Ballantine Books / WIRED
The sequel has some interesting ideas, but they're drowned out by a pop culture overload. We review the book.
There’s a long-running line of children’s books where you provide the kid’s details – name, age, favourite hobbies – and they all get mail-merged into the narrative, making the youngster the central character in their own story and providing the illusion of personalisation at a low cost. Ready Player Two, the sequel to the hugely popular Ready Player One, offers a similar experience.
Like its predecessor, it’s a tedious slog through arcane pop culture references – The Silmarillion, the music of Prince, the movies of John Hughes – sprinkled in so lazily that you could replace them with your own favourites, or swap them right out and be left with a much shorter, and probably better book.
The action picks up immediately after the events of Ready Player One, which is set in the near-future, in a world where vast swathes of the population spend most of their day living inside a virtual reality simulation called the OASIS, to escape from the poverty, crime and general awfulness of life on Earth.
The protagonist, Wade Watts, is a nerdy teenager living in the ‘stacks’ outside Oklahoma City – a shanty-town comprised of literal stacks of trailers and RVs – who devotes all of his time to an in-OASIS treasure hunt devised by billionaire James Halliday, the late co-creator of the simulation, as a Willy Wonka-esque means to find an heir to his fortune.
While the plot of the first book is relatively predictable (spoilers ahead) – Wade wins the prize, gets the girl etc – when it was published in 2011 it did offer a somewhat visionary glimpse of the potential of what we now call the ‘metaverse,’ a simulated world that’s open to everyone. Today, designers of virtual worlds cite it as something of an inspiration for their creations.
But the book divided audiences. The central conceit is that Halliday loved the video games and movies he grew up with, and so those hoping to win the prize and become his heir needed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of 1980s arcade games and trivia to decipher his clues. The result was that Ready Player One was like reading an IMDB trivia page for a film you hadn’t seen, or being stuck next to the most boring guy at a party, desperately trying to make eye contact with someone to come and rescue you while he bangs on about KITT from Knight Rider. The OASIS had the potential to be anything, but author Ernest Cline turned it into a geek’s playground – as if humans simply stopped making popular culture after about 2010 and just wallowed in nostalgia.
It was, of course, a huge success – we absolutely love nostalgia – and was followed by a Steven Spielberg movie adaptation which wove in its own tapestry of pop culture references, albeit ones which were more accessible to a wider audience than the text-based games and 8-bit dungeon crawlers of the book. So now, after 2015’s Armada (a loose reimagining of Ender’s Game), Cline is back with a sequel that has all the same flaws as the original, but few of its plus sides.
After winning Halliday’s contest, Watts finds himself and his clan at the helm of Gregarious Simulation Systems – the vast corporation that runs the OASIS. He’s quickly let in on another secret left behind by Halliday – a new technology that enables people to plug their brains directly into the simulation, rather than experiencing it via VR goggles and haptic suits. This is the ‘neural lace’ technology that Elon Musk always gets very excited about – a brain-machine interface, taken to its logical conclusion.
Predictably, the widespread roll out of these devices threatens to end in tears, and Watts and his pals find themselves pitted against a rogue artificial intelligence both inside and outside of the OASIS. The only way to stop it is, you guessed it, by demonstrating a uniquely detailed knowledge of the Lord of the Rings, Japanese animation studios, and a whole lot of other stuff so niche that I’m not even sure what it was a reference to.
The end result is something that’s very similar to the first book, but much more grating the second time around. I emitted my first audible groan on page five, when Watts responds to a clue that leads him to the 13th floor of GSS headquarters with this: “Of course Halliday had put them there. In one of his favourite TV shows, Max Headroom, Network 23’s hidden research-and-development lab was located on the thirteenth floor. And The Thirteenth Floor was also the title of an old sci-fi film about virtual reality, released in 1999, right on the heels of both The Matrix and eXistenZ.”
It carries on in this vein for another 350 pages, and reads as if someone has introduced the GPT-3 text-generation algorithm to a copy of VH1’s I Love the 1980s (in fact, someone actually used an AI to try and predict the plot, with eerily effective results). It’s essentially fan-fiction: Twilight, but for teenage boys with dog-eared copies of The Hobbit and an unhealthy obsession with Marty McFly.
Now there’s nothing particularly wrong with that – people who love those things will probably enjoy this book – but it is the same shtick as the original. And it’s a shame, because underneath all the movie quotes and reenacted scenes from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, there are some interesting ideas in Ready Player Two about human-machine interfaces, virtual reality, and the ethics of interstellar travel (albeit nothing that isn't explored in the sci-fi canon that Cline loves to quote). And the actual plot isn’t terrible – it would, and probably will, make a pretty good movie adaptation. On screen the references become visual decoration that enhance rather than obstruct.
You could, if you were being charitable, read it as a comment on the bankrupt nature of the creative industries – the fact that so much of today’s popular culture is simply a remix, or a reimagining, or an unnecessary reboot of successful things from the past. And Ready Player Two would be a very good way of making that point, if it didn’t fall into exactly the same trap itself.