Pac-Man devouring this book would be a worthy fate. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Pac-Man devouring this book would be a worthy fate. (Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksDecember 7, 2020

Review: Ready Player Two deserves a ruthless force-quit

Pac-Man devouring this book would be a worthy fate. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Pac-Man devouring this book would be a worthy fate. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Nine years ago, the author Ernest Cline published the monster hit Ready Player One. Somehow, despite being a huge gamer nerd, Sam Brooks managed to avoid it – until now. We also made him read the sequel, which came out last month. Sorry, Sam.  

Ready Player One is an ode to the kind of white nerd culture that has taken a quite deserving beating in the years since its release.

Here’s a passage that occurs not far into the sequel, Ready Player Two:

We lost our virginity to each other three days after that first kiss. 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.

Throughout this book’s bloated 384 pages, I kept coming back to this passage. Not only is it a symphony of bad writing, but each sentence builds on the previous to create a weird mini-narrative that is remarkably disrespectful of both the story and its readers.

The first sentence by itself? Fine. It’s not elegant, and it skates over a significant development in two major characters’ lives, but it’s not inherently offensive. The second? Simply reading the unironic use of “the beast with two backs” makes you feel worse about the narrator, the author and yourself. And the third? Well, that’s the worst thing to happen to Depeche Mode since the 80s clocked over into the 90s.

However, there is one good thing about this passage: it quite handily illustrates nearly everything that is wrong with Ready Player Two. So, in the interest of making lemonade from rotten lemons, I’ll use this passage as a way to interrogate where Ready Player Two fails, and how. Again, for emphasis: And how.

We lost our virginity to each other three days after that first kiss.

To catch you up a bit on Ready Player One: it’s set in 2045, after climate change and an energy crisis has pushed the world into a tech-dystopia. To escape their grim reality, people hook into a VR-type situation called the OASIS, which is one part MMORPG and one part social substitute. James Halliday, a barely-veiled Steve Jobs and the creator of OASIS, dies and leaves behind a series of clues, all relating to his obsession with 1980s pop culture. Anybody solving these clues will gain access to his vast fortune and also control of the OASIS. The plot follows socially awkward nerd Wade Watts as he figures out all the clues, and the book ends with him being literally on top of the world, essentially a somewhat benevolent tech dictator.

The prose of Ready Player One was fairly rudimentary, but you could forgive that due to some pretty inventive world building and action set pieces. In the sequel, though, Cline takes a full step back, ditching any sort of elegance or beauty in favour of getting through the plot as quickly as possible. The prologue of Ready Player Two skips through what could, and should, be a novel in itself: a new system called ONI, which takes virtual reality one step forward by allowing users to step into and experience other people’s lives, is discovered by Wade in the first few pages. Over one scant chapter, this technology becomes an addiction for the entire planet. The conversation where Wade and his allies from the first book, Samantha, Aech and Shoto, decide to release this technology to the public is rendered thusly:

We didn’t make our decision lightly. We weighed all of the pros and cons. Then, after a heated debate, the four of us held a vote.

Why not show us that conversation? There is meaty philosophy to wrangle with here. Just what are the implications of giving the public access to a technology that, in effect, allows them to enact any fantasy without any material consequences? Instead of addressing this Cline vaults over it in a few sentences.

The entire book is written this way – as though it’s been written by someone editing the Wikipedia page for the book. Even when the novel’s actual plot begins (another quest, albeit with higher stakes) the only time that Cline’s prose really takes off is during the action sequences. Even then the writing has the cadence of a precocious child recounting a fantasy game they played with friends during lunch. Every sentence reads as though it should be prefixed with a breathless “and then”.

I’ll take enthusiastic world-building over dispassionate plot progression any day. Unfortunately, the book has significantly more of the latter. Cline is the kind of writer who will devote multiple paragraphs to explaining the new security system of Wade’s billion-dollar home, and only one to Wade losing his virginity to the love interest, Samantha/Art3mis, of the previous book.

Then again, maybe we should be thankful he only devoted the one sentence to it.

(To fend off the nerd-pedants, there is a second more oblique passage, earlier in the book: “I was truly, madly, deeply in love with Samantha. And I was still reeling from losing my virginity to her just a few days earlier.” )

Not unrelated: Mark Zuckerberg, and attendees of the 2016 World Mobile Congress plugged into VR headsets (Photo: Facebook)

Then we spent the rest of that week sneaking off to make the beast with two backs at every opportunity.

About halfway through, I wondered if I was being too harsh on Cline. Maybe his simplistic, overly-explanatory and surface-level prose was his way of getting us inside the head of Wade. The awkward nerd of the first book turns tech billionaire in this one, and he dives into those excesses rampantly. He abuses his newfound omnipotence in every way possible, although the reader is reminded, in a way that feels editor-lead rather than author-lead, that Wade is aware that he’s being a jerk. 

This is most egregious, unsurprisingly, in his treatment of women. Early on in the story, Wade starts cyberstalking his ex-girlfriend: “Since I’d already violated her privacy, I decided to go full-on Big Brother and have a look at her headset feeds.” To Cline’s credit, he presents this as the huge moral transgression that it is, but he quickly forgives Wade, and handwaves any lasting damage that his actions might have.

The backbone of the plot involves Wade seeing the world through the eyes of Kira, the unrequited love of Halliday (the Steve Jobs stand-in) through the ONI. He relives her experiences and slowly begins to build an understanding of this woman. But even this is facile, and Wade’s understanding is summed up, as so many things in this damn book are, with one sentence. After spending some time inside Kira’s head, and her lived experience, he feels “closer to [her] now, more aware of her as a human being”.

If you feel gross or weird about that, it’s because it’s gross and weird. The idea of VR as some revolutionary technology to hardwire empathy into people is one that’s long been criticised, and I’d frankly say debunked. VR doesn’t make you aware of somebody else’s experiences, it makes you hyper-aware of the limits of your own experience. Even if we were to go along with Cline’s idea that being inside Kira’s head makes Wade a more understanding, empathetic person, none of that is borne out by how Wade thinks, talks or acts for the rest of the novel. He’s still the omnipotent global dictator that he is at the start of the book, just with more awareness that he’s a jerk. 

But awareness means nothing without action, and Wade still acts like any socially awkward nerd acts when he’s given a modicum of power, let alone unlimited power: he’s an absolute asshole. And the way Cline writes him, he’s an asshole who can only express himself in cliches, run-on sentences stuffed with more proper nouns than an acceptance speech, and exhausting cultural references.

For example, the below moment is meant to be a climactic moment of understanding between Wade and his poor girlfriend Samantha:

“I remember,” I said. “After she died, you would rewatch those movies, to feel closer to her, and to better understand who she was. I remember telling you that I did the same thing with my dad’s comic book collection, after he died.”

Look, there’s a minute chance that Cline is so inside the head of his protagonist, Wade, that his poor prose is a choice rather than a reflection of his ability. You know, like Lolita without the paedophilia. But Wade Watts is no Humbert Humbert, and Ernest Cline is sure as shit no Vladimir Nabokov.

2007, Florida, Prince (Photo: Jonathan Daniel via Getty Images)

Like Depeche Mode, we just couldn’t get enough.

At least Prince is dead so he didn’t have to read how Ready Player Two depicts him.

One of the force-quit moments for readers of Ready Player One was deciding they were simply unable to deal with the barrage of cultural references. They were cacophonous, and if you’re in Ernest Cline’s demographic then chances are you enjoyed them. There’s nothing wrong with that – god knows if there was a book called It’s Me Cathy that pulled together references to the Bronte sisters, Kate Bush and all things in between I would not care to hear any criticism of it.

Cline’s use of pop culture in his novels is nerd wish fulfillment at its most ridiculous. It asks the question: what if your deeply specific knowledge of cultural touchstones could actually solve all your problems, rather than just make you deeply annoying at dinner parties? Ready Player One answered that question with varying degrees of success, while ignoring the fact that Wade’s skill was just a moderately deep knowledge of ’80s pop culture. It’d be more remarkable if Wade, as a white nerd, didn’t know about Star Wars at all, for example.

Cline runs into an inevitable problem writing about the past from the viewpoint of the future: the present is going to get in the way. So while the cultural references of the first book might’ve been fine in 2011 – and that’s a terse stretch of the word “fine” – a book populated solely with nostalgia for art made by white nerds is not going to fly in 2020. (Which is to say nothing of the bizarre logic of these kids being obsessed with ’80s pop culture, which is like if teens these days were obsessed with ’40s pop culture. Again, give me that book.)

Wishing that Cline had a bigger pool of references feels like wishing upon a monkey paw, which I can only assume is curled up something fierce in the author’s home. Still, I don’t think anybody would have expected him to write a sequence in which his protagonist is offered sage advice by DJ Spinderella from Salt ‘n Pepa rapping the chorus to ‘Push It’.

That’s just a few pages, though. Even worse is an entire section, an act even, of the book being devoted to Prince. While told energetically, Cline seems to fail to understand any of what made Prince a once in a generation talent: he blended genre, bent gender, and transgressed both industry and art, all within the boundaries of pop music. Prince probably would’ve hated everything about Ready Player Two, not just his own depiction, which reduces him to “The Royal Badness” and little else. (Cline’s understanding of gender is too much to get into at length here. You can probably guess it’s not great, but it’s worth bringing up the moment where Wade encounters a trans woman, and Cline spends the next few pages interrogating his sexual response to her. Moving on.)

So yes, Cline’s references to art made by women and people of colour is deeply tokenistic, but so are all his references. It was better in Ready Player One, when those references were grafted onto a plot about an impoverished kid triumphing against a mega-corporation, but in the second book, where that same kid is a multi-billionaire, reading those references feels like watching a snake gag on its own tail and then throw up. Cline isn’t a good enough writer to weave the references in elegantly, so there are horribly awkward sentences like this:

This had to be Kira’s drunken stepfather, Graham – who was clearly enraged, and only keeping his distance thanks to the cricket bat that Og was clutching with both hands and brandishing threateningly, like Shaun of the Dead.

Yikes. Not only does the reference take the reader out of the horrifying, triggering situation, that’s not even what Shaun is called in Shaun of the Dead! He’s just Shaun. It takes a special lack of talent to combine bad writing with soulless writing, but Cline’s managed to do it. In the world of the novel, he’s taking from the graveyard of culture to honour what is long past and forgotten. In the real world, he’s cashing in on the love that audiences have for his artistic superiors.

The one saving grace of the Depeche Mode reference, the unfortunate chaser to a cursed cocktail, is that it comes early enough in the book that you won’t feel bad putting it down. Enjoy the silence.

Ready Player Two, by Ernest Cline (Century, $37) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington

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