Peak Retro: Ready Player One

Ready Player One takes place in a future universe in which a digital reality has supplanted the boring old analogue version. This world, the OASIS, was partly created by a man called James Halliday. The creation of this wildly popular online environment has made Halliday immensely rich. Too bad he’s dead, and he’s decided to award his estate to whomever can solve the series of puzzles he’s embedded in the OASIS. As a result, the popular culture of the year 2044 is dominated by nerdly obsessions from the 1980s as people dedicate themselves to examining Halliday’s every minute interest for clues. Wade Watts is the hero, a poor kid and an orphan to boot. His devotion to being a true follower of Halliday and encyclopedic knowledge of 80s pop culture trivia pays off for this underdog. What happens is not of great interest to me, since if you can’t already tell, Watts beats the game and wins the spoils. What is more interesting to me are some of the unexamined implications in this book.

First is the notion that searching for Halliday’s fortune (a subculture known in the book by the inelegant portmanteau gunter, a fusion of egg and hunter) eclipses present popular culture in such a way as to render it nonexistent. Everywhere in the OASIS, people live in 80s movies, listen to 80s music, memorize old Dungeons and Dragons modules because Halliday was known to have once played them. There’s little in the book about the world outside of the OASIS. What we do see are trailer parks in which the units have been welded into stacks, vague mentions of an energy crisis that leave certain areas with sporadic electricity, dormitories-cum-prisons in which corporate debtors are forced to work off their debts. The outside world is of little consequence to Watts, in part, because the economy of the OASIS has eclipsed that of the meatspace. Having money in the OASIS seems to be more important. There are some things that reflect the meatspace world. Transportation from one place to another takes credits that can be earned in the OASIS or bought with currency. But for the most part, power in the real doesn’t necessarily translate into power in the OASIS. Meanwhile, in the OASIS, teens run around wearing clothes from well-known 80s films, arguing about Ladyhawke, playing low-res arcade games, hanging out in replicas of Halliday’s childhood home and otherwise behaving more of less like teen versions of the book’s 30-something target audience.

This is the purpose of the book, as far as I can tell. It’s about combining 80s geek signifiers to press that nostalgia button for the reader. It posits a world in which a major geek fantasy has come true; the fantasy that pop-culture trivia will suddenly become the only relevant currency in the world. Then those who can recite every word of Monty Python and the Holy Grail will be kings. The cultural references seem placed throughout the book to trigger a reaction of “I recognize that, therefore I like it” from the reader, which is becoming a serious malaise in the 21st century. This isn’t Eliot making a statement with bits of Arthurian legend, it’s Watts driving a virtual hybrid of the cars from Back to the Future and Ghostbusters. Why? Not sure entirely. I kept expecting the references to have some purpose in revealing either Watts’ character or Halliday’s but I gave up on that about a third of the way through.

There seems to be no new culture, rather a pastiche of dead-ends from the 20th century. We’re not far from this ourselves; endlessly recycling films, music and fashion from 20-30 years ago. Patton Oswalt named this phenomenon “Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever.” And in the book, Watts praises the ready availability of every cultural artifact in the OASIS. Oswalt wrote that “Etewaf doesn’t produce a new generation of artists—just an army of sated consumers. Why create anything new when there’s a mountain of freshly excavated pop culture to recut, repurpose, and manipulate on your iMovie?” This is the world of Ready Player One, and the bleakest element of the book. Forget the 20 people living in one trailer, the absolute death of innovation and art signals the entropic state of American culture. Watts is a kid who is good at 80s arcade games. That’s his talent. He doesn’t produce or conceive of anything. I was initially surprised that Halliday’s will didn’t award his fortune to someone who was capable of innovating, as it appeared that what made Halliday special was this ability to create, but as I read I came to see Halliday as a disturbed person and potential megalomaniac.

There is very little to Halliday’s meatspace life. He’s drawn with the merest outlines of technocratic hero, meant to be a cipher figure into which the reader can project his or her geek sympathies. We know he was a nerdy kid. He worked with Ogden Morrow to create the OASIS. He apparently developed a young adult crush on a woman (I cannot remember her name. If you know it, drop me a line & I’ll put it in.) who was more interested in Morrow. As a result of Morrow’s marriage to this woman, Halliday became a recluse and spent the rest of his life in the OASIS.

Here I’d like to say that I hate “unrequited love” as a method of character building. It can work, but in this case it seems to exist in order for the reader to empathize with Halliday. It also hints at this nice-guy worldview in which it’s made into such a tragedy that the lover’s affections are unrecognized, yet it completely voids the woman’s agency to choose who she’d rather be with. I also hate “one-true-love” ideology and think it’s an excuse for obsessives to rationalize their issues. Halliday completely gives up on the real world after this one disappointment. This seems like an outsized response and exactly the sort of drama a teen would indulge in. His retreat from life seems like the symptom of an emotionally immature person. Bah. I am a heartless lady, because I always think “She picked someone else. Get over it.”

Anyway, Halliday continues to live after his death in the form of his avatar, a Dungeons and Dragons wizard called Anorak. The quest structure of the story involves its own troubled love plot between Watts and an avatar named Art3mis, who are both competing to complete the game. What’s troubling about the nature of the game is that it centers on deep knowledge of Halliday’s teen obsessions. These cultural products are framed as sources of comfort in Halliday’s youth. So, in seeking to make the game reflective of his lonely youth, Halliday is not so much reaching out to another similarly introverted outcast, but is ensuring that the winner will be someone who has studied him intensively. In other words, instead of looking for someone who created his own rich inner world out of cultural scraps, Halliday is ensuring he recreates himself by geek osmosis. He doesn’t want the heir to his fortune to be any another geek, he wants to create another geek as close to his own personality as possible, and since this is a world in which all culture is made out of retro, the method he chooses to replicate himself is pop-cultural pastiche. Halliday has made the OASIS a place where thousands of people live out his memories. There are planets devoted to replicating his childhood home over and over. In contrast, there’s much less veneration of the still-living Morrow, perhaps because he hasn’t waved a multi-billion dollar carrot in people’s faces to make them memorize all his favorite movies.

Halliday’s influence has shaped pop culture into his own personal scrapbook, which leads me into the next problem. All the people in the book are devoted to Halliday’s memory because there is a large cash prize attached. So what happens when the prize is won? The story really doesn’t linger on this point, but it appears that solving the game would essentially deprive thousands of purpose and destroy the world for gunters. Without the prize, why would anyone continue to participate? By proving his devotion to all things Halliday, Watts has eclipsed him and in essence destroyed his memory. Perhaps the future of Ready Player One is about a kid reliving Watts reliving Halliday playing Atari. If you want a vision of the future, imagine a Rubik’s Cube stamping on a human face—forever.

At the end of the story, Anorak appears to give Watts the prize along with a few words of wisdom. Part of which include an admonition not to become a recluse and spend all his time in the OASIS. Cough. If Watts wasn’t already 80% of the way there, would he have won the prize? Seems pretty weak to impart a life lesson that’s essentially “Go play outside.” Watts ends up sitting in a garden with the real Art3mis, having won her love despite out-competing her in the game. The end undercuts everything that has come before and makes an attempt to reassert the importance of the real world. I read this as a sigh of authorial defeat. What remains when the hero has essentially attained virtual godhood? Taking a walk outside. It strikes a false note because the real world has been so completely marginalized by the OASIS that it’s difficult to believe it matters at all. We’re returned to the values of our world, even though they have no place in the world of the story.

I’d love to have juxtaposed my thoughts about this book with another book; Simon Reynolds’ Retromania, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

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