I’ve had my Kindle Fire e-reader since December, but the only things I’ve read on it until now are short stories. Ernest Cline’s debut novel Ready Player One is the first full-length novel I’ve read, ever, electronically. It took a bit of getting used to. Short stories are easy to focus on, but with novels I’m far more likely to want to flip ahead to see how many pages are left in a chapter, or read the back cover description again, or the front page blurbs. You can’t do that with an e-book, really, so I had to unlearn that behavior. The good news is, unlearning it doesn’t take as long as you might think, and by the end of the novel reading on the Kindle Fire seemed like second nature.
It’s fitting, too, that Ready Player One was my first e-book because so much of the novel takes place in virtual reality. The plot in a nutshell: In the near future, our teenaged hero, Wade Watts, better known by the online handle Parzival, goes on a treasure hunt through the virtual reality world of OASIS. At stake is a huge amount of money and what basically amounts to ownership of the Internet. The novel’s hook, and its main draw for readers of a certain age, is that all the challenges that await him are based on 1980s pop culture.
You’d think that would be great fun, but alas, for the most part it’s not. At least, not in Cline’s hands. Imagine standing next to someone at a party, and all night all they say is, “Ha ha, remember Ladyhawke? Ha ha, remember Galaga?” and you pretty much have a feel for most of the novel. There’s no emotion behind the nostalgia on display, it’s all just name-checking. There’s no sense of wonder at the creativity of the past, or loss at the ephemeral nature of things we used to love. Put another way, there’s no there there.
Cline also has a frustrating habit of telling instead of showing. For example, one of the challenges Wade faces is to play through a life-sized, virtual version of the legendarily difficult Tomb of Horrors D&D module without dying. Pretty cool, huh? Except we don’t get to see it. We’re simply told that because Wade has studied the module so thoroughly he is able to play it through to the end while avoiding all the lethal traps. And so he wins the challenge. That’s it. It’s as if it never occurred to Cline that the reader might like to see some of this cool stuff go down, too. Later, Wade plays a perfect game of Pac-Man. What’s that like? We don’t know. Most of us never will, so it would have been nice to actually feel it here, but instead we’re simply told that because he practiced for endless hours beforehand, he won. Hooray. You know, when your character is the best at everything, there’s no suspense to speak of, and no character arc to follow him on. I call it the 300 syndrome. The movie 300 ultimately bored me, despite all its bombast and awesome battle rhinos, because it pits the best 300 warriors Sparta has to offer against the invading hordes. Since we already know they’re the best, there’s no arc. It’s yawnsville. Of course they’re going to smack down those battle rhinos without blinking an eye. But give me the same movie with 300 inexperienced warriors fresh out of Warrior Academy, or warriors who were ranked the worst in the land, and I’m much more interested. Writing lesson 101: When your characters have something to prove, there’s much more at stake. When they’re the best at everything, nothing’s at stake.
Cline definitely has a good imagination, and the climactic battle got me excited for reasons I don’t want to spoil (okay: Mechagodzilla!), but he really fumbles the ball when dealing with anything even remotely emotional. There’s an enormous tragedy in the first third of the novel, but it’s hardly acknowledged or dealt with in the remaining two-thirds. Later, another character’s death should be shocking and horrible. Instead, it barely affects us because, again, we’re simply told that people feel bad. We’re not led to feel it ourselves. And when it comes to Wade’s budding romance with another character, Cline tries way too hard to convince us of his feelings for her.
It’s rare when a book simply doesn’t work for me, and I’m sorry to say that Ready Player One falls into that category. Interestingly, though, the film rights were sold right out of the gate, and I have a feeling it’s going to make a much better movie than book. Provided they can get the rights to all the cool ’80s games, movies, and TV shows mentioned. And if they get a screenwriter who understands that the audience wants to play, too.
Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.