Ready Player One is a science fiction novel set 30 years in the future. At first blush, however, it seems only marginally futuristic. There’s nothing really apocalyptic or radical about the future as Ernest Cline first describes it; it’s just an exacerbated version of the present, with better VR headsets and a deteriorated environment. There are certainly hints that something is seriously wrong: everyone is eating denatured, processed rations, for example. And the protagonist (Wade Watts) is living in the “stacks,” the hollowed-out wreckage of a motorist society that finally—when the oil ran out—had nowhere to dump the metal hulls of its fossil-fueled heyday, and stacked the corpses instead. That sounds bad, but Wade’s narration is simultaneously blithe and disillusioned, as if we shouldn’t get too worked up over bad food and cramped high-rise apartments.
Basically, it’s always been bad: “Being human totally sucks most of the time. Videogames are the only thing that makes life bearable,” claims Wade’s hero, James Halliday, at the start of the first chapter. Wade agrees: “We eventually got all of our tribes organized into a ‘global civilization.’ But honestly, it wasn’t all that organized, or civilized.” Maybe in Wade’s era, nuclear wars break out like cases of hay fever, but that’s his version of normal. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shalt be, world without end.
Wade’s blasé attitude is copped from the hard-bitten narrators of cyberpunk novels, which are themselves futurized versions of noir. As with much in the novel, it’s unclear whether Wade is deliberately trying to sound like Deckard from Blade Runner, or whether Cline just writes him that way because Cline really likes Blade Runner. For reasons I’ll explain later, this matters little. The bottom line is that the combination of this particular narrator, the novel’s bonanza of 1980s nostalgia, and a bunch of resilient practices (like pirating TV shows) combine to make Ready Player One seem cozily familiar. The fact that it’s set in the future at all feels like a nod to cyberpunk’s dystopian assumptions, and the novel duly references Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, and Japanese anime, so that we know that Cline knows whom he sounds like.
From a political standpoint, its gets significantly weirder later in the novel. Indentured servitude has resurfaced, and an evil corporation called IOI has the legal right to kidnap people with bad credit and force them to become, in effect, slaves for life. Wade creates a hacked identity with massive credit card debt, infiltrates IOI, and sabotages the company’s virtual stranglehold on a (virtual) piece of land Wade must digitally breach to complete his lifelong quest. This raises a pressing question: how, in the expository first chapter, could Wade fail to mention that the United States has been annexed by totalitarian corporations?
The answer is that we are already living in a totalitarian corporate regime. That’s assumed in many cyberpunk fictions, but it takes on additional meaning here. After all, this isn’t a naïve cyberpunk novel, but rather an homage to them, written from the point-of-view of a character who knows Snow Crash by heart. So why does Wade Watts never say something like, “My story was starting to have a decidedly cyberpunk feel to it”? Because Wade is like us. He already feels like a character in a science-fiction novel. We’re accustomed enough to WiFi to grumble if it cuts out unexpectedly, but that doesn’t mean we accept its reality. It remains surreal… just like Bitcoin, driverless cars, and clickfarms. Wade, to quote The Matrix, is “a man who accepts what he sees because he is expecting to wake up.”
Nothing surprises him, but that’s because he can’t adequately represent to himself what’s real. Instead of bringing home the truth of the present moment, his go-to cultural touchstones strand him in “the future.” And the uncanniest thing about the future is it’s like the past: it can be endured, but can’t be changed.
What Steven Spielberg correctly detected, in Cline’s novel, is smothered political outrage. Since he’s Spielberg, he decided to play Santa Claus and give Cline what he thought Cline wanted: a movement of the people. “Welcome to the revolution, Wade,” says Art3mis, Wade’s love interest and fellow quester, who’s cast as an ambitious guerrilla in the film. But Cline isn’t quite where Spielberg imagines him to be, which is why the film’s politics end up pompous and incoherent. What Cline is really getting at isn’t a programmatic politics; he’s registering the failure of modern art to keep up with the overwhelming speed of technological and cultural change.
Characters in novels receive a suspicious number of letters, but if they receive a single email, it’s guaranteed to be both monumental and exactly three lines long. Characters in movies never wear headphones unless they’re jogging or riding the subway. Adults playing video games are always doing so boisterously, with lots of friends on the couch beside them, and turn off their game at the drop of a hat. Everyone’s password can be guessed, especially if there’s an anarcho-punk hacker with a heart of gold. You get the idea. No wonder the “avatars” in the OASIS, Cline’s version of a fully immersive Internet, are lining up to play Joust on an Atari emulator. The gap between the OASIS and Joust is the gap between our lives and our representations of life; welcome to the desertion of the real.
What makes Ready Player One so beautiful is that there is, in fact, a difference between playing Joust on a preserved Atari and playing Joust in the OASIS, and Cline’s sensitive enough to catch it. Wade Watts’ quest is to follow the trail of clues leading to James Halliday’s “Easter Egg,” which is hidden somewhere in the OASIS and grants its finder a massive fortune and control of everybody’s online life. In order to do so, he has to re-live James Halliday’s own development as an intellectual by replaying the works of popular culture where Halliday, like every outcast geek, took refuge. Thus Wade has to impersonate David Lightman, the main character from WarGames; he has to play power chords from Rush’s science fiction album 2112; and he has to defeat Zorkwithout getting eaten by a grue. In one key scene, Wade plays a perfect game of Pac-Man in a virtual pizzeria. “Just as with Dungeons of Daggorath,” Wade observes, “I was now playing a simulation within a simulation. A game within a game.”
Meanwhile, all around him, “the interior re-created the atmosphere of a classic ‘80s pizza parlor and video arcade in loving detail.” It would be natural to assume that Halliday was happy there, but it would be more accurate to say he was spared some unhappiness by Pac-Man. Nobody gathers around to watch Wade play the perfect game. He does it alone, much as Halliday must have done, and his reward is a silently proffered extra life.
Wade plays Dungeons of Daggorath in a re-creation of Halliday’s childhood home, where Halliday’s parents had been “an alcoholic machine operator and… a bipolar waitress.” Like the barren, friendless pizzeria, this isn’t exactly a warm and blessed hearth. It was a place one wanted to escape. If you ask yourself why, exactly, people are willing to suspend disbelief in a game as pixelated and crappy as Joust, or invest hours and hours watching cheesy films like The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai, the answer is always in the lives surrounding those filtered, limited realities we call simulations, “pop culture,” or simply art.
The irony is that the best art has to be two things at once: the limited, lo-fi stab at a better world, and the exquisitely renderable tragedy of the world as it is. That’s what Halliday creates within the OASIS, and when Wade earns his extra life, it’s because he’s re-lived the life of another—Halliday himself—and located, metaphorically speaking, the key to happiness that Halliday never found.
In this particular story, the key to happiness is love; love springs up between Art3mis and Wade, and although they make a hash of it at first, they end up together. Of course, thanks to Halliday, this is all in the service of a PSA about virtuality, in the finest tradition of geeky self-loathing: “I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world. I didn’t know how to connect with the people there…I realized, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real. Do you understand?”
Yes, Mr. Halliday, Mr. Cline, I think we do understand. Halliday never tried to win the woman he cared about, and when he lost her forever, she became his “Rosebud.” It’s a trite story, even though Cline gives it absolutely everything he has. Even worse, when Wade does get together with Art3mis, it “felt just like all those songs and poems had promised it would. It felt wonderful. Like being struck by lightning.”
As you come to terms with those astonishingly bad sentences, ask yourself what Cline’s equivalent to Halliday’s lonely room might be, dotted as they were with such little oases of virtual happiness as existed previously. I’d guess that Cline didn’t see a future for himself playing Joust orvanishing into some humble, authentic life. He saw a future for himself as somebody reinventing the novel, that dusty relic beloved of Tolkien, as something that can speak intelligently about our de-realized existence amid the Wonders of Tomorrow. That’s where he was alone, surrounded by writers he could never hope to equal, aware of a failing in them he couldn’t excuse.
It didn’t go exactly as planned. Cline writes like a man who has either never been in love, or else has never been struck by lightning. In an important sense, however, Cline’s limitations don’t matter. The desperation evident in Cline’s clumsy writing is instantly sympathetic; this is a book that had to be written, even badly, to retrieve us from “the future” where those other, abler fictions had stranded us. Halliday’s right: reality is real. So we read Ready Player One for the same reason so many people, myself included, were once obsessed with Joust. Because it’s there, because it’s new, and because it’s all we’ve got.