On Geek Superficiality

The movie version of Ready Player One came out last week.  I have a spoiler-free review for the movie scheduled for a little later, but right now, I have some thoughts on the work on Ernie Cline and the movie.  See, the Geeks who saw the movie had a private debate over whether or not the movie worked for things that were omitted from the novel and various changes made as a result.  I won’t say who was more upset over the omissions than others, but to move on, here’s what I personally think.

These comments are filled with SPOILERS for both the book and movie versions of Ready Player One and Cline’s follow-up novel Armada.

To begin, I’m going to use an early scene from the novel Armada to prove my point.  In many ways, I feel Cline recycled the ideas and themes from Ready Player One when he wrote Armada, such that I think he just wrote the same book twice.  But here’s the relevant part:  early in the book the protagonist spots an alien spaceship floating outside his school.  He is apparently the only person in the school that happens to be looking out the window at that exact moment, meaning everyone else is engaged in their own thing or paying attention to the teacher, like happens in no actual school ever.  But the point of contention is what Zach Lightman’s two best friends are doing:  they are arguing which is the most powerful fictional weapon.  The choices for them is Mjolnir from Marvel Comics/Norse mythology and Sting from the works of Tolkien.

And that made me question Cline’s geek credentials.  Mjolnir makes sense for such a debate.  It can smash through a mountain, summon storms, and allows the handful of people able to wield it the power to fly.  But Sting?  Sting glows blue in the presence of orcs and goblins and…well, it’s probably sharp.  The name implies it doesn’t do more than give a mild poke.  Choosing Sting shows a person hasn’t done a particularly deep dive into the works of JRR Tolkien, either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings.  Heck, they haven’t even done a particularly deep dive into the work of Peter Jackson.  Sting isn’t a powerful sword.  It’s a elf dagger.  It’s given to Bilbo and later Frodo because it is a good size for a hobbit, and that’s about it.  There are better weapons in the world of Tolkien.  Even someone who has just seen the movies might have chosen Aragorn’s sword.  And a true Tolkien fan would have gone even deeper and chosen who-knows-what from all the writing Tolkien did on Middle Earth.

But no, Cline went with Sting.

And therein lies the problem.  Cline went for the superficial answer, and that’s all over his novels.  His protagonists are not particularly deep characters.  Wade Watts and Zach Lightman on the page are good with geek/pop culture knowledge and…that’s about it.  They get the girl in the end because they know video games or something, like the females are prizes to be won without much will of their own.  At least Wade spends some “virtual” time with his love interest before the end of the story; all Zach does is tell some jokes his love interest likes at their first meeting and she seems to be his instant girlfriend.  The love interests are largely just there, and the way they become love interests isn’t very unique or new.  As a co-worker pointed out to me, how much more interesting would it have been if Art3mis wasn’t real?  If the Oasis was that powerful, that could have been a very real possibility.  But that’s not what Cline is up to.

Instead, like the Oasis itself and the space war being fought in Armada, it’s a lot of people fighting over something that isn’t real.  The Oasis is a sign of a world in neglect, but few characters seem all that upset by the world they inhabit.  Armada has a war between aliens and humans turn out to be a test from the real aliens.  People died, but they died because of a lie that the alien war machines were a real threat and not a test to see how violent humans were.  In Ready Player One, IOI murders people to get the Oasis.  People die in Cline’s works for things that aren’t real.

I think that may ultimately be why I couldn’t get into the concept of the Oasis.  It didn’t really look like a place I’d want to hang out.  I’m not much for video games to begin with, but as much as it might be fun to spend time in the Oasis, I like the real world better.  It’s telling that Cline’s novel is supposed to be about that very idea.  Both novels end more or less the same way:  the protagonist learns that maybe the real world is better.  Wade gets told by a pre-programmed copy of Halliday that there are things outside the Oasis that are important and he decides to use some of Halliday’s fortune to fix real world problems.  Zach sees the game for what it is and saves the day.  Armada does a better job of foreshadowing all this stuff in part because Zach is suspicious of what he sees happening from the beginning, but both of these revelations are nowhere near as interesting as what came before them.

That may be where Spielberg’s movie version of Ready Player One gets it right:  the lesson at the end feels earned.  To figure out the clues, Wade and his friends have to look into Halliday’s life and see it for what it was:  rather lonely.  Thus, when the Halliday avatar tells Wade the real world is better, it should feel earned.  It isn’t about knowing the little bits of pop culture and being able to recycle the dialogue of a better story to earn points (and a girl…these stories are very much teenage male fantasies).  It’s about learning to grow up and see the real world.  Compare that to how the book handles it:  Halliday drops that advice to Wade at the end and that’s it.  It’s like the lesson at the end of an episode of G.I. Joe.  It may or may not be related to the action that came before it, but it attempts to justify the whole story as being about an important lesson learned.  Cline did co-write the screenplay for the movie, so perhaps he is making up a bit for some of his earlier work’s narrative mistakes, but I can’t say for certain without knowing what Cline contributed to the overall work.

I think it also helps that Spielberg directed the movie, and not for the reasons one might think.  Spielberg is of an older generation, and he can as a result cast a more critical eye to the pop culture involved, especially if he was involved in making it.  He probably doesn’t share the same level of affection for it, so it doesn’t matter if Voltron or whatever appears in the movie.  It is telling that what was the best sequence of the movie–the Shining sequence that really recreates the look of the movie–works so well, perhaps because motion pictures are one thing we know Spielberg really cares about.  That the rest of the film carries a more humorous tone suggests Spielberg perhaps did not take the story of Ready Player One as seriously as he could have.

But for a place that is supposed to be fueled by “the limits of our imagination,” the Oasis (and Cline’s writing) isn’t overly imaginative.  Most of the items, people, and settings within the Oasis are taken from other people’s imaginations.  If it really is about imagination, why do so many characters ape the look of well-known characters?  Wade himself alternately dresses like Marty McFly or Buckaroo Banzai and drives a car that is mostly from Back to the Future with a dash of KITT.  Many of the main characters have more original avatars for their respective looks (the uncreative dork corporate villain has the most derivative look in that he’s just Superman in a business suit with some cybernetic arms), but most background characters are just other people’s creations and intellectual property.  Factor in for the book that there has apparently been no big pop culture creations worth mentioning since 1989, and you see a society in statsis (that people who “die” in the Oasis can just instantly respawn back at the beginning plays into that fact as well, suggesting nothing really changes).  The movie is better in that regard, but still shows a world that, given a setting of 2045, still hasn’t had any pop culture creations of its own worth mentioning in over a quarter of a century.

That’s not cool.  That’s sad.

As it is, Cline’s work seems to do this.  It works off simple nostalgia as a way to tell a story without really digging into what made these things cool and interesting to begin with.  I mentioned in my Armada review at least one work that did it right: the novel Red Shirts by John Scalzi.  It’s not a perfect novel, but it takes a well-worn pop culture observation–that the guys in red shirts have a high mortality rate on Star Trek–and actually makes a story out of it while diving into what it means to be a fictional character. As I said, Scalzi’s work isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it does a deeper, more critical dive into the ideas of a pop culture work more effectively than anything Cline has produced to date.

That said, I don’t wish to rag on Ernie Cline.  Despite everything I said above, I didn’t hate either version of Ready Player One.  They were both dumb fun.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But if Cline wants to be remembered as an all-time great in Geek Literature, he’ll need to expand on his work in ways he has not at present.  Perhaps if he does finish a sequel to either of his novels, he can cast aside the lazy pop culture references that litter his work and create something of true depth.  Ready Player One and Armada are his first published novels, and both ended in ways that suggest a world where the protagonist’s pop culture knowledge will be of less use from that point on.  That could mean he will only improve as a writer going forward.

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