I hope, will be more fluid in the film version.
There were things I really liked. For instance, the character Aech seemed like a kind of typical dude bro gamer only to find out that offline they were a woman of color. This is the kind of digital age science fiction story elements that other stories in the genre seem to overlook. This was such a cool moment to me (I teared up a little) and put everything before the reveal into a new light. It was a small turn on how I thought about the character but it made a huge shift in how I perceived them. Because their gender and race were not the focus of their character/identity as I read about them. Like the protagonist, I didn’t even consider they may be different than how they presented themselves. Then, learning how they were in real life, it didn’t change them as a person/character–only how I perceived them. This gave me food for thought.
This reveal does speak to issues in the US about race and gender that we need to address more. The fact that Aech would have been treated differently by her friends (and the reader) because of race and gender is terrible. The fact that she felt the need to hide what she was like to be who she wanted to be online is a reflection of online culture today. Now, in the book (AGAIN) this is given almost no time to really get explored. It’s introduced, discussed briefly, and they move on. Again, this could have gotten explored just a little more. As it stands, it makes the story element more of a tokenism trope than a comment on identity and representation. I still like how this idea handled (and DEAR LORD Lena Waithe is playing her in the movie OMG!!!) but it just needed a little more time in the story to grow organically to be great.
I guess that was my biggest issue, the pacing. The story starts pretty strong and then bogs down. Then it picks way up only to bog down again. If this book was a car, it’d be a manual transmission sports car that someone is learning to drive in five o’clock traffic. They keep trying to change gears at weird times and stall out a couple of times but it looks nice and drives nice when it’s up to speed. It read a lot like the Postman in that it felt like it was written in sporadic intense sessions then left to sit for a while. Like a serial novel online, it just had weird parts that were disjointed from the rest of the book. Which, weirdly, would make it a perfect story for the world it wrote about.
Now, I say all this but there is a small, teensy, tiny, little detail about all this–this is just how it reads to me. I am reading this from a place that is very similar to the protagonist. I know intrinsically that they aren’t a great person. I know they have issues and short comings but I am coming from the same place. I know that the protagonist (and I) aren’t perfect and don’t treat people well all of the time… We also don’t know what we don’t know. I read RPO from a place of privilege. This means that I know I missed things. I know I didn’t understand how bad some of this book was. I’m also not the best person to speak on all those matters. I’d rather defer to writers and reviewers who can better identify those elements that bothered them. Below are some articles that I think cover more of these issues better than I could:
I didn’t hate it. I really enjoyed parts of it. I think some of the hate is undeserved. I think the movie will likely be better than the book (the media just wasn’t a great fit for the material). There were some 100% cringe-tacular moments/passages in the book. I’ll probably watch the movie when it comes out for the spectacle. I don’t think I’ll read Ernest Cline’s Armada. It sounds like more of the same.
Anyway, check out the book for your own hot takes here:
Or have the velvety voice of Wil Wheaton read it to you: