Bad sex scenes, virtual-reality nonsense, and 80s trash-culture pastiche
Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One was a jukebox musical for trash culture of the 80’s, a vision of a near-future dystopia where things were so bad, Zaxxon and Twisted Sister were classic works of art meriting serious scholarly attention. Life is certainly imitating art, at least as far as the dystopian nature of 2020 is concerned. So who wouldn’t want to read a sequel?
Ready Player Two picks up in medias res after the events of the first book. Our hero, teen gamer Wade Watts, and his motley group of Internet friends have solved the mysterious riddles of one James Halliday, inventor of the OASIS, which is some sort of futuristic extra-cool Second Life for our environmentally-ravaged future. By virtue of finding the many Easter Eggs Halliday has hidden around the Internet and learning the minutiae of the movies and video games he loved, Wade has inherited his company and become the richest and most famous man in the world. Everything is swell! Except that Halliday has left Wade one more thing: an advanced neural interface which allows the user full sensory overload instead of the crummy old immersive VR experiences of yore.
“I was awestruck by the perfect replication of all that interlinked sensory input,” Wade enthuses, munching on a virtual apple, his olfactory system in kinetic overdrive. “These were subtle, nuanced sensations that could never be re-created or simulated by a pair of haptic gloves.
Okay, so Proust this is not. In the hands of a more agile writer, there might be ripe potential for satire here; Halliday is, quite literally, a deus ex machina figure, constantly one step ahead of his billions of devoted OASIS minions. If it weren’t for Cline’s obvious affection for the sheer hubris of creating a virtual world in one’s image, Halliday would seem like a mustache-twirling digital archvillain, a Bezos writ large.
That’s the overwhelming issue with the Ready Player Whatever universe: at no point does Cline question the wisdom of an all-encompassing monoculture that screeches to a halt around 1988, while technology evolves at hyperspeed around it. “Ah, the good old days,” he sighs, and writes another chapter about fucking Donkey Kong or whatever. He’s the Gamemaster Anthony of genre fiction, a clunky stylist content to wallop the reader over the head with a never-ending barrage of “Remember when?”s.
In Ready Player One, the main antagonists were the corporate suits of Innovative Online Industries, which was sort of a combination of a for-profit online university and an internment camp. By the end of the first chapter of Ready Player Two, our heroes have managed a hostile takeover of IOI and transformed themselves into “an unstoppable megacorporation with a global monopoly on the world’s most popular entertainment, education, and communications platform,” as well as releasing all of IOI’s indentured servants and, presumably, creating a massive labor crisis. But they finally manage to pay off the national debt and donate hundreds of billions of dollars to solve world poverty, or something. So that’s nice!
Their efforts to ditch this crappy planet and terraform the nearest habitable rock eventually fall by the wayside when an evil sentient AI springs the murderous CEO of IOI out of prison and forces our heroes to go on a lengthy fetch quest through VR time and space to retrieve the seven pieces of–oh, who cares. At this point you already know whether or not Ready Player Two is the book for you. It is not the book for me.
Cline had some legitimately good ideas the first time around. There’s potential in interrogating the nature of escapism in times of social upheaval. This time, though, instead of character development, he’s chosen to double down on lengthy, dull descriptions of battle scenes and minutely-detailed virtual worlds. A complicated boss fight against Prince–yes, Prince–is crassly opportunistic even by the standards of posthumous tributes to Prince. A climactic showdown in Middle-Earth is as monotonous and impenetrable as “The Silmarillion” itself.
Add to that some of the most excruciating sex scenes in recent fiction and you’ve got the stuff of nightmares. “We lost our virginity to each other three days after that first kiss,” Wade reminisces. “Then we spent the rest of that week sneaking off to make the beast with two backs at every opportunity. Like Depeche Mode, we just couldn’t get enough.” Oh, brother. Luckily hours of futuristic VR porn have cured him of that pesky bout of transphobia, and his own dalliance with omnipotence has provided him with valuable insight as to the human condition.
Cline muses, in full “Jordan Peterson gets an Oculus Quest” mode: “Human beings were never meant to participate in a worldwide social network comprised [sic] of billions of people. We were designed by evolution to be hunter-gatherers, with the mental capacity to interact and socialize with the other members of our tribe–a tribe made up of a few hundred other people at most.” Like so much of Cline’s writing, this is cheap introspection disguised as trenchant insight.
Maybe the freshman seminar-level Big Ideas of this book will make more sense when Steven Spielberg or whoever inevitably turns it into another expensive action-movie pastiche. The ‘Ready Player One’ movie grossed nearly $600 million, and an adaptation of ‘Ready Player Two’ can’t be far behind. This book is criticism-proof; the people who ate it up the first time are just going to gorge on it again. They didn’t even bother to send out advance copies for review.
When I finished reading it, I felt physically drained, exhausted after living in Ernest Cline’s head for nearly 400 pages of Animotion and Van Hagar, John Hughes movies and bad video games. I needed a break from the constant clanging drone of coin-op nostalgia. I stumbled outside to get some fresh air. Like Depeche Mode, I enjoyed the silence.