BooksReviews/Commentary

Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline Review


Talk about an up-and-down experience for me… while having moments early on, the trajectory of “Ready Player Two” was on a steady downward profile as it rolled into its midpoint.  Then it muddled its way through a Prince-centered (yes, the purple-fixated musician) ‘quest’ that was all sorts of problematic (and boring).

Things officially hit rock bottom when the author, Ernest Cline, self-branded pop culture expert, referenced Tim Burton’s “Batman” as having come out in 1990.

Yeah, that happened.

I had to double-check online to see if somehow my copy of the book had a typo in it or something but I found that others had caught the error.  How in the hell does an author and/or the army of editors and proofreaders that one assumes a major book release receives get this date wrong?  I really couldn’t explain it.

It’s hard to think of a more high-profile date/reference pairing, given that “Batman” was the anchor film of summer 1989, one of the seminal summer movie seasons in history.

That said, the book did (somewhat) rebound from that point.  You have to bottom out before you can get better, right?

“Ready Player Two” might be a case where the initial reaction can be both right and also, in the end, kind of wrong.  The problem with books is that they take a lot more time to read than we’re used to in our ‘instant reaction’ binge culture.  While this was a flawed book, seeing it through to the end led me to the conclusion that it wasn’t a book to entirely dismiss… at least if you really liked the first book.

As a fan of the first book, having read through it in a few days time, I was taken off guard by how much backlash online had developed in the years since against “Ready Player One” and this sequel was easy prey for people looking to go after more of the same from Ernest Cline.

I’ll say up front that “Ready Player Two” was better than Cline’s unrelated book “Armada” – which came out as sort of “The Last Starfighter” meets “Ender’s Game” followup effort to “Ready Player One.”  “Armada,” strangely (desperately?), worked in a plot point to justify the teenage protagonist doing much of the same mile-a-minute 1980s references as the “Ready Player One” crew but frustrated me as feeling lazy and contained endless weird creative choices.

“Ready Player One” still had a certain ‘freshness’ to it when it came out.  It was the right place, right time, maybe right voice in summer of 2011.  It was a weird little genre book that got mainstream attention and managed to hit at a time that we’ll probably look back at as being ‘peak nostalgia’ (at least for the 1980s… follow the ‘rule of 30’ to understand why).

“Ready Player Two” came with the baggage of the past nine years and an against-all-odds Spielberg film adaptation of the first book.  Add in a certain backlash now against nostalgia that probably even pre-dated “Armada.  Yeah, there were plenty of fans and “Ready Player Two” was high on the book charts on Amazon the week that it came out, but somehow now there’s a really large and vocal ‘hater’ population that wasn’t very notable in 2011.

A big part of the disconnect of the Spielberg film for me was how Spielberg radically changed the book’s key pop culture references, instead focusing on a lot of things that weren’t in the book.  The quests in the film were also very different and more generic than the ‘deep cut’ nature of the (less known) focuses in the book.

“Ready Player Two” mostly seemed to pedal in topics that were comparatively not as obscure as those in the first book.  “The Princess Bride” and John Hughes films got some heavy reference, for example.  Yeah, the obscure arcade game “Sega Ninja” had the spotlight at one point, but it was the exception more than the norm this time around.

With the first book, Cline tried rather clumsily to shoe-horn in social talkers of the time, such as tacking on a coming-out-of-the-closet revelation near the end.  With “Ready Player Two” he was much more active in talking about social issues, race, and sexuality but it was his likely-good-faith attempts to incorporate such material that largely backfired in the initial reaction to the book.  In fact, it was what people online seemed to parse the book for, finding passages to quote and attack.  Cline was likely earnest (pun not intended) in his intent but the execution was clumsy.

Beyond those issues, there were some odd passages early in the story where it almost seemed like Cline writing a manifesto against social media through his main character.  He picked that as an obvious straw-man villain without seeming to still understand how the entire construct that the book celebrates (i.e. sitting online nearly all the time in a virtual reality) was maybe an even bigger concern.

For much of the book’s first half, one key problem for me was the lack of joy.  The world that the characters inhabited remained dark and dreary, perhaps on the verge of collapse.  Everyone still escaped reality to the virtual OASIS.  The main characters are amongst the richest people in the world but most of them seemed to live guilty lives of obligation.  Whereas the first book was about a rags-to-riches story, this one plopped readers into the melancholy scenario of ‘What happened next after they were granted all their wishes?’  This was less a book about escapism and more of a book about responsibility.

Most of the time, we weren’t better off knowing the detailed answer to that question, at least not what we learned at first (more on that in a second)

Cline’s imaginings of the future were at times interesting – the plot’s main driver was a take on the notion of direct brain connections with virtual reality systems.  But while the spine of the story had a good foundation, there were many random asides that were jarring, like the un-ironic mention of the main characters devising a robot police force to deal with the issue of problematic policing (!).  Yep, our heroes quickly fixed the ‘policing problem’… moving on.

The first 20% of the book focused on the moments after the ending of the first book through around three years later.  It was very much a ‘this happened, then that happened, then this happened.’  For 80 pages.

When the main plot got rolling, readers were introduced to another fetch quest for the protagonist, this time having to collect 7 ‘shards.’  Some new characters were introduced to help along the way and they were generally interesting.  They did help give readers some new perspectives on the world, as the main characters from the first book seemed now detached from it.

The stakes jumped up when clear antagonists were revealed around the end of the first quarter of the book.  Unfortunately, the main antagonist ret-conned one of the OASIS founders in a way that took the shine off of him.  It was almost like his character was sacrificed to ensure that a proper antagonist was available.  

It took me much longer to finish reading this sequel – weeks instead of days – due to the first few quests just not connecting with me.  The most interesting of the first several quests involved a mash-up of John Hughes films but even that one had missteps, such as the portrayal of Hughes himself in such a glowing way that it completely glossed over his complicated reputation.

The last major ‘quest’ was part of the book’s rally toward its ending and Cline should be given credit for throwing fans somewhat of a curve ball.  Rather than going for the standard Tolkien “Hobbit” or “Lord of the Rings” material, he wisely dove into something that many casual Tolkien fans have never bothered to read:  “The Silmarillion.”  In fact, he even made a joke out of it being a problem that the hero of our story had never actually read that book.  It’s not a long section but at least the ground covered didn’t feel like it was too overworked.

The ending of “Ready Player Two” wasn’t bad – as the book rallied in the last half, it maybe did eough to be recommended to hardcore fans of the first book.  Such fans would probably guess some turns a page or two before they happened but the result was an ending that was satisfying.  By the time you’re at the ending, most of the main characters from the first book have had some good moments in the sun… something that I wouldn’t have predicted when I was slogging through the early chapters of this sequel.

Yeah, the ending does roll back too quickly or conveniently some of the things that had made our hero seem insufferable in the book’s early going.  Yeah, somehow, yet again, the main Japanese character gets the short end of the stick.  We could spend all day – and many online have – nitpicking the book’s many missteps but it wasn’t a complete disaster.  Is that faint praise?  Do I keep repeating this point as a way of talking myself into something I’m not entirely sure is true?  Probably.

Supposedly Cline saw this sequel as the end of the story and I’m fine with how it ended as a duology.  He has brought up doing a prequel about the founding trio of the OASIS virtual reality setup that is at the center of both books and I’m baffled as to how that would be worthwhile.  Simply put, so much of this sequel focused on the OASIS’s founding trio and their lives, while making one of those characters seem unappealing as the reveals were made, I just don’t see the point… unless it’s some sort of further retcon project.

Looking at these books and the film adaptation as a complete work, I’ll admit to still be frustrated by how in all this material there still remains not even a hint of awareness or acknowledgment of the problematic side of nostalgia worship.  In particular, the constant references to specific pop culture planets in the OASIS and people spending seemingly years and years creating the minutiae of different 1980s pop culture touchstones.  I love a lot of this stuff but it is depressing to imagine a world where all the future people are weirdly fixated on the 1980s without having grown up in that era.

This backdrop in the first book made sense in that people were motivated to study the 1980s minutia because they wanted to win a life-changing contest… with the contest over, it was odd to me that future people would still spend all of their time obsessing over things like recreating John Hughes movie references in a virtual world.  It’s largely wishful thinking by creatives, similar to how media in the 1980s was saturated by idyllic portrays of the 1950s… there’s a place for this kind of nostalgia but it stretches believability to think that it would be the preference of a majority or a norm by nearly all rather than simply being a popular niche.

Anyway, again, the more I keep typing, the more I keep nitpicking rather than praising.  If you liked the first book, check this sequel out and you might find the good outweighs the bad.  If you didn’t like the movie at all or the first book, find another way to spend your time.

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