Ready Player Two, by Ernest Cline

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 24, 2020

Summary: AN UNEXPECTED QUEST. TWO WORLDS AT STAKE. ARE YOU READY?

Days after winning OASIS founder James Halliday’s contest, Wade Watts makes a discovery that changes everything.

Hidden within Halliday’s vaults, waiting for his heir to find, lies a technological advancement that will once again change the world and make the OASIS a thousand times more wondrous—and addictive—than even Wade dreamed possible.

With it comes a new riddle, and a new quest—a last Easter egg from Halliday, hinting at a mysterious prize.

And an unexpected, impossibly powerful, and dangerous new rival awaits, one who’ll kill millions to get what he wants.

Wade’s life and the future of the OASIS are again at stake, but this time the fate of humanity also hangs in the balance.

Thoughts: I enjoyed Ready Player One a lot. It wasn’t until later, after reading some other opinions and giving the book a second look that I really started to see some serious problems with the pop culture glorification and the truly terrifying amounts of gatekeeping the characters embodied. I can see why there was gatekeeping, given who the characters were and what they were doing, but geek culture already had a huge problem with that, and Ready Player One seemed to say, “Yeah, okay, but what if making other people feel like they know less actually gets you cool things in the end?!”

Now we come to the sequel, Ready Player Two, and wow, there are just so many more problems! Where the first book was at least fun to read during many scenes, this one was mostly the opposite, I’m sad to say.

Strap in, friends, because this is not going to be a positive review. Nor a short one.

The premise of this novel is that new tech has been found that allows users of the OASIS, that gigantic MMORPG upon which 99% of human interaction and economy relies in Cline’s near-future world, to essentially port their very minds into the game, allowing for total immersion in a way that resembled a directed lucid dream. Only the once-founder of the OASIS, James Halliday, did the same thing at one point, leading to a faulty but autonomous NPC version of himself running around and demanding that since he once scanned the mind of his lifelong crush, Wade and his friends should set out on a quest to bring her to life, so to speak, as an NPC, so that he can have another chance to be with her. To ensure that everyone complies, he locks all of the mind-scanned users within the OASIS and won’t let them log out, holding millions of people hostage and giving the group a 12 hour window in which to solve all of the riddles and quests that will lead to his goal.

In other words, the characters from the previous novel have an even greater quest to accomplish with less time, fewer resources, higher stakes… and of course they manage, because what once took years now must obviously take less than a day because that’s just what the plot calls for.

It felt very much like a problem a lot of sequels have, though usually I see it in TV shows and movies rather than books. It’s not enough to meet and match what the first thing accomplished. There’s this assumption that one has to go even further beyond, to top the previous story or else nobody will be interested. Got to make things bigger, make the consequences or the quest more grand, or else nobody will care because they already saw this story.

The problem comes when you reach too far, and give the audience a higher-stakes plot that must be (and will be) fulfilled within a tighter time limit, despite it not making sense to do so. It could be argued that the characters have so many more resources at their disposal this time around, since they’re all in control of massive wealth and in-game power, but they had a significant amount of that by about the halfway point of the previous novel too, and the omnipotent powers that Wade gained for winning Halliday’s original east egg quest have been stripped from him in Ready Player Two, so you can’t even excuse it through that. The stakes might be higher and so the group might be more motivated, yes, but that doesn’t automatically mean they can actually accomplish everything in the given time period.

But the plot demanded it, and so…

Wade, for his part, comes off as initially a pretty terrible person in this book. It’s a case of “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” since he openly admits that he used his in-game god-powers to bankrupt and destroy the characters of people who so much as said mean things about him and his friends. And in a world where there are no second lives, are no backup accounts, killing a character means that characters starts over again with nothing. Since so much of out-of-game economics are tied to the game… Well, let’s just say it’s like whenever you die in a video game, the bank shows up at your door to repossess your house and all your belongings.

Yes, Wade does change from this mindset thanks to therapy and effort, but then you get to the part where he can stalk any account he chooses, and gives Aech and Shoto the benefit of respect and privacy, but decides he’s still so hung up on Art3mis that he has to keep tabs on her at all times, and oh yeah, this definitely presents him as a character I want to give a shit about for an entire other novel…

Cline’s writing throughout the book was fine, if a bit unbalanced at times. Some scenes rush by relatively quickly, others take for-freaking-ever to resolve, to the point where I legitimately considered skipping past large chunks of the whole “battle 7 versions of Prince” section because it was just a whole lot of running around, gathering items, and listening to Aech talk about how awesome Prince was. The characters themselves… Honestly did not quite feel the same as they were in Ready Player One, occasionally feeling like I was reading a tolerable but not-quite-there fanfic presentation of them. This was especially true in Shoto’s case, as he went from being rather formal in the first book to spouting English-language jokes and slang in this book. Perhaps that could be hand-waved because he was using translation software and it could be argued that’s the fault of the software… but that’s a lot of reading between the lines to do to explain some character degradation.

Though I will admit that the constant pop culture references got stale very very quickly here, and for the record, I didn’t find them stale in Ready Player One. Every character’s obsession with 80s pop culture made sense, given what they were working toward. But in Ready Player Two, the pop culture craze seems to still stay decently in the 80s but also occasionally skipping forward a few decades to reference popular things from later decades. But only up to current day. And sure, it can be argued that Cline doesn’t exactly know what media is going to be popular in 2025 and so can’t reference it, but it gives the peculiar impression that after a certain point, no new media was really made in Wade’s world. It’s all just stuff that was popular in the past, because something something reader nostalgia.

Yes, I’m being caustic here. But if you give me a reason for characters to talk in pop culture references from the 80s all the time, I will believe you and accept it, even when I don’t get the references. Give me no reason that they’re familiar The Matrix, though, and I call bullshit.

Which brings me to a very personal gripe about one reference… Art3mis mentions that putting your whole consciousness into a game is a bad idea, because hasn’t anyone ever seen Sword Art Online? And yeah, SAO does involve that. But you know what other anime involved that, which was before SAO’s time? Freaking .hack! You know, that series that had multiple anime seasons and spin-offs, multiple video games, manga adaptations, novels, and also involved people getting dangerously stuck in an MMO. A series which seems to have been largely forgotten in the wake of SAO’s popularity, to the point where it seems like many people have no idea that the concept of people getting stuck in a video game even existed before Sword Art Online was conceived. SAO is more popular now. But .hack had the Western stage first, and it bothers me a lot to see people continue to overlook it, especially in a novel where characters once argued constantly about how relevant obscure 80s movies were. Things like that made it seem as though Cline was writing not so much what the characters were likely to know, but what the book’s audience was likely to be interested in at the time of the book’s release.

This isn’t me gatekeeping. This isn’t me saying, “If you only know Sword Art Online but don’t know .hack, then you’re not a true fan of a very specific subgenre.” This is me saying that the characters probably had as much reason to know about both, but the author chose to reference only the one that the book’s audience was likely to know, despite throwing out all sorts of references to things the audience probably didn’t know in the previous novel.

But now I want to talk about the book’s serious moral quandary, and for that, I’m going to have to discuss some huge spoilers, so if you still plan on reading this and don’t want to book’s ending to be ruined, then feel free to not read the rest of this review.

Okay, so a thread that runs through the bulk of the novel is that Art3mis does not like this new brain-scan technology and refuses to use it, being the only holdout of the group. It contributes to the huge rift that has formed between her and Wade. She’s of the opinion that it hooks users too much into the game and prevents them from existing in the real world, which is something the group actively took pains to prevent at the end of Ready Player One, ensuring that players absolutely had to log off sometimes and go interact in meatspace. But at the end, when it allows for Og and Kira to be reunited as sentient NPCs even after their physical bodies have both died, she basically pulls a, “Oh Wade, you were right all along, this technology is so wonderful!” as though all of her other objections just don’t matter anymore.

(Plus their relationship just sort of starts up again almost randomly, without any resolution to their problems. They go through danger together, beat a great foe, and then it’s just sort of casually mentioned later that oh, they’re back together now. Readers didn’t even see them discuss getting back together. It just happened off the page and we have to take Wade’s declaration of it as fact, I guess.)

But there’s more. The reason that Kira is in the game as a sentient NPC to begin with is because Halliday ported her mind in there without her consent, an act which many characters are horrified over and think was despicable. But when push comes to shove, they make the decision to turn the minds of every brain-scanned OASIS user into sentient NPCs in a self-contained OASIS simulation without their knowledge or consent, to keep their self-contained OASIS simulation fresh and full of real minds during a long interstellar journey and to keep consenting sentient NPCs company, because getting informed consent would just be too tricky. They take the attitude of, “What people don’t know won’t hurt them,” even though they acknowledge it was a clear violation when someone did that to Kira.

And at that point, I was thankful the book was pretty much over, because the self-righteous hypocrisy made me very angry.

Ready Player Two isn’t a bad book, per se. It’s fine. It’s okay. It’s reasonably entertaining. But it has a lot of problems, both moral and technical, and I found it considerably less enjoyable than its predecessor. It’s not one I regret reading, per se, because unless I absolutely hate a story or series, I tend to want to see if through to the end, even if I’m not always having the best time with it. But it is one that I’ll mostly end up remembering for all the issues I had with it, rather than the sort of exciting high-stakes adventure it was meant to be.

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

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Author’s website
Publication date – August 16, 2011

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) It’s the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place.
Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets.

And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune—and remarkable power—to whoever can unlock them.

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday’s riddles are based in the pop culture he loved—that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday’s icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes’s oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.

And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.

Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt—among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life—and love—in the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

Thoughts: For anyone who identifies as a good and who has fond memories of the 1980s and 1990s, then this is the book for you. Ready Player One combines modern gamer fiction with countless 80s and 90s pop culture references to leave you with a thrilling nostalgic ride through a futuristic virtual world.

The world that Cline created is not an unfamiliar one. It assumes the rise of online gaming continues and that it eventually becomes, essentially, a reality in its own right, allowing for user education, commerce, interaction, all the stuff that we do in our day-to-day lives. It isn’t surprising that the ultimate online gaming world in this book, the OASIS, is preferable to the real world that contains fuel and food shortages, rising violence, and an almost unprecedented level of corporate corruption.

So when it’s revealed that the dying wish of the creator of the OASIS is to hold a contest in the virtual world, and the winner gets his entire fortune, it’s also no surprise that millions of people jump on the chance! The hero of the tale, Wade, is part of a group of people known as gunters, short of “egg hunters”, who are looking for this Easter Egg hidden within the massive virtual world.

Cline shows his skill here not necessarily with the fact that he build this world, but that he effectively used dozens of world that others before him built. From Star Wars to obscure tokusatsu shows, Cline took bits and pieces of various realities, mashed them together inside the concept of the OASIS, and then went to town with it. The result could have been utter chaos, but instead functioned well within fairly simple rules and guidelines that were not at all unbelievable to set up.

Interestingly, this book was not a cautionary tale nor a glorious expression of love for online gaming and virtual interaction. Both sides of the coin are shown. On one hand, the virtual world allows for hours of entertainment for the masses, allows a virtual economy to affect the real world (when was the last time you paid your rent by slaying goblins, huh?), and a great chance for people to gain excellent educations regardless of their location. The classic negatives are presented here, too, by showing Wade gaining weight and becoming unhealthy from the sedentary lifestyle he leads while trying to win the contest, and there’s the usual reaction of surprise when people find out that others look nothing like their avatars. But overall, the OASIS was presented as neither ideal or corrupt. It simply was, which was exactly what it was supposed to be.

The never-ending hit of nostalgia I felt while reading this book was amazing, refreshing, and a load of fun. It’s not a heavy read, though it does have its moments of being downright disturbing in places (the way a megacorporation has the legal right to essentially force people into slavery to repay their debts is one case that comes instantly to mind). It feels a lot like a game, if truth be told. Fun, action-packed, entertaining, but not without a large amount of the little details and depths that make such games stand apart from their rivals. As far as gamer fiction goes, this is one of the better reads, and I highly recommend you read it if you get the chance.

And if you a don’t, a grue will eat you.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)