Friday, July 23, 2021

"Ready Player Two" by Ernest Cline--Fiction Review

So I’m breaking one of my own cardinal rules here today, never skipping ahead in a series. But as a perpetual player two when I was younger, I feel it’s my due to talk about “Ready Player Two” by Ernest Cline. Book two of the big mainstream litRPG Sci-Fi series that put that sub-genre on the map.

Ernest Cline

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***  

What I love about this book:

The ending—I’m not being flippant here—I really do love the end of this novel. This surprised me because spoiler for the “What I Don’t Love” section—I didn’t like this novel nearly as much as the first one. I wasn’t convinced that Cline would win me back into Wade Watts’s corner by the end. But, he did, mostly, and he delivered on a transcendental moment which I’m a sucker for, so I liked the ending because it had a real Ray Kurzweil feel to it for those familiar with his thoughts of the future. 

Also, while I’m constantly going on about how nostalgia should be indulged in sparingly because I feel like it’s mental cotton candy—as a consummate hypocrite and a Tolkien fanboy, the chapters taking place on Arda still got me. I was right there for it when I realized we were taking a deep dive into “The Silmarillion.” So, Cline has still got that cotton candy machine going strong in this book, and there is probably something for everyone in this novel. 

I feel I would be remiss to not point out that much like “Ready Player One,” the amount of research Cline had to do to pull off some of the genuinely arcane references to the popular culture of the past is nothing short of amazing. I feel good about myself when I take the time to study google maps when working on a story. Cline not only finds and references the most obscure details, like alternate endings, but he even incorporates alternative casting choices—that might have been—when making movie references that came out decades ago.

What I don’t love about this book:

Wade Watts, at the beginning of this novel through to about the middle, is borderline insufferable. What he made me think of was; this is precisely what I imagine following behind a depressed Mark Zuckerberg would be like—post billions, of course. It’s especially trying to summon my empathy for him when he’s clearly being a dickhead for no other reason than he’s sad and indulging in his worst immature impulses. And on some level—I get that’s Cline’s point. Watts has a lot of room to grow and redeem himself back in this novel, and in my opinion, he does—by the skin of his teeth. 

Another thing I dislike in this novel is it—and this is difficult to write non-spoilerly—but it engages a bit in one of my least favorite literary devices, which I call the off-stage romantic reset button. Not an official term used by anyone other than myself—so far as I know—but basically, the off-stage romantic reset button answers—via cop-out—how can I get that romantic subplot back that adds all that will they, won’t they tension? Well, that’s simple. Just have things go to shit between them between stories. Now Cline does show you what happened—but you already know it will happen before that memory is examined, so the punch is pulled. No, I want to be punched in the face unexpectedly. Not telegraphed, I’m going to be punched in the face, so I can brace myself! …perhaps I should speak to a therapist about this.

Moving on, for me, the biggest disappointment was more ethereal in quality and harder to explain. It just felt like a lot of the magic of the first novel wasn’t there or was a cold copy. This brings me back to my frequent point about nostalgia—breathing second life into things, like “Ready Player One” did as its bread and butter, is far easier than breathing third life. Sure, we’re visiting different places in the Oasis. But there are frequent references to NPCs as digital ghosts of long-dead artists, and at one point, an antagonist even describes the Oasis—and I’m paraphrasing here—as one man’s mausoleum to bygone popular culture that the world collectively agreed to live in—and that stuck with me. It stuck with me because he was right, and reverence to the point of worship takes away from experiencing new things.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The beginning of “Ready Player Two” kicks off almost precisely where the first novel ended, only a week later and Wade Watts as James Halliday’s heir, is a head honcho at Gregarious Simulation Systems, aka Gregarious Games or GSS. Well, he and his three best friends, which includes his new girlfriend, are all co-owners.

For the first time in his memory, Wade hasn’t been in the Oasis for nine straight days—sex has a way of lowering the priority of video games for a young man. In any case, he gets back in there and discovers that James Halliday wasn’t done with his surprises. He leaves his heir directions to a secret vault at GSS.

Wade rips off his haptic suit and sprints out of his real-world office to go find out what is in the vault. It’s a prototype headpiece that will render haptic technology obsolete because, with this new neural interface, the user can experience the Oasis now as if they were living in it. Halliday called it the ONI, short for Oasis Neural Interface. He left this device for Wade to find and decide its fate because he wasn’t sure the world was ready for it. Wade, of course, without any sort of hesitation, immediately plugs his brain into it and gives it a go. The technology is amazing in its fidelity and makes the Oasis feel like a one-to-one with reality.

In any case, Wade and two of the other co-owners of GSS decide to release the ONI, with Samantha dissenting, and it’s this point that causes Wade and Samantha to break up. She thinks it’s a bad idea and that the others aren’t helping with addressing the real-world problems out there, just giving people a more immersive way to avoid them.

Shortly after the ONI becomes available, it turns out Halliday had yet another surprise for everyone—full of surprises that one. Like his easter egg hunt in the first novel, he has a new challenge, a quest for seven shards of the siren’s soul, which is this novel’s preoccupation. It’s fiendishly difficult like that first quest, and no one makes any progress on it for years. But then, one day, a young ONI user finally finds where the first shard is hidden and leads Wade to it for a lot of money. After obtaining the first shard, Wade, via the ONI, experiences a memory from the perspective of Halliday’s unrequited love, Kira, unrequited because she was Halliday’s best friend’s wife, and she loved her husband very much.

The quest becomes deadly when Anorak, Halliday’s NPC of himself as his Dungeons and Dragons character, gets involved. In the first novel, Anorak acted as a sort of arbiter of the original easter egg hunt. In this novel, he’s not revealed to be a simple program acting like James Halliday, but an imperfect digital copy of the man, one that still feels it’s in love with Kira. This new easter egg hunt implies that it will resurrect Kira in digital form, so Anorak will stop at nothing to get the siren’s soul. Anorak, being just as brilliant as his creator, traps everyone using the ONI in the Oasis, removing their ability to log out until Wade can bring it to him. This is a problem because the ONI can only be used for so many consecutive hours before it fries the user’s brain.

So, Wade gets the band back together with some new faces to desperately search for the shards and a way to defeat Anorak. They go through a dizzying series of worlds built lovingly as homages to a variety of popular culture—and eventually, he does obtain all of the shards. He also discovers that his hero James Halliday was a deeply flawed man who copied his best friend’s wife without her consent. Anorak lacks the memories and remorse Halliday eventually developed for violating her in that way.

Anorak is eventually defeated, and they all discover that the ONI can resurrect anyone who used it, even once, in digital form to live as an immortal in the Oasis. However, after the whole, this AI nearly killed most of the world incident, it’s decided the newly resurrected AIs will go their separate way. They leave humanity back on Earth while leaving on an escape colony ship Wade had been building in the real world to leave the dying Earth. It’s implied that the people of Earth, having nearly been trapped to their doom in the Oasis, are now more focused on fixing the planet’s problems.


It bears mentioning that the device that made all the shenanigans in this story possible is also the Japanese word “Oni,” which refers to a demon-like figure in Japanese folklore. And in Japanese folklore, they weren’t necessarily evil as a rule, but sort of like how bears aren’t necessarily evil. My point is you want to be cautious with them. I believe it was meant as a subtle hint from its creator to Wade that went completely over his head. Halliday was ever a mysterious bastard like that in these stories.

Overall, I feel like the central theme of this story is about moving on. In one part, it is seeing that the past wasn’t some glorious golden age—it was just somebody’s present at one point, and they build it up in their mind often because they were younger at the time. On a personal level, it’s about how Halliday eventually learned to move past his infatuation with Kira, while his digital ghost never learned that lesson. Wade learned to move past his shortcomings and properly put his childhood hero in context. A certain element of humanity transcended flesh and blood. Those that didn’t leave Earth moved on from their digital playground to face the problems of their world.

Parting thoughts:

I think it was a good book for its overall message. Maybe not as magical and escapist as the first novel, but that’s part of growing up.

The world is a vast and complicated place, and the past seems brighter than the future only because it’s a known quantity. Unknown things are always scary. One of my literary heroes famously said something to that effect, but I believe his failing was to conclude that if something is frightening, then it is always bad. He thought that way because it has been our prejudice for most of our time on this planet—way before even recorded history.

That’s something we must all move forward past. Making that next leap forward, whatever it is for us as a species, won’t be done with timidity and backward glances. Nobody conservatively went to the moon after all.

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