Right around Christmas this past year, I went to Disneyland in Anaheim, California. It was an overall fun experience, though the place was crowded, and it was interesting to see the differences in the parks as somebody who’s only ever been to Disney World in Orlando. While I was walking around, I couldn’t help but notice that seemingly every kid around me had something Marvel or Star Wars related. Girl or boy, almost all the kids were running around with light sabers or Iron Man masks, and the conversations that I heard were all about the universes of those two franchises. It reminded me of when I was their age, just discovering all these characters and talking endlessly to my friends about them. I didn’t really think much about it until I started writing this piece.
With the release of Steven Spielberg’s newest film coming straight at us, I figured I’d check out the book it was based on: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Now, this is primarily a movie blog page, but I have a lot of thoughts that I think I can work into the theme of our page, using the book as a jumping off point. And the fact is, this is an extremely recognizable book. If you’ve listened to a podcast that covers geek stuff in the last five years, you’ve probably heard of this book. If you’ve watched YouTube videos that break down comic book movies and pop culture in general, you’ve probably heard of this book. If you’ve been in a bookstore, you’ve probably seen this book. I had all of those experiences, and never once did I ever hear anything but glowing reviews for it. So, it was quite surprising when the tide seemed to turn against it after the release of the first movie trailer at last year’s ComiCon. Like many things on the Internet, sides were taken and backbiting commenced, so I decided to see what the mudslinging was all about.
Let’s get something out of the way right now: I didn’t like it. It’s repetitive, it lacks any kind of spacial awareness or continuity within the writing, conflicts are created and resolved within the span of a few pages, and the characters are dry and flat. I’m not writing this to talk about these things. Honestly, that type of critique can be cut and pasted onto a review of a wildly successful James Patterson or Dan Brown novel, those traits aren’t all that uncommon in popular fiction. What I am here to talk about is this: for years now it’s been said that this book is made for geeks in mind, and I as a dude who’s been into geeky stuff my whole life, should be the target audience for this. And I don’t get it. The ideology that springs from the pages of Ready Player One feels antiquated, and nonexistent in the time that we live in.
Ready Player One takes place in a post-apocalyptic (I think? The author’s portrayal of the outside world suffers from severe underdevelopment and continuity breaks) future where a kid named Wade Watts spends most of his time in a place called The Oasis, a virtual reality landscape that seemingly everyone escapes to. The creator of the Oasis dies, and leaves a scavenger hunt of sorts behind where the winner gets all of his fortune. Naturally, Wade wants in on it, but the twist is that the scavenger hunt is nothing but references to 80’s culture. And here we get to the issue.
Many people have called this book “weaponized nostalgia,” and it’s true that every set piece, line of dialogue, or allusion in this book is nothing more than a far too often over explained reference to something else that was created before. However, I would hesitate to say that Cline’s sole intention of the book was to create something scientifically engineered to make money. The real trouble is that I think he believes fully in a lot of the stuff that’s written in his book, and it serves as validation of the “geek” ideologies present within. At the heart of it, that’s what troubles me. We get screeds on atheism and masturbation that are wholly unnecessary, pad out the page length, and are simply just essays from the author’s own viewpoint on all these matters and feel out of place coming from the mind of a teenager. This is not to say that both of them are objectively wrong by any means, but they seem to both come from deep feelings of insecurity. It seems that they’re present not because of character ticks, but because Cline himself needs an outlet to justify his own behavior. In doing so, it justifies the behavior of those who are drawn to read the book, too.
That is the reason, I think, that Ready Player One has become so beloved within the communities that consider themselves “geeks”. It’s a completionist fantasy, where Wade Watts has a superpower of sorts where he can memorize all aspects of 80’s culture, from movies to TV shows and video games (the only real music present is from Rush). The phrase, “I memorized it,” or, “I knew it all by heart,” appear in passages so many times that it’s basically a forgone conclusion that no reference will pass over our protagonist’s head. It’s a hardcore geek philosophy that if you don’t have it memorized then you aren’t really a fan of it, and Ready Player One basically pushes the idea to it’s farthest possible conclusion.
It’s frustrating to me because that type of ideology is impossible to practice, and incredibly damaging to the psyche. It’s taken me a while to remove myself from it, and with a lot of experience I can tell you that believing that rote memorization makes you a real fan is painful. I remember desperately researching things, from comic books to movies, in constant fear that somebody was going to jump out from behind my couch and say, “I’ve got you! What’s the first line of the seventh episode of SpongeBob SquarePants? Can’t answer? Guess you’re not a real fan…” It was unhealthy, and I still get twinges of that feeling when somebody quotes something from a movie I’ve seen before and I don’t recognize it, but what’s important is to brush the feeling aside. Your value isn’t defined by how much you remember of something you enjoy.
But that doesn’t seem to be an idea that’s shared by Cline or the characters that he writes, as there are a many, many scenes where either our protagonist “wipes the floor” with somebody over their knowledge of 80’s trivia, or makes fun of somebody for not knowing random things. Most of the time, everyone witnessing a beating cheers at the end, because Wade is a “true geek” and he’s taking down the “posers”.
There are a couple major reasons why people are drawn to 80’s culture. The first is generational, as the people who grew up around that time or close to it feel nostalgia for it, and hold a lot of the buying power within the economy at the moment. The second reason is this: something very interesting happened in the 80’s, and it’s that “geeks” started to make media. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Joe Dante, Robert Zemeckis, and Chris Columbus dominated the theatrical landscape that decade, all with genre fare that’s been particularly enduring. They’re all geeks! Every last one of those guys, and their movies embraced that quality instead of shying away from it like before. Instead of a dashing and handsome protagonist dominating stories, the gawky, geeky outsider started taking their place as the protagonist of choice. I’m sure growing up in that time and seeing these movies and TV shows being released that validated your interests was particularly groundbreaking for kids in that time.
There is a darker side to the story, though. Even with popular culture turning towards the geeks, there was still isolation, social awkwardness, and bullying to deal with. Looking at movies from that era, you see people who’re interested in different things and desperate for somebody to share it with, creating small groups of people who have to shelter themselves from blowback. It’s from this area that I think Cline gets his geek ideology, as well as a lot of self-proclaimed “geeks” today. They want to believe that, like back then, they are the minority. They are the ones who are being stepped on and bullied just because they like different things. What frustrates me most about the book is that this doesn’t really exist at all anymore. It didn’t exist when I was a kid, either.
Because the geeks won.
Look around at the media landscape now. For almost 20 years, geek culture is popular culture. They are interchangeable. Marvel is the most recognizable film brand in the industry, Game of Thrones, a high fantasy TV show, is the most anticipated thing on television. Hell, a DnD podcast series starring three grown men and their father is one of the most popular ones put out now. Everywhere you look, genre content previously thought of as fringe now springs from the ground with the strength of geysers. It’s thanks to the Internet a little, but it’s also thanks to those same people in the 80’s who paved a way for other geeks to come in and create their own stories. Most importantly, there are millions of people who share the same interests as those who considered themselves a geek.
I mentioned before about scenes in Ready Player One showing Wade exposing others as not real fans or “cheaters” (The main antagonist is hated because he doesn’t actually know 80’s trivia, he uses his underling’s help finding answers). This is something that I want to harp on because this is what, in the story’s mind, makes Wade special. He’s not particularly clever or smart; his greatest strength is how he can memorize everything 80’s. That’s his value to the audience and the story. That’s what makes him special. I bring this up because that’s a mentality that many people hold onto as well: the properties you consume and are a fan of are what make you who you are, what makes you special. I can’t stress enough how bland this is as a characterization. I’m not saying that identifying with characters or movies is wrong (I’m wearing a Lion King shirt as I’m writing this, and most of my T-shirts have some kind of reference on them), but drawing your only sense of self-worth and individuality from your interest in those things is very harmful. In order for something to be successful, it has to be liked by a lot more than a core group of individuals. So when there are literally millions of other people who share your same interests in properties and franchises, suddenly you aren’t so special anymore.
So the goalposts get shifted. In Cline’s created world, where literally every kind of media is available with the flick of the wrist, it’s not enough to just enjoy things; you have to know them in an encyclopedic way. You have to live and breathe them every day of your life, like living in an apartment that is an exact recreation of the set of Family Ties. The romantic interest in the book is subtly quizzed by Wade upon their first interaction, because in his mind there’s no way someone as “hot” as her avatar would claim to be is into the same stuff he is. These types of quizzes become more about figuring out who are “real fans” than it is about enjoying all of these things. Once you start moving the goalposts, there is no end. How will you really know if someone is a Star Trek fan? Is it when they’ve seen every episode? Is it when they know how to play the 3D chess depicted? Is it when they’ve come up with an actual cocktail of Romulan Ale? At what point is it enough? Who in reality is a “real fan”? Most importantly, what does it accomplish? Would Wade have outright rejected her if she wasn’t a real fan? I would hope that our protagonist wouldn’t do something so superficial.
Now, some would argue that most of the geek stuff in Ready Player One is satire, that Wade’s arc is to learn that unplugging is okay. But it doesn’t seem to me that Cline totally wrote it that way, and it certainly hasn’t been interpreted that way either. “Going outside is highly overrated,” is the second highest voted quote on Goodreads for this book, so it really seems like a lot of people took this as validation and gospel. Even if it isn’t meant to be serious and is satire, it suffers from the Fight Club syndrome where it revels in how cool it all is without properly communicating that the philosophy is flawed. There also seems to be a generational chasm here, as the many young adults and children flocking to these properties don’t know “the real struggle,” and are brushed aside much in the same way when people use “millenials” as a dirty word.
It will be interesting to see how Spielberg, who is truly one of the greatest living filmmakers and storytellers, takes these ideologies and uses them in the adaptation. At best, the book is a satire of tired old ideologies that don’t really apply in the realm of geek stuff anymore. At worst, it’s a validation of its worst tendencies and traits, gleefully pointing out who is and isn’t a real fan. Spielberg has never really been the type of person who loves submerging fully in the self-referential game (Could you lighten up with that stuff, Mr. Tarantino?), so I’m curious to see how these elements are handled story wise. But let’s make this clear: the geeks won. It’s seductive to think otherwise, as it is in various other parts of our life, but it isn’t true. Geeks won, and letting other people in to share these treasured things isn’t a bad thing at all. It’s just different.
When I was walking around Disneyland, I was struck by just how different all of the conversations and toys from these same properties were from when I was a kid, and how beautiful that was. This new generation will make their own stories within these worlds, and to me that’s wonderful. The same people shouldn’t have a monopoly on all of these “geek” stories, because growth and improvement is so important. And culture doesn’t belong to those who know it backwards and forwards, it belongs to all who care to have a seat at the table. Who cares if the groups are bigger? That makes our stories all the more interesting.
This article was written by Samuel Becker: writer for hire, Tek5 Filmscore Critic, and general hypocrite.
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