Jan. 26, 2012
For Christmas I received a copy of Ernest Cline’s new novel, Ready Player One. Ostensibly the novel is a dystopian cyberpunk thriller. It hits all the dystopian cyberpunk tropes right in the first chapter. The protagonist grew up poor in an overcrowded trailer park but within the virtual reality world of the OASIS he is very smart, highly skilled, and misunderstood outside his small circle of friends. The meatspace world is falling apart thanks to skyrocketing energy prices and corporate capture of the government, but the cyberspace world is thriving. It all sounds incredibly derivative. I mean, weren’t these themes all well-worn by the early 1990s? Yes, of course, but in the case of Ready Player One, that is entirely the point.
Wrapped within the shiny cyberpunk paper lies an incredibly heartfelt love letter to the pop culture of the 1980s, especially the nerd culture of the 80s. The cyberpunk veneer simply reinforces this theme while also providing a setting in which visiting lost 1980s locations becomes possible even in the world of 2044.
A few years prior to the start of the novel, multi-billionaire and inventor of the OASIS James Halliday died and left his $240B fortune to the single person who could first discover the secret easter eggs he hid within the virtual world. The protagonist, Wade Watts, is a “gunter” or “egg-hunter” as the people who have dedicated their lives to winning the prize are called. All gunters immerse themselves in the interests of James Halliday, who, as a child of the 80s, had a special love of John Hughes movies, classic coin-op arcade games, Dungeons & Dragons, science fiction novels, Rush, and Japanese cartoons. They are certain that the secret to unlocking his treasure lies somewhere within this canon.
By invoking this premise, Ernest Cline has now freed himself to sprinkle hundreds of references to 1980s popular culture into his novel without any worry that he might be going too far. After all, his protagonist has spent his entire life studying the 80s canon and the entire society has a huge incentive to explore all the inner meanings of the era. Halliday himself has recreated entire chunks of 80s society within his virtual world. The novel is now transformed from a highly-derivative cyberpunk thriller into a massive dose of nostalgia.
The best comparison I can make for this novel is not something like Neuromancer or Snow Crash, which it certainly resembles, but Forrest Gump. What Forrest Gump was for baby boomers this novel is for nerdy GenXers and early Millenials, told not through current events but through media culture. After all, compared to the 1960s or the 1990s, very few memorable world events happened in the bulk of the 1980s. It was a time of general prosperity and growth around the world. On the other hand, popular culture hit many high notes during this decade, the growth of personal computers helped to make nerd culture more mainstream, and Japan was having its best decade ever. The best way to capture the gestalt of the 1980s isn’t with war and politics, but media.
As a child of the 80s myself, the novel certainly resonated with me as it was intended. I turned every page eager to see what reference he was going to make next. I swooned at his description of 80s arcades, became giddy when Watts visited the head office of the Tyrell Corporation, and smiled broadly when the dialogue from WarGames became a major plot point. However, as whenever nostalgia is taken a little too far, I can’t help but be saddened by all this love for a bygone era. When we cling to the past too tightly, we forget about living in the present. In Ready Player One, much of the entire society has stagnated or even reverted to the popular culture of the 80s as people try to win the big prize. If American culture peaked in 1987, where does that put us? Clearly we’ve moved on in the last 25 years and as much as I love Blade Runner, I’m not willing to go back to a place where a movie like Blade Runner would be possible to make again, but in some ways that is what Ernest Cline encourages us to do.
Forrest Gump held up a rose-colored mirror to the Baby Boom generation, encouraging them to see themselves as heroes, innovators, and true champions of justice in a badly broken world, regardless of the mixed reality. Ready Player One gives Generation X a VR simulation where they are the coolest people ever to live with all the best toys, but also slayers of the evil corporate behemoths that secretly control the world.