Review by Daniel Blackaby December 7, 2020
Ready Player Two (Book Review)
About the Book
Ready Player One, the debut novel by Ernest Cline, quickly became a pop-culture phenomenon when it was published in 2011, leading to an enjoyable 2018 film adaptation by Steven Spielberg. The book offered interesting commentary on contemporary culture’s increasing dependance on technology, as well as on our obsession with nostalgia of the past (while paradoxically being a product of both of these). The story, set in the year 2045, centers on the OASIS—a virtual reality video game. Before he died, the game’s pop-culture obsessed designer left a treasure hunt within, offering his entire fortune and control of OASIS to whoever solved the puzzle (ala the golden ticket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Now, the inevitable sequel, Ready Player Two, picks up the story in the aftermath of that contest.
I went in anticipating “Jurassic Park Syndrome,” whereby a contrived exposition dump would somehow attempt to justify sending the characters on yet another virtual treasure hunt. Despite this, I quickly bought in and accepted the sequel’s premise, which—similar to the Hunger Games sequel—shook the narrative up enough to avoid feeling like a full repeat of the original. Unfortunately, despite a surprisingly promising start, Ready Player Two quickly runs out of steam. There is plenty of inventive world-building and some thought-provoking social commentary on the role of technology, but very little else.
A Story Without a Soul
Ready Player One did not soar on the strength of Cline’s excellent prose or clever wordsmithing. Rather, the book’s success derived from its two central gimmicks—a virtual reality with endless possibilities and an endless barrage of 80’s and 90’s pop-culture references. The same is largely true with Ready Player Two. The writing is once again lacking, but this time the gimmicks also feel forced rather than fresh.
Too often the book reads more like a Wikipedia page rather than an engaging story. Characters—now far more cynical and unlikable than the enthusiastic heroes that readers met in book one—rattle off pop-culture facts as though they are reading an IMDb page entry (and sometimes they are doing precisely that). For the most part, the characters exist as mouthpieces for trivia, rather than interesting characters with satisfying story arcs.
The pop-culture element is a double-edged sword. There is a certain glee that comes in catching a reference, such as when this metalhead reviewer reached a reference to an 80’s German power metal band (although Cline erroneously writes that Helloween’s “Keeper of the Seven Keys” is a 4 album concept story, instead of a 3 album story, due to including the similarly-titled live album in the count, but I digress…).
On the other hand, if you don’t know the pop-culture reference then it’s as much fun as being out of the loop of an inside joke. One lengthy section has the characters enter into the world of a classic film and alter the ending to reflect the director’s original intention rather than the studio-mandated one. Having never seen the film myself, I found it tedious, especially since there is no action or intrigue behind simply recreating the movie’s plot. Another section has the characters visit Tolkien’s legendarium and some key events in the Silmarillion. As a card-holding member of The Tolkien Society, I was eager to see what happens. Once there, however, the protagonists once again largely just recreate the story events beat-by-beat. While this would be thrilling to experience as the characters do, it’s not very interesting to read.
A Mixed Bag of Social Commentary
Much of the appeal of any science fiction story is the philosophical questions it raises. Ready Player One explored, with success, a future where the line behind reality and virtual reality is rapidly closing. Ready Player Two attempts to do likewise, looking even further down the same theoretical path.
“For less than the cost of an iced latte, you could now safely experience just about anything that human beings could experience. You could take any drug, eat any kind of food, and have any kind of sex, without worrying about addiction, calories, or consequence”
What would access to this type of technology have on us as individuals or on society as a whole? There is plenty to explore, and Cline does so in mostly interesting and inventive ways, following these questions to their logical—and often distressing—conclusions. Cline deserves credit for offering nuanced arguments for both the benefits and dangers of technology.
At the same time, while Cline is able to successfully channel the spirit of Ray Bradbury to forecast into the future, his attempts at present day social commentary are empty and uninspiring. He also does so far more frequently than in the first book, repeatedly hammering home his beliefs about issues such as climate change and sexuality. Thus, to describe the number of users of the new virtual reality technology, he writes things like, “Two-thirds of the people on our overcrowded, rapidly warming little planet.” In another chapter, after a year of exposing himself to virtual reality pornography, protagonist Wade Watts muses:
“I now knew what it felt like to be all kinds of different people, having all different kinds of sex. I’d experienced sex with women while being another woman, and sex with men as both a woman and a man. I’d done playback of several different flavors of straight and gay and nonbinary sex, just out of curiosity, and I’d come away with the same realization that most ONI users came away with: Passion was passion and love was love, regardless of who the participants involved were or what sort of body they were assigned at birth.”
Philosophers such as Thomas Nagal have pinpointed the flaws in this type of thought-experiment, but the bigger problem, at least to me, is that passages like this one (and there are many others) read more like a sermon given by the author than an organic part of the story. Great sci-fi novels pose difficult questions and allow the reader to search and find answers. Ironically, in a novel about a treasure hunt, Ernest Cline repeatedly skips right past the searching phase and jumps straight to the answer, force feeding the reader with his own worldview.
On the Surface—(Profanity, Sexual content, violence, etc.).
Profanity: Heavy profanity, including many F—bombs, multiple uses of the Lord’s name in vain, and others.
Sexuality: No graphic descriptions of sex, but frequent discussions about sex, sexuality, and pornography.
Violence: Nothing beyond exaggerated “video game” violence.
Although I am not as die-hard about Ready Player One as many people are, I enjoyed the novel for what it is (and I really enjoyed the movie version). I found the story engaging enough, the world-building interesting, and I liked the philosophical questions it raised. I have no qualms about Ernest Cline writing a sequel, as there is plenty more about the OASIS to explore. In the end, however, Ready Player Two is unable build upon its promising foundation. There are not enough fresh ideas, and too much opinionated author tangents, to make this book an enjoyable read. At this point, it might be time for me to stop putting quarters into the machine and accept that it’s game over for this series.