“Don’t you kids ever get tired of picking through the wreckage of a past generation’s nostalgia?” Ready Player One’s primary villain, Nolan Sorrento, asks this of the protagonists of Ready Player Two, Ernest Cline’s sequel to his 2011 debut novel. “The entire OASIS is like one giant graveyard, haunted by the undead pop-culture icons of a bygone era. A crazy old man’s shrine to a bunch of pointless crap.”
The squad of ’80s-obsessed young adults in Cline’s vision of 2048 doesn’t really have a good answer to this critique, which could just as easily be leveled at Cline and his readers. Ready Player Two reads like a fusion between a Wikipedia page and a video game walk-through: It makes copious references but absolutely ensures readers get the joke by having characters share the source of a quote while also making it clear that it’s shameful to not already know this.
The tension between self-awareness and self-indulgence runs throughout the sequel, as Cline makes it clear he’s read plenty of the criticism leveled at his first novel and clumsily tries to address it. Some holes are easier to fix than others, like complaints that narrator Wade Watts, a.k.a. Parzival, resurrected his best friends after they were killed in the epic battle of good geeks versus evil corporate drones at the end of Ready Player One. The core problem—that the novel’s vision of geekdom focuses entirely on the favorite media of cishet white men—is more difficult to address.
Ready Player Two suffers from the same problems as the latter Harry Potter books in that it only follows the perspective of “the chosen one,” while potentially more compelling characters and plots function in the background. The book’s first 100 pages show Wade embodying the worst aspects of people like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg as he releases a new technology dubbed the OASIS Neural Interface, which allows users to fully embody their digital avatars and even share memories, which Cline acknowledges in the text is a fusion of the plots of The Matrix and Strange Days.
Wade becomes an ONI addict, spending as much time as his body will allow in the virtual worlds of the OASIS, often killing the avatars of people who said mean things about him or stalking Samantha Evelyn Cook, a.k.a. Art3mis, who dumps him after just 10 days because she believes the ONI technology is bad for humanity. She spends her time traveling around the globe and trying to spend her newfound fortune to make the world a better place. This doesn’t really work, but Cline never gives any satisfying reason why. The important thing is that the world is still a miserable place where escapism is all-important.
After all the brooding and exposition dumps, it’s time for Wade to redeem himself as the heir of OASIS creator James Halliday by completing yet another geeky Easter egg hunt. While there are a few acknowledgments that nerd culture didn’t stop in the ’90s, like a mention of Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor of Doctor Who, the reference-happy characters never pause to acknowledge that the plot of Ready Player Two is just a mashup of the Black Mirror episodes “San Junipero” and “USS Callister.” Maybe that’s because it takes the characters an infuriatingly long time to figure out what’s going on.
Rather than being devoted to the passions of Halliday, this hunt is focused on his unrequited love, Kira Morrow, who was instrumental in creating the OASIS but gets left off the credits because of sexism. As a result, the quests are more focused on the culture that would be relevant to an ’80s girl, like John Hughes movies and Rieko Kodama’s video games.
Yet, the narrative remains fixed on Wade, who is the only one able to complete these quests, with his more diverse supporting cast feeding him lines and trivia. Given that every time Wade uses the ONI to step into a woman’s body, he feels the need to comment on his boobs, it’s probably a good thing that Cline didn’t try to switch perspectives to a female character. But the tinge of embarrassment Wade feels with every bit of new culture he tries to enjoy stains the book’s attempts to elevate them. When Wade immerses himself in a world dedicated to Sailor Moon, which Kira loved, he decides he wants to cosplay as her love interest, Tuxedo Mask, but will only do it in the privacy of his own home.
The same issue is present in Cline’s efforts to acknowledge the effects that the OASIS technology would have on gender, race, and sexuality, which he hinted at in Ready Player One through Aech, a Black lesbian who portrays herself as a straight white man in the virtual space to enjoy the privilege that comes with it. When Wade discovers that a woman he has a crush on is trans, he says it might have once made him question his sexuality, but that reliving the memories of having sex in other people’s bodies or enjoying it risk-free in the OASIS has made him a lot more open-minded. That’s nice for him, but the idea that it would take a person 28 years and immersive VR technology to make them see trans women as women is disappointing.
There’s certainly some fun to be had in the romps through Middle Earth and an entire planet dedicated to Prince’s life and music, but segments of the book are needlessly repetitive or dry, as Cline seems more concerned with explaining how everything works and sharing trivia than telling a good story. Other portions of the book seem to be written with an eye toward a sequel of the 2018 Steven Spielberg adaptation, with Cline delivering armies of identically dressed baddies and showy boss fights.
Ready Player Two is filled with ridiculous fantasies, like Wade owning the rights to Back To The Future, Ghostbusters, Knight Rider, and The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai and using them to create cross-over films as a passion project. But the most outlandish might be how quickly all of Wade’s bad behavior is forgiven when he gets to relive his past Easter egg-hunting glory. Ready Player One hasn’t aged well and Cline’s star was tarnished even further by his abysmal second novel, Armada. It’s easy to imagine that Cline hopes that he, too, can be redeemed if he apologizes just a bit but mostly does the same things that so many people loved almost a decade ago. He’s still living in the past, and unlike Wade, he can’t save the world through the power of nostalgia.
Author photo: Dan Winters