(On Cable TV, December 2018) I really enjoyed (with reservations) Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, but then again I was supposed to: I’m very near the nerdy child-of-the-1980s demographic that the book celebrates and aims for. There is nothing wrong in writing a novel meant to stroke the nostalgic sense of a particular audience (after all, the boomers have been doing it for at least thirty years), but Ready Player One got a particularly severe case of spotlight rot as it became a publishing success and people farther away from its intended audience started reading (and rejecting) the book. With the adaptation of the novel to film, I was looking forward to the result almost as much as I was wondering how it would smooth some of the rough edges of the original. Expectations ran high for the result—after all, there was no better outcome for the film than to be actually directed by Steven Spielberg, given Spielberg’s stature in shaping the 1980s and the novel’s frequent nods in his direction. As a director, Spielberg could also be counted upon to deliver the wow factor of a big special-effects-driven production. Fortunately, Ready Player One lives up to the hype and the apprehension. Much of the novel’s cheerful homage to 1980s geek-culture remains intact, and most of the plot has been ably adapted on-screen despite the mountains of exposition that Cline (and readers) loved along the way. It’s still a story about a young man in a dystopian future trying to make something of himself through an epic Easter egg hunt in a virtual reality environment. In the details, however, many things have changed. Even though the movie’s licensing team made heroic efforts to obtain permission to use a flurry of pop-culture references, some changes were still necessary and arguably improve the experience. I far rather enjoyed going back to an astonishing digital re-creation of The Shining than Wargames, and I suspect that Spielberg did as well. Ready Player One does fix a few of the novel’s more vexing moments, although a few annoyances do remain. Still, the point of the film is the giddiness of playing hard with pop culture, and having fun along the way. The special effects are often astonishing, and the giddiness of a few scenes (such as the Manhattan Race) are well worth a look, showing Spielberg once again at his most entertaining best. (He even had time to begin and complete The Post in-between Ready Player One’s production and completion). It’s clear that Ready Player One does remain a very specific kind of film for a very specific kind of audience, but the film expands its reach beyond the novel, and the result is an enjoyable future thriller with terrific special effects and probably as many pop-culture references as we’re likely to ever see again under the current IP framework.
Crown, 2011, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0307887436
The rise of geek culture may not be new (if you’re looking for a watershed date, February 29th, 2004 will do nicely as it was a leap day that saw The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King win the Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year) but it continues to astonish me. How did descendants of the things that made me a social outcast in the eighties and nineties end up becoming a good chunk of today’s mainstream pop-culture? Now that geekery has won over the mainstream, are we core-geeks poorer for having birthed the dominant culture? Does being a geek even mean anything now that it’s a lucrative marketing category?
I may feel those questions even more intensely than most given how, in a few short years, I went from outcast to mainstream, from a single geeky technician to a married father knocking at management’s door. The last videogame I have played for more than a few minutes was 2011’s Portal 2. I’ve gone from attending ten SF conventions a year to one. I’ve stepped into movie theatres only three times in the past two years. I’m more interested in home improvement projects than zombie walks. Frankly, I’m this close to dissociating myself from the geek label when it’s used more as a way to sell useless things than as a secondary marker for a shared world-view.
This is relevant to Ready Player One in that I was not exactly primed to enjoy a science-fiction novel that delights into celebrating eighties geek nostalgia. I’m not an exact fit for the eighties-obsessed geek for a number of reasons (I was born in 1975, meaning that my prime geek years were the 1984-1994 decade; my household had Commodore-64/IBM computers rather than Atari/Nintendo gaming consoles; we didn’t have cable; and since I wasn’t speaking fluent English at the time, my personal culture wasn’t as dominated by the American standard) and while I’m still sympathetic to many of the things that typical geek culture includes, I’m increasingly reluctant to spend either time or money on the matter. I am not, in a few words, nostalgic for the eighties.
But Ready Player One is almost entirely about eighties nostalgia. It’s a novel whose Science-Fictional nature exists merely as scaffolding to tell a story about video-gaming and eighties ephemera. It’s about a future world in which a deeply influential innovator has died, leaving behind a virtual treasure hunt based on his love of the geeky eighties. Partially structured as a video game itself, Ready Player One begins with one of the lowest of the lows: an orphan teenager trying to piece together a living in a dystopian future where the only escape is through virtual reality. Our hero is a self-described Gunter (as in: Easter-Egg hunter) obsessed with eighties trivia. A lucky flash of insight, some good friends and a bit of luck eventually cause him to discover the first breakthrough in the treasure hunt and from that moment on, the novel seldom pauses for breath until the big-boss finale.
But the overarching plot isn’t quite as remarkable as the density of Ready Player One‘s deluge of geek references. From video games to (rather fewer) movies, music and books, this is a novel that delights in nerdy nostalgia. Being reasonably familiar with the subject matter, I’m happy to report that I didn’t find any glaring misuse of references or terms: Ernest Cline is the real deal, a geek-king-among-geeks who has internalized the language he speaks.
It’s that kind of honesty, combined with an entertaining prose style and some savvy page-turning tricks that make Ready Player One quite a bit better than just a simple nostalgia-fest. It’s about the eighties, of course, but it’s also about how the eighties charted the way pop-culture evolved into today’s shape, with video games taking up such a cultural importance, and how the ideals of personal computing as developed then have led to the decentralized anarchy of the Internet. The eighties may not have seem like much at the time, but they definitely set the stage for what followed and Ready Player One may be most interesting in tackling just what it did introduce into mainstream culture, sometimes decades later.
But of course, such socio-thematic consideration don’t amount to much compared to the actual text of the novel itself, a furiously readable page-turner that exists in its own reality. Cline writes good characters, and if the foundations of his premise don’t bear much scrutiny, it’s a novel that chooses forward narrative momentum far above structural integrity. It’s, perhaps even more importantly, extremely successful at what it does. While it’s aimed at eighties fans, it should work roughly as well (absent extra flashes of recognition) on readers with more tenuous relationships to the eighties. I was a bit surprised to like it as much, but the speed at which I tore through the novel speaks for itself. Geekery or not, this should be a great read for everyone.