Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Review of Ready Player One

Entering the world of Ernest Cline’s SF novel Ready Player One is like taking a trip back to the future, for this futuristic world has embraced a resurgence of 1980s pop culture due to a high-stakes contest that necessitates knowledge about the era. The 80s nerd in me – the one who obsessed over certain movies, music, and video games – felt a thrill each time Cline alluded to one of these iconic friends who journeyed with me through my youth. 

Today, people claim to be “geeks” and “nerds,” and those titles are largely celebrated; however, this was not always the case. During the 80s, it was deemed perfectly acceptable to obsess over sports trivia, spend hours watching football, and spend obscene amounts of money at the mall, but waste time and money in the arcade, plaster your bedroom walls with posters of bands whose entire catalog you know by heart, or try to build a robot in your spare time? Only loser nerds who needed to get a life would do such things. These activities were not celebrated, except by the other nerds with whom one could commiserate over a game of Dungeons & Dragons or a debate about which Star Trek captain is superior (#JeanLuc4Life). One only has to view the classic film Revenge of the Nerds – briefly mentioned in Cline’s novel – to understand how nerds were regarded (or not really regarded at all) during the decade.  I find it ironic, since so many cultural influences seemed poised to push all of us into nerdom. I certainly fell into this world as much as possible in the 80s, though social status would determine to some extent how far I could go. Not everyone had access to Atari systems or endless rolls of quarters, so like other tech-deprived nerds, I played when I could but focused largely on more accessible media like movies, music, and TV.

Cline doesn’t merely allude to an array of favorites from the best decade ever; he also captures its essence. The nod to War Games serves as a reminder of a decade wrought by tensions with the Soviet Union and the notion that technology could either save us or destroy us all. These are still very relevant ideas. The idea that a kid – a nerd who spends too much time on his computer – can save the world not only celebrates nerdiness, but also provides hope. In fact, the entire novel offers hope as a solo nerd faces off against a large, evil corporation in a race to the ultimate goal. Again, Cline captures extremely relevant currents in our society by fusing a vision of the future with one from the past. 

There’s so much I want to share about this book – far too much for a blog post. The only problem is that I don’t know who else to recommend it to. My students won’t get the allusions, and though the story stands on its own merit, it just won’t be as magical to them as it is to me. For example, in the audiobook version, you can hear Wil Wheaton refer to Star Trek: the Next Generation, in which he played the prodigy Wesley Crusher, and even to himself, as he reads. I’m not sure my students would get why that’s cool or appreciate the sincere joy with which Wheaton reads about the various games, TV shows, and movies of that time. They certainly didn’t obsess over Stand by Me, one of the best films ever made, like I did when I was young, so they also won’t recognize the actor from that iconic role as Gordie Lachance. I knew every line of dialogue, every expression that crossed each actor’s face, every song lyric, and, of course, every deep thematic idea in the film, and the fact that such nerdy obsessions have been so beautifully respected and celebrated by Cline in Ready Player One makes me feel like I wasn’t so alone in my obsessions after all.

Ultimately, the message that I wish my students could harvest from this book is that the truly important connections in life are those made with real people in the real world. I often watch them stare at their phone screens while ignoring their peers sitting right next to them, and I worry that they have already traded the messiness of true interaction with others for the safety and anonymity of a virtual world.

Check out fan art and collections inspired by the book:

Steven Spielberg will direct the film version of the novel:

A review and brief interview with the author: