Ready Player One: A Review

Oh, Ready Player One, how you disappoint me.

I wanted to love this book. It's about games and gamers! And a dystopian future! And also the 1980s! What's not to love? But on reading, this book provided grim evidence to me that a great idea is nothing without a great execution backing it up. Warning: Spoilers ahoy.

My first and most pervasive issue with Ready Player One is the actual prose. The language is dead, completely lacking in music. Worse, the whole thing is riddled with telling, not showing, particularly in the first two thirds of the book. Similarly, exposition is nonstop and completely graceless. Sure, it's great that Parzival falls in love with Art3mis through a series of conversations and emails, but can some of that please go onto the page? Could we please see the adventures in which Parzival befriends Shoto and Daito? The story is too much like how you'd tell a friend you ran into on the sidewalk about what happened to you last week. Don't tell us you're in love, you're a badass, you're an expert. Demonstrate it through the actions and reactions of characters acting in the story.

There are also plot holes and logical inconsistencies so vast you could park a squadron of bombers in them. We're expected to believe, for example, that Wade has consumed and absolutely memorized twenty to thirty years of pop culture in a mere five years -- note that many of the references in this book are actually 1970s culture, and some even 1960s. And we're expected to believe that these cultural artifacts speak to the kids of the 2040s in exactly the same ways they spoke to audiences when they were created. How much more interesting would this book be if it presented a skewed view of 80s culture, misunderstood because of the decades of cultural and technological change in between?

We're also expected to believe that once Parzival becomes a world-famous player, signing endorsement deals and a super-high level, he still has to work a full-time low-grade help desk job to pay his bills. But look, if we're supposed to believe the in-game currency is one of the most stable currencies in the world, and Parzival is such a bad-ass, surely he could earn more per hour doing a little strategic grinding for gold?

Later, Parzival has the skills to ace employee evaluation tests as though he had a degree on computer science. Tests based on 2040s technology. Despite spending every free second obsessively studying 1980s pop culture and technology. Exactly when and where did he pick up those skills?

It's 25 cents to have a lifetime account on Oasis, the benchmark for free and open access... but once you're in you can't... go anywhere or do anything without more money...? I have a lot of trouble working out how Wade has spent many of the happiest days and hours of his life in Oasis, while at the same time he's only level 3 and can't really leave the school planet. The game described in the book, too, is shockingly literal in a way that is simply irrelevant to a virtual world where you can keep adding real estate, where you can instance anything you like, where a tiny shack on the outside can be a glorious palace on the inside because space is what you say it is.

And why, precisely, would winning the egg hunt give IOI control over Oasis...? A little hand-wavey. And -- wait, in five years, there hadn't sprung up a black-hat group to snag the Oasis source code and win by looking up the answers? No inside job? Not for $240-ish billion dollars? Really? Once you start looking, the inconsistencies flow like water.

For five years, not one person thought to examine that interesting arrangement of rocks on Ludus, not even by chance, and make that connection. In my own professional experience of making games based on clues not unlike those in Ready Player One, crowds are always smarter than individuals -- in the real world, that egg hunt would have been over in hours. Maybe days. But that's a little too inside-baseball to expect, I suppose. 

From the feminist angle, I was prepared to give the whole thing an F: Two women, one long dead, both of whom act primarily as love interests for the big important men in the story and don't seem to have complex motivations beyond that. We're almost recovered by the discovery that Aech is a woman -- and not just any woman, but a black lesbian. Any goodwill earned by this, though, was completely lost by choosing to continue calling Aech a he afterward. SMASH. Points for effort: D minus.

None of these things is unforgivable on its own, but in combination, they eventually mount up to an assault on your credulity that puts the whole story on shaky footing. It does pick up quite a lot toward the end, when you finally get lots and lots of showing-not-telling, the pacing improves, and the exposition slows down. By the end, I no longer hated the book.

But that still doesn't make it a good book.

The whole thing reads like straight white male nerd wish fulfillment, a desperate attempt to pretend that time sunk into the youthful pursuits of arcade culture meant something. But it means something already: All those hours made bonds and communities and a shared consensus culture. It made the world just a little kinder and gentler by giving us things we could care about together. You don't have to save a girl or the world for that.


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