Ernest Cline’s debut novel Ready Player One was rapturously received by video game geeks and 1980s nostalgia freaks upon its publication in 2011, and became a No. 1 New York Times best seller. In 2018, it became a Steven Spielberg movie, with Cline co-writing the script.
But his 2015 follow-up, the space opera Armada, reeked with the undefinable odor of the desk drawer, and suffered from an overly diagrammed structure and a pre-teen, gee-whiz tone. It also tracked suspiciously with the plot of the 1984 teen adventure movie The Last Starfighter. It flopped with both critics and fans of the first book. So there is something on the line in Cline’s sequel, inevitably titled Ready Player Two.
His first time out, Cline came up with a premise so spectacular that one could forgive the stiff writing and overly schematic structure. Unfortunately, instead of fixing the original’s faults, for the sequel he doubled down on the trivia. The result is a surfeit of pop culture sweets that goes down like Pop Rocks and Coca-Cola, with nauseating results.
Ready Player One tapped into the giddiness of the dawn of home video games from the angle of the year 2045, when people find escape from the bleak present in a virtual reality entertainment universe called the OASIS, created by the late James Halliday, an enigmatic obsessive of ancient pop culture from the 1980s. Halliday also left behind a puzzle to solve, with the winner inheriting his vast fortune and ownership of the OASIS.
Our protagonist, Wade Watts, known by his handle “Parzival,” did his 1980s homework, cracked Halliday’s cryptic clues and, with the help of some nerdy friends, unearthed the golden “Easter egg” hidden within the OASIS after winning the classic Atari game Adventure (home of the original video game “Easter egg,” or hidden message).
Ready Player Two opens nine days later, with a technological upgrade to OASIS being hotly debated among Wade and his friends, a.k.a. the High Five crew. ONI is a brain-computer interface invented by Halliday allowing individual experiences to be uploaded, played back, and shared with the rest of the world, down to taste, touch, and smell.
Wade ignores concerns about this new and improved opiate of the masses and releases it into the OASIS, with predictably dire results – predictable to everyone but Wade, who apparently learned nothing from his slog through ‘80s movies involving rogue technology, such as “Wargames.”
A virtual reality world villain who goes by “Anorak” (Halliday’s old handle) has installed “Infirmware” and taken hostage everyone plugged into the OASIS, leaving them trapped within the virtual reality universe, on a 12-hour deadline before permanent brain damage sets in.
What does Anorak want? The scheme involves an old love triangle, although it’s hard to keep track of that strand amid the thickets of movie, music, and game trivia. Halliday, dead but still full of surprises, had launched another treasure hunt – a quest for the “Seven Shards,” to reconstruct something called the “Siren’s Soul.” (J.K. Rowling, call your office.) The High Five must complete the quest and deliver the shards to Anorak in 12 hours, or everyone plugged into the OASIS will die.
The novel could have been twice as effective with half the references. By the third page, the sentences already read like footnotes: “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.” As Dennis Miller once cracked, “Stop me before I sub-reference again!” But Miller was in on the joke.
In this meritocracy of minutiae, it’s not enough to enjoy Pretty in Pink, the 1986 John Hughes teen comedy: One must know the original storyline and the original casting choices.
Unfortunately, loving the stuff of your childhood (Cline was born in 1972) and mashing it together doesn’t automatically make it fascinating when rendered in flat, obvious prose. Even worse is when Cline tries out his own material, as if the reader is supposed to chuckle at the OASIS educational realms of “Protractor Peak” and the “Long Division Dungeons.”
When they’re not accusing each other of insufficient obsession, “The Four Nerds of the Apocalypse” are constantly validating and high-fiving each other. Each time they shout something like “Let’s go get that shard!” they become ever more dislikable. And there are so many “smiles” their jaws must be sore.
When Aech, a black lesbian in the real world, accuses J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium of being all white, Parzival concedes to the Hobbit-hater in unintentionally amusing, “Can we talk about this later?” fashion during a life-and-death virtual battle.
Any positives? Well, Cline knows how an all-encompassing virtual reality might work. One can almost keep track of what is going on, if you care. For a novelist, he would make an excellent Dungeons and Dragons dungeon master. The “high score” clue is fairly clever.
Occasional fragments such as “the domed ceiling above us split apart like the segments of an orange” land effectively. Anorak’s backstory makes him a potentially interesting villain, if he could cut down on the cackling and other histrionics. but he vanishes from the story for long periods.
There are scattered glimmers of self-awareness and glints of humor, like a sword called Dorkslayer. But by the time the reader is introduced to the “Xyxarian Mountains of southern Chtonia,” non-obsessives may feel driven to despair.
The ending opens yet another virtual technology advancement (and potential sequel): the eternal digitizing of human consciousness. This idea of transhumanism was explored in sinister fashion in Season 4 of Black Mirror. If you thought the “USS Callister” episode of that show was terrifying, just imagine being stuck with Cline’s tired protagonists arguing about The Silmarillion for eternity.