Ready Lambert One
The Easter Egg is Toxic
by Lambert Muir
I never finished Ernest Cline's 2011 debut novel Ready Player One. I got something like twenty-five pages in before discarding it, unable to believe I was reading about two teenagers in 2045 arguing the merits of the 1985 Richard Donner fantasy film Ladyhawke. But not its merits as a film, no, rather they were discussing its merits as a piece of the “canon”. And now I have to explain what Ready Player One is about.
RPO takes place in 2045, after the collapse of the fossil fuel-based economy. People live in stacks of trailers and the only escape from the grimy reality is a place called the Oasis, an infinite virtual reality wonderland created by James Halliday, the last true innovator of this world. In the Oasis, everyone can be whatever they want to be, like Second Life by way of Neuromancer and your favorite MMORPG. Halliday hid an “Easter Egg” in the Oasis before he died. To access this Easter Egg, one must find three keys. These keys are also hidden in the Oasis, but to find them you have to figure out riddles. The answers to which can only be found in “the canon”, an extensive list of every 70s and 80s pop culture items that Halliday has said inspired him. To find the keys then, one must be intimately versed in the music, television, cinema, video games, and comic books of this time particular period. Spoiler alert: The time period covers Ernest Cline's own childhood, teens and early adulthood. The entire novel is predicated on every geek's secret dream that, one day, all the useless pop culture trivia they've spent their lives absorbing will be what makes them special.
Hardier readers have gone through the book and come out the other side with analyses of its at times adolescent view of women and love, but that's not what I want to write about. Those analyses are important and out there, but that's not what connects me personally to RPO. What connects me to Cline and his novel is that... I can solve the riddles. I know Ayn Rand is mentioned in the liner notes of Rush's seminal prog rock opus 2112. I know that the weird cyborg guy in Cloud City at the end of The Empire Strikes Back is called Lobot. I know that Ultron used Wonder Man's brain pattern to create The Vision and that Vish's body is the original Human Torch's. And I know that the original Human Torch is an android who spontaneously combusted upon contact with oxygen. Also that he was the cover feature of the first issue of Marvel Comics decades before the company changed its name to Marvel Comics. And yet, I lost it when two teenagers in a dystopian novel argued about Ladyhawk.
I think I know why.
First thing's first: The book is badly written. There's a part of this novel that is solely a synopsis of Blade Runner. In another part, the protagonist goes through a maze of pipes described to be just like Super Mario Bros. I don't mean Ernest Cline describes cartoonishly large green pipes, no, he just tells the reader that the pipes are like those in the game. The novel eschews descriptions in favor of telling the reader exactly what piece of pop culture influenced this or that bit of the novel. There are parts of this novel that are just lists of stuff Ernest Cline was/is into. Just lists of stuff he wants to share. And it's a mess. It's me, three drinks in insisting that I list all of the pets in Superman and Supergirl's menagerie, or baiting my friends into asking me to explain the impossibly complicated history of X-Men character Cable, or the Ultron family tree.
Just so we're clear, it's Krpto the superdog, Streaky the supercat, Beppo the supermonkey, and Comet the superhorse. And there was an issue of Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane where Lois Lane was turned into a centaur and Comet the superhorse tried to court her. Seriously, it's issue 92. I won't go into a short explanation of Cable here, because there is NO SHORT EXPLANATION of Cable. All this to say that the book's bad writing is symptomatic of a deeper problem in fandom: The incessant need to prove one's worth through a pissing contest of trivial knowledge. It can be fun. I enjoy swapping comic book trivialities with my friends, because comics are about the preposterous adventures of people in tights. There's a comedy routine to be written about the DC Comics multiverse. Comic book writers Mark Waid and Mark Gruenwald would often challenge each other on Justice League trivia and invite fans at conventions to challenge them. I have a friends deeply versed in the intricacies of the Warhammer 40k universe and I like to hear about the ludicrous bullshit going on in that world. Hey, you wanna laugh? Ask wrestling fans about WWE storylines. It's ridiculous. It can be fun, until it's not.
It stops being fun when that's your whole deal. It stops being fun when you develop an idea of intellectual superiority because you know about the lore of the Street Fighter franchise. It stops being fun and it starts getting really sad when you actively belittle people for not knowing about everything you know, or not sharing your opinions on those subjects. It becomes gatekeeping. It becomes one of the reasons why not a lot of people get into geeky hobbies. Because that one asshole at the comic shop or the game store makes it his business to remind people that he's the smartest because he knows more than everyone else, all the while incessantly quoting from Monty Python's Holy Grail. They've made other films, dude!
But, yeah... Add to that internalized misogyny, a sense that girls don't like nice guys who play Magic: The Gathering and therefore don't belong in geek spaces, and that gatekeeping takes on a new shade of grossness. A shade of grossness you can, and should, learn about in other analyses of RPO and geek culture in general. It really is a problem.
Ready Player One is gatekeeping as story: In order to save the world, one must know everything Halliday knows, have to care about every little bit of trivia from Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and old Atari 2600 games that he cared about. That's not a story, it's a test. “Geek” used to be a word to describe sideshow attractions. And just like the guy who can guess your exact weight, geeks pride themselves in mental capacities that are fucking useless. Geek may be chic now, but it can always be ugly. And I hate it. I hate it because I love comics, and movies, and tabletop RPGs, and video games, and prog rock and all the things Ernest Cline obviously loves, but I can't go along with what Ready Player One represents to me. The Ready Player One movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, who is name-dropped in RPO, looks fun. If you can just show what Cline references, you don't get bogged down in the book's bad prose. That's a huge plus. But the story, and its disconcerting message, is the same. Because RPO's story is the message.
I don't know that I've been saying anything you haven't heard about RPO. The obsession over trivia has always been part of negative reviews of the book. But I'd like to say something about Ernest Cline. He wrote the screenplay for the 2009 film Fanboys, which I hate. He wrote Ready Player One, which I couldn't and will not finish. The book he wrote after RPO is called Armada and it's about fighting off an alien invasion through video game skills, like in the 1984 film The Last Starfighter. I'm not reading that...But I don't hate Ernest Cline. I can't hate Ernest Cline. The man bought himself a Delorean and modified it to include a screen-accurate flux-capacitor from Back to the Future 2 and Ghostbusters and Buckaroo Banzai decals and vanity plate. Of course he did. I would do the same, except that I'd get a Lincoln Futura replica and modify it to look like the Batmobile from the 1966 Adam West show, because that is the best car ever, hands down, no contest. And that's why I can't hate Ernest Cline. It's difficult to hate someone you see so much of yourself in. By the same token, it's easy to love Ready Player One because you recognize where the impetus to write it comes from. From that part of every geek's soul that just wants to scream out their love for all the things they're into. That part of my soul that calls Peter Parker an old friend. That part of me that's always coming up with cool ideas for D&D characters. That part of me that gets absolutely turnt when I hear those first triangle notes of Rush's YYZ. And I want to tell you all about it. I could write a whole book about everything that I love. Ernest Cline did.
I'll continue to say it's a badly written book and that it propagates a way of thinking that I truly believe is harmful to geek culture and all its fandoms. But I can't attack Cline and I refuse to attack people who truly enjoy Ready Player One. I know them. I am them. To attack them would be to belittle other geeks because they enjoy something I don't.