Irfon-kim's Reviews > Ready Player One

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
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's review
Apr 11, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: audiobooks
Read in March, 2012

I listened to this as an audiobook en route to PAX East, which seemed kind of ideal, given that it's a novel about a video game, narrated by Wil Wheaton. :) To that end, I will say that it mostly worked. It's a nice light story, which worked well with listening to it as an audiobook on a road trip, and the journey is interesting. Wil Wheaton's narration was great. Maybe not the most entertaining narrator ever, but very serviceable and it worked well with the material. For the most part the story is fun, and there are fewer plot holes and annoyances than I might have wanted. The author's handling of diversity is a bit ham-handed, but otherwise, a pretty solid story in most respects, if not exceptional.

Other than unexceptionality, there is one major problem with this book, but it's a big one. The problem is 80s references. You see, the author has created a dystopian future in which an excuse has been constructed to make all people utterly obsessed with the 1980s. This gives the author a reason to work in blatant 80s references, cited as such, at an astounding rate. Character for character, there is probably more text devoted to 80s references than to story. This means, on the one hand, that there's not as much space left for character development. On the other hand, it means that unless you're obsessed with 80s references like no other (and I'm talking about completely artless 80s references), that aspect of this book will get annoying pretty much immediately and not let up for the duration of the book.

In the process of doing this, the author has also forgotten to posit anything whatsoever have occurred culturally between right about now, or perhaps the last decade, and the future year where the book is set. Even when the context isn't explicitly one of retro reference, the author will name cultural touchstones leading right up to the present day, but no further. They seem to have completely lost the technique of making a bunch of references leading up to now and then making up a couple of names to represent the next bunch of decades. No, it goes up to now. And the heroes of the future are all present day people, just really old. For example, the one election that we see mentions only two candidates: Wil Wheaton and Cory Doctorow. Seriously?

I actually find the future of this novel much more depressing than most dystopias that I've seen. Why? Because the author has posited a future in which no culture is being created anymore because the entire world is caught up in basking in a history that's already been written. It's not even like the retromania for the 80s that we have now, in which suddenly people are listening to The Cure and The Smiths in droves but at the same time, new bands cop the old sounds and use them to create new things. This is a future where nobody had produced a single piece of art or culture since somewhere around the year 2000. While it's entirely set in a plausible 80s-retro-obsessed subculture, we're not given any evidence that the rest of the world doesn't share their obsession. Also, in no way is it ever portrayed as bad. In many ways it makes it seem like the author thinks this would be a pretty cool future, rather than a distinctly frightening one. (The subculture into which they escape, that is. The author does posit an external dystopian framing future, but it is one simply of neglect and collapse with no culture of its own.)

Not only does that make for some really dull and often irritating world-building, but it also really strains belief. No matter how much one loves the 80s (and take it from me as one who wasn't there; It wasn't all good, and in fact, there was more bad than good, something unacknowledged by the characters' blanket acceptance and love of ALL things 80s regardless of genre or style), it's impossible to imagine this culture being this entirely retrospective and insular, despite the author's creation of a pretty compelling excuse.

Also, as a "get the macguffin" quest, which this is, the author ran out of macguffin ideas far too early, and there's some "this again??" disappointment in that regard.

So, overall, what could have been a solid and fun, if fluffy, novel turns into a bit (but not an egregious) disappointment.
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