“Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.”
– Willa Cather
What do The Martian, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and Ready Player One have in common? Yes, they are all books at least partly skirting the science fiction genre, but more importantly all three are the debut novels of their respective authors. Andy Weir wrote The Martian in 2011 after publishing it as an online serial. Nagaru Tanigawa penned The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya in 2003, which spawned one of the most popular anime of the 2000s. Ernest Cline published Ready Player One in 2011 to critical acclaim with a movie adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg planned for 2018. The common thread linking these successful books is that the authors were geeks writing about their passions (space, physics, and 80s culture respectively) resulting in raw yet genuine stories written from the heart.
Passion has been heralded as the key to success by CEOs, entrepreneurs, writers, artists, and countless others. For many, their life’s passions were developed when they were very young, which results in the feeling of nostalgia being interwoven with their passion. Those that can develop their passions with the ever increasing marketability of nostalgia can turn their passions into their careers. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline appears on the surface to be another attempt to capitalize on the phase of nostalgia marketing that is sweeping the globe. It’s a raw debut novel from an inexperienced author writing a love letter to his inner childhood nerd. It has all the brandings of something that should by all rights be just another forgotten e-book that the author only sells to his friends and family. Obviously this wasn’t the case with Ready Player One receiving over 10,000 (mostly positive) reviews on Amazon alone. So how did Cline succeed when the odds were stacked against him?
However, love for a subject can only take one so far along the path of success. The work needs to have solid fundamentals so that the ideas from the author’s imagination are projected correctly to the audience. These fundamentals: story, character, and writing structure, are where Ready Player One shows the cracks in its menagerie. While not flawed to the point of ineptitude, the lack of writing experience results in a work less polished than authors who have written dozens of books.
The story is a page flipping adventure, one that for most of the book has the reader anticipating what is coming next, but it still fundamentally has the same structure as so many other young adult works that it was sometimes trivial to anticipate the direction of the plot. It follows Wade “Parcival” Watts in the year 2041 as he navigates the future’s replacement for the internet called the OASIS, a virtual reality experience that has nearly replaced the real world in people’s lives. The founder of the OASIS, James Halliday leaves a contest in his will stating that there are keys hidden in the OASIS that will lead to his fortune. The entire world becomes obsessed with 80s pop culture as they attempt to decipher the clues that Halliday left behind.
So many plot elements seem to have been included simply because the author feel like the story needed it. It needed that romance between the main character, and the improbably beautiful heroine, Art3mis. It needed that evil organization, the IOI, led by an unsymathetic villain, Nollan Sorrento, to rally against. It needed token underdeveloped sympathetic characters to die in order to have the main character feel some semblance of regret for his actions and a sense of scale for the stakes of the contest. This led to the narrative feeling forced at times, especially some of the character development. Developing characters by having them ask questions to each other in a chat room has to be some of the laziest writing I’ve seen in a book I like this much. The author had the bad habit of “infodumping” plot development; however while at times this was an awkward break in the pacing, it was necessary to include the details of the nerdy references in the book. They were integral to the storytelling, and the target audience of nerds are likely interested in the details, so I think most of the infodumping was justified.
In order to illustrate why I and others loved this book, I want to compare it to another similar work, the 2012 anime Sword Art Online, based on a 2009 light novel by Reki Kawahara of the same name. My opinions of Sword Art Online are mixed, and I think that comparing it to Ready Player One is a good illustration of why despite some storytelling blunders, I can forgive Cline’s writing and love his work more than Kawahara’s. For those who don’t know, Sword Art Online is a story that also takes place in a virtual world with an absurdly high stakes game. All the players become trapped in the virtual fantasy world of Aincrad by an evil mastermind, and if you die in the game you die for real. The main issue that most critics have for Sword Art Online are its shallow characters, particularly the main character of Kirito, and the ridiculously overdramatic plotlines from later seasons. As one reviewer put it, “To say [Kirito] is a wish fulfillment character could be considered an insult to Mary Sues everywhere.” There isn’t much incentive to root for him because he never loses (unless he’s facing a literally unwinnable situation). He doesn’t relate to the audience because rather than give him the wits and cleverness that most nerds would relate to, he’s simply an overpowered superhero who possesses powers that no one else in the game has. Parcival, on the other hand, may be just as powerful, but the audience relates to him more because he’s not immensely more powerful than his peers and more importantly, he uses his wit and skill to grow as a character and figure out solutions to seemingly impossible problems rather than just using his abilities to plow through everything with dual wielding swords. I may only be speaking for myself, but if you’re trying to appeal to an audience with little to no physical ability, you need to allow the character to demonstrate how they can outwit his opponent. Besides inherent talent at video games and an excellent memory, Parcival doesn’t have any abilities that are “overpowered” and give him an unfair advantage when facing conflict (at least none that didn’t seem “earned” in a “fair” way). This makes him a much easier character to support as everything that he accomplishes feels meritorious rather than author granted deus ex machina.
Another improvement of Ready Player One over its counterpart in Sword Art Online is how it handles friendships and romance. In Sword Art Online, Kirito has one very close romantic partner, Asuna, but as the series progresses, he seems to develop a whole harem of girls who fall in love with him for no reason other than that he’s the main character. With all the silly love triangles in young adult fiction (most egregiously in The Hunger Games and Twilight series), I’m glad that Ready Player One avoided that path.
Passion for one’s work is the fuel for an individual’s drive towards success. However, could simply writing about one’s passions put an author in the cage of his own experience. Hayao Miyazaki famously said, “Almost all Japanese animation is produced with hardly any basis taken from observing real people, you know. It’s produced by humans who can’t stand looking at other humans. And that’s why the industry is full of otaku!” There’s definitely merit to what Miyazaki said, and much of Ready Player One’s story grapples with the idea of the necessity of the “outside world.” However, dismissing the contribution of otaku, a Japanese term for people obsessed with a certain subculture, usually anime or manga, to the art industry underestimates otakus’ contribution to modern culture. Nostalgia is profitable for a reason. It’s because of the people who love and obsess over things from the past and seek to renew and improve them, bringing the passions of mainstream culture to match their own. There certainly wouldn’t be the Marvel Cinematic Universe without superhero otaku. There wouldn’t be Pokemon Go without Pokemon otaku. There wouldn’t be The Lord of the Rings films without Tolkien otaku. The power to express your love for your passions is an art form in of itself. Ready Player One is a self demonstrating example of a person wanting to express that for the nerd culture of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. It’s a slobbering love letter to the era, and while raw and flawed, it’s thoroughly enjoyable for anyone who loves that culture. When it’s brought into the mainstream in the 2018 film, I can only hope that Steven Spielberg can bring that passion to the masses.