For the longest time, one of my concerns has been what to make of the current state of both pop-culture, and the ways in which it is discussed, examined, and talked about. I think the first time I ever realized this was a topic that needed looking into was when I ran into the phenomenon of professional YouTube vlogging. I should stress here that some of it is worthwhile. However, I was struck by the lack of knowledge or literacy on the part of the creators of a lot this content. What I mean is that I would run across a critic who would try to tackle cinematic classic like the Godfather, or Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars. These are two films generally regarded as classics. However, all this millenial vlogger could think about is how dull or slow moving the action or plot is. He seemed unable to grasp the finer shades of characterization and tension building that has to go into making a story work. His entire aesthetic outlook was limited to the modern blockbuster mindset. The irony is that he wasn't too far removed from the mindset of Cline's novel.
From there, I began to discover a similar lack of critical insight in other places like actual journalism. In some ways, Cline's writings are best thought of as a resource where I can pinpoint all that is wrong with the state of the arts today. It has helped this much in that I can now point to something that explains the plight of both the audience and the arts at early start of the 21st century. I'd like to examine the book and it's adaptation in order to take a closer look at the problem of this lack of modern cultural literacy.
In the future of the 21st century, the existence of the majority of the world is predicated on the OASIS. It is a totally immersive online RPG environment that let's the user look and sound however they want. The program's creator was James Halliday, an uber-nerd with a massive obsession for 1980s pop-culture. This is an obsession that Halliday specifically designed into the simulation. Because of this, almost everywhere you turn in the OASIS is wall-to-wall with items or settings that reference the TVs and Movies (though very few books) from the Reagan era. In 2040, Halliday passed away. Before being taken by time and tide, however, Halliday made one final addition to his brainchild. A puzzle challenge with a different set of stakes.
Hidden somewhere in the electronic maze of the OASIS are three keys. Each key is hidden somewhere in the many simulated worlds of the program. If anyone can find these three keys, they will be lead to an Easter Egg lying concealed somewhere at the heart of the simulation. The Easter Egg itself is the complete and total ownership of the OASIS. This means the winner earns control over the biggest manufactured resource on the planet. Whoever wins becomes the next de facto Bill Gates.
This revelation in the form of a clause in Halliday's will has resulted in a slew of online fortune seekers known as Egg Hunters (or Gunters) roaming the digital landscape in search of those keys. One loner in particular, Wade Watts, has had a pretty good run of luck with the cards. He's a dedicated Gunter and Halliday fanatic, devoting all of his time and most of his life to researching and memorizing every single film, TV, and scrap of 80s material the OASIS founder liked, all in the hopes that it'll help him uncover the clues he needs to win the contest. To his own surprise, all this attention to detail starts to pay off when Wade is able to decipher a clue that leads him to the First Key.
This is an outcome Wade and every other user of Halliday's program wants to avoid. The trouble is Wade's online avatar, Parzival, is a celebrity now. That leaves him having to deal with the costs of fame. Part of the price tag is a closer scrutiny by I.O.I. The company has also begun to take a great deal of interest in Wade. They've also been keeping close tabs on his fellow Egg Hunters who have also managed to find their way onto the score board. To deal with these individuals, labeled as the "High Five" by the press, the company has sent out one of their hit-men after Wade and his friendly rivals. His job is simple. All he has to do is make them a single offer: "join us, or die".
It's hard to know where to even begin with book like Ready Player One. Part of it has to do with it being a kind of book I never expected to read. The description is isn't meant as a compliment however.
When I first heard of Cline's book, my first response was simply not knowing what to make of it. It was when I read through the few first pages that a picture or idea of the book began to form. It wasn't a good one. As I went on, each narrative development just helped cement this negative reaction with each turn of the page. I was introduced to a cramped and cluttered world that served as the main character's psyche. It was a very a-social world. Here, all the natural human sentiments are reduced to dry dust by the narrator's isolation. This self-imposed solitude has the effect of forcing a barrier between the reader and the character. This makes it difficult to identify with Wade or become engaged in his plight. There's one particular example of Cline's narrative dissociation that probably serves as the best example of his book's flaw.
The moment where Wade's Aunt dies is interesting, though not in a good way. Here are a series of passages that stood out to me for all the wrong reasons:
"As I watched in silence, I could already hear the people around me murmuring, saying that it was probably another meth-lab accident, or that some idiot must have been trying to build a homemade bomb. Just as Sorrento had predicted.
"That thought snapped me out of my daze. What was I thinking? The Sixers had just tried to kill me. They probably still had agents lurking here in the stacks, checking to make sure I was dead. And like a total idiot I was standing right out in the open.
"...Eventually, the shock began to wear off, and the reality of what had happened started to sink in. My Aunt Alice and her boyfriend Rick were dead, along with everyone who had lived in our trailer, and in the trailers below and around it. Including sweet old Mrs. Gilmore. And if I had been at home, I would be dead now too (299)".
However, on the very next page, all Wade can think about is this:
"I needed to get the hell out of Dodge. But I couldn't do that until I had some money, and my first endorsement checks wouldn't be deposited for another day or two (230)".
As I read through these passages, I found myself thinking a less than charitable thought about the story's main lead. He came off as something worse than callous. I suppose the word I'm edging toward is sociopathic. This impression continued to grow as I read about the explosion of Wade's entire apartment block and his reaction to it. For whatever reason, Cline wastes or allows no time for a creative expression of the only logical human sentiments that one would expect to find in that kind of narrative situation. There was little in the way of regrets, no sadness or remorse that I could detect. There was also no sense of outrage, bitterness, or the raw backlash reaction of grief.
To be fair, it is possible to break the fourth wall in a way that enhances the entertainment of the piece. Shakespeare still seems the best author at pulling off this particular literary hat trick. This is a technique that is nowhere to be found in RP1. The fault for this seems to lie somewhere in the author's stars. The trouble with Cline is that he is a very poor puppeteer.
He's also can't seem to write any good character interaction. Here, for instance, is a snippet of dialogue from an emergency meeting between the book's five heroes:
"We didn't come here to be insulted," Daito said finally. "We're leaving".
"Hold on, Daito," I said. "Just wait a second, will you? Let's just talk this out. We shouldn't part as enemies. We're all on the same side here (245)".
The diction is stilted in an unnatural, awkward sort of way. It seems like the emotional detachment affecting the characters also applies to the novel's stylistics as well. As I read through these passages, the emotional content of the whole experience was interesting in that it was a combination of dislike combined with an non-visceral, abstract sense of disgust. None of this was experienced as as either an emotional high or low. Instead it was almost like the exact opposite of entertainment. I really don't have a better way to describe it. I knew I was experiencing a work of bad writing, and it's quality was enough to create a strange emotional disconnect. The more I think about it, the more unnerving it is. It was like the discovery of a new type of negative, dissociative aesthetic experience.
I think this dissociative sensibility is important, for it highlights the major failing of Cline's writing. This may sound counter-intuitive, yet it's very simple. The characters in the story surround themselves with the detritus of pop-culture. It determines the fabric of their day to day existence. For all that, or perhaps because of it, all these heaps of legend and myth truly mean nothing to them in and of themselves. There is no such thing as a genuine affection for the stories the characters surround themselves with. Instead, they are more like trophies denoting a straight-jacketed form of social status. The result is a flattening of character dynamics, which limits the audience's ability to reach any genuine form of sympathy for their struggles. In fact, Cline's portrayal of Wade comes off as less a man in dire straits, and more an exercise is self-glorification. The entire novel comes off as a journey into a form of escapism where all that matters, or exists, is "Me" and whatever "I" happen to like at any given, passing moment.
This makes the novel less of an ultimate nerd fantasy. Instead, it's something very close to the ancient problem known as solipsism. It all makes for a very uncomfortable, and unsatisfying reading experience. I'm surprised a book like this was able to find it's way to the top of the bestseller lists.
When it comes to the adaptation, we are in professional hands, yet there's little it can do to fix what's already broken. The movie is an improvement on the novel in several ways. Wade is less of a selfish loner on-screen as he is a confused man trying to find the right thing to do. He's also given a certain basic level of self-awareness. This comes through in a line at the beginning where Cline's collaborator Zak Penn has Wade make an admission to both himself and the audience. "Maybe it's because she called me out, sitting here in my tiny corner of nowhere, protecting my small slice of nothing". The director, Steven Spielberg, also makes the more or less wise choice of having Wade team up with the other members of the High Five to form their own gang. These improvements are all useful, yet they can only go so far. The re-writes are able to fix a flaw. There is still no way to make any of the characters all that interesting. It is possible for a book or film to be entertaining even if the characters are less than well written. However, this is a mountain the director in unable to scale. Spielberg's invention and talent are always getting bogged down by the lackluster nature of Cline's text and script.
It's obvious Spielberg is at least trying to give the audience something. He even tacks in a more heartfelt note about the importance of real life. The trouble is it comes too little and late to make any difference. His talent is wasted on a story like this. The trouble for the director is that Cline's text is a stylistic melange of surface elements with not much left over in terms of depth or substance. In all this, Spielberg is little more than just the hired help.
There is another moment of real world logic that intrudes on the suspension of disbelief. The entire secondary world of Cline's novel is predicated on the idea that the whole world has turned to a computer program for sustenance in a near post-apocalyptic future. There's nothing new with this basic setup. Lot's of Sci-Fi author have used such an idea to sometimes good effect. The difference with Cline's novel is that the settings of the entire computer program are based around 80s pop-culture, with a heavy emphasis on the cinema of that decade. Here's where real world, experience based logic kicks in. It has been my experience, by and large, that the appreciation of the arts, in general, is limited to a small number of enthusiasts.
For the rest of the real world, entertainment is more of a recreational, utilitarian affair. Considerations of art rarely factor in to the thinking of a majority of audiences. It is only the devotion and labor of art enthusiasts that keeps the reputation of Edgar Allen Poe or Orson Welles around for such an extended period of time. The big takeaway is that most folks just aren't book or film persons. That role belongs to a minority. Here is the catch, however. What is there to do in Cline's world for the majority of people who don't have a geek's passion for pop-culture? You could be forgiven for assuming that the OASIS might have programs that cater to more mundane tastes.
However, the point is that the whole program revolves around the whims and personal tastes of an uber-geek, James Halliday. From what we hear of him in the novel, he never took much time to consider the potential needs of the kind of persons who find less satisfaction in a movie like Wargames and instead would prefer to spend time building or constructing something with their own two hands. So I repeat, where do ordinary people like that go in the OASIS? What can such a program do for someone to whom pop-culture just doesn't come naturally? Or is this an oversight? Either way, the result is a glaring gap in terms of narrative logic. In other stories of this type, the idea of a computer ruling society makes sense because the programs are written with an eye toward the necessities of life such as food, shelter, and defense. Cline, on the other hand, seems to have let his enthusiasm get in the way of his commonsense.
Granted, it is possible to argue that realism is the last thing to look for in a work of fiction. By and large the value of art lies in it's thematic, and not literal, relations to the real world. In this case, it is better to look at things from a more symbolist, rather than naturalist perspective. The trouble is that both book and film fail even at this more creative level.
At it's best, the OASIS serves a symbolic purpose of a different kind. What it has to say, however, is a bit less flattering. It stil doesn't change the fact that the whole story of RP1 is a neat and uncomfortable snapshot of the current state of fandom and pop-culture in general.
The Meaning (or lack thereof).
There is a message at the heart of both the novel, and the film. A story like Ready Play One exists less as a story and more as kind of sign or pointer towards an entire way of thinking, or zeitgeist. This zeitgeist is, in turn, a sort of unintentional snapshot or capture of where Geek Culture as a whole stands during the dawn of the new, early 20s. The trouble is it's not a pleasant one.
It is just possible to sometimes gain an understanding of any society or culture if you take the time to study both personal interactions, and the topics of conversation that keep cropping up with the most frequency. If it is possible to note and take down these topics, then you begin to form an idea of what's going on in any given culture at large. It is also possible to gauge whether that culture is thriving, suffering, or maybe even failing.
One of the trends I've been forced to notice is the level of hostility that has entered the types of conversations in the various kind of fandoms out there. To take just one instance, there seems to be a spot of trouble centering around the latest incarnation of Star Trek. I'll have to admit that what I've seen of it strikes me as both ridiculous and not worth taking seriously at all. I see no reason for not going back to the drawing board and starting with something that can be its own incarnation while still honoring what came before in a way that is satisfying to all the fans who've been with the franchise for all this time.
This same culture was started, so far as I know or can tell, way back around the 1930s, when people like Forrest J. Ackerman and a few friends started groups like the Futurians in order to do no more than share their passion for genres like Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy. From there, a culture was formed that grew from the late 30s and 40s onward until now. While this culture has known it's share of disagreements, and even a bit of controversy, there always seemed to be a level of civility that never managed to shatter a sense of shared camaraderie. This is the first time I've begun to wonder if the culture can bear up under the strains of the failing conversations of the current moment.
In this regard, Ready Player One is almost like a map showing the cartography of where Geek Culture is at present. The landscape is very heated and I worry if there are tears or seams showing in the pattern of that map. Because of this, I one day found myself asking a question I wouldn't even have considered just a few short years ago. Is it possible for Geek Culture to more or less implode or collapse? If that sounds like an impossibility, please remember that other sub-cultures in a much larger society have ceased to exist when the major idea or concept that was always powering it no longer held a grip on the minds of it's former enthusiasts. So does this mean the popular genres are being lost sight of while the culture that surrounds it is undergoing some sort of social shift or change?
The answer is simple: I don't know. All I know is that Geek Culture under strain due to a lot of divisive issues. It is possible that one of two outcomes may be on the table. The first is that our current Nerd Culture will be able to surmount the problems plaguing it, and be able emerge somewhat stronger from the struggle. The other is that it can't take the stress of it's own internal divisions, and something by begun by the likes of Uncle Forrey finally comes to an end.
If the latter were to happen, what would become of the items, the stories that have inspired Geeks, Nerds, and the pop-culture they erected around it all? Whatever becomes of pop-culture, I would insist that its imperative to hold onto all these texts, both literary and cinematic, as a kind of canon. The basic fact about canonical texts is that they earn their place in the literary pantheon based on their contents containing permanent elements of human experience. While these experiences can appear varied and dissimilar on a surface reading, a closer look reveals the same series of concerns with morality, mortality, and why these concerns keep cropping up in human affairs. These are all qualities that Cline has tossed over in favor of soothing an ego that is probably fragile, certainly neurotic, and highly unsympathetic.
The commentary, if it has to be called something, seems to be a kind of thematic snapshot about the current state of artistic criticism in general. Like English Majors, the characters all converge around one artist and his work. They sift over left behind texts in search of clues that will help them unvravel the meaning of Halliday's work. The difference is in what kind of goal the fictional cast has in mind. They use each solution for their own personal gain, with little to no desire to learn the potential lessons contained in any of the entertainment they consume. The cardinal example of this is when Cline name drops the author Kurt Vonnegut without displaying the slightest understanding of the searing moral humanism at the center of that writer's work. It may be an over-statement, yet I can't help but think that an individual who had not just read, but grasped the meaning of a book like Slaughter House 5, or even a minor work like Mr. Rosewater wouldn't write in the kind of mentally callous fashion that Cline does.
To be fair, there have been literary examples where the author, or the characters, have raised a certain level of commentary without breaking the narrative flow or draining the audiences excitement away. The best examples of this are the plays of Shakespeare, Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves, and Tolkien's Hobbit. The shared trait of each of these differing authors is that they had both the natural talent and skill to balance and moderate on their own stories in a way that pulled their audiences further into the narrative, rather than taking them right out of it. It takes a level of talent that Cline doesn't seem to have mastered.
The one message in both versions of the story that causes the most concern is what it says about our sense of literacy, and the ability to get an accurate, critical reading of a text, whether on the page or screen. So, I repeat the question. Has artistic critical thinking degenerated to the point where it is in danger of growing into a form of empty social posturing in search of status recognition?
I suppose that's what really bothers me about the book's subtext. The underlying message seems to be that anything is a commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace. This goes double for the content of pop-culture. The OASIS exists as a forum that allows people to trade items, identities, and situational tropes drawn from myths both ancient and modern. It's almost as if someone found a way to turn Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces into an all-you-can-carry, shop-till-you-drop store where every Face and fictional scenario is up for grabs at the right price. The trouble is that the tropes and themes Campbell spoke and wrote about can't be used in the way Cline and his characters would like them to be. For Campbell a story was not something a person can shape or twist to their own will. It was instead a source of potential enlightenment, or self-improvement.
The reason for this was because Campbell knew what most well-read English Majors discovered well before his time. The themes of all good stories have what Tolkien called an applicability to the problem of real life. If they didn't there would be no reason for the people of any historical culture to attach any kind of importance to them. Instead, because someone like Mark Twain was such a perceptive on-looker at the situation going on around him, Huck Finn is one of the greatest literary heroes of American culture.
This is where the true value and use in all great stories lies. A good story will take you into it's secondary world, and then re-deposit you back into reality. If the story has done its job, or rather if you have imaginatively allowed yourself to work with the narrative so that it can perform it's task, you may be able to see reality from a fresh perspective. That was the thought in back of works by guys like Campbell and Tolkien. In contrast, Cline sees fiction as just something useful to boost his own ego. It's castle building at it's most banal and selfish. Meanwhile, the author treats reality as some sort of leviathan or demiurge he has to escape from.
This is not the goal of storytelling, or at least I think it shouldn't be. We tell ourselves tales in order to help sort out our own lives, and the world around us. That seems to have been the Imagination's primary function almost from the beginning. It's high time audiences started to rediscover the creative potential in a well told story. There are a million places for us to begin this process. However, Ready Player One, in any of it's incarnations, is not the best place to start.