Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline basks in gaming and movies’ nostalgia from the 1980s while treading no new territory in this sequel to the uber-popular Ready Player One.
In the first book, James Halliday, a technological visionary whose OASIS changed how humans interact with the world around them, decreed that any who solved his final riddle sent out on his death bed would become the heir to his fortune and empire. Halliday’s puzzle is based on his life growing up in the 1980s as a gamer. Wade Watts, a kid from the stacks (the poor stacked mobile home encampments), escapes to the OASIS daily and amasses a comprehensive knowledge of 80s movies, TV, video games, and trivia necessary to be able to seek Halliday’s treasure. After stumbling upon the first clue, Wade and his close friends race through the OASIS from world to world, using their knowledge of 80s pop culture to answer Halliday’s questions, fight bad guys, and win. All the while, they are chased by a conglomerate of cheaters called Sixers bent on getting to the prize before them, no matter what it takes. There is excitement, nostalgia, fun characters, and a short bit of cute romance. The novel was light on some plot points, but the nostalgia far outmatched the lack of narrative. I am a child born in the 80s and a complete geek, so I ended up loving it. Reading Ready Player One was a nostalgia bomb going off in my head with the great ending of the geeks inheriting the Earth, or in this case, OASIS.
Given the first novel’s success and the obvious chance to capitalize on exciting 80s nostalgia felt by moviegoers, Steven Speilberg adapted the story to a movie. It was a kaleidoscope of 80s pop culture; it felt like watching Easter eggs hidden inside Easter eggs. It made 582.1 million dollars. Of course, there would be a book sequel, whether that was a good idea or not.
Enter Ready Player Two, Ernest Clines sequel, and a story that falls into the “Are we sure we should do that?” category of sequels. Ready Player Two starts up not long after the ending of Ready Player One. Wade, also known as Parcival, and his team of friends have solved the great quest set by Wade’s personal hero James Halliday. The four of them are now billionaires. After winning the contest, Wade stays off-line for a few days and eventually logs back in and finds an inscription on the egg that the team won in Ready Player One that had not previously been there. “GSS-13th Floor-Vault #42 – 8675309” (notice the presence of multiple easter eggs in just this short quote.) This quote leads Wade to a vault where a hidden technology that Halliday kept from the world lies dormant. Wade and his team are given a choice, one that could shift the human race’s direction.
Additionally, Halliday again offers a quest. Discover the Seven Shards.
“Seek the Seven Shards of the Siren’s Soul
On the seven worlds where the siren once played a role
For each fragment my heir must pay a toll
To Once again make the Sire whole”.
Wade meets with his fellow teammates, and they decide as a team in a matter of seconds, with Samantha voting “No” to bring this new ONI rig technology to the world. Samantha shows a wiseness and maturity in at least thinking that releasing technology like this could be harmful. They decide to do it anyway. The ONI rig allows the user to record their sensory input and share it with others. Thus a user can download someone else’s experiences such as taste, touch, and feel as if it was their own skin. The applications for such a technology are vast and far-reaching.
It is the mid-2040s now, and a few years have passed since the original release of the ONI. The world is still wallowing in abject poverty; however, the ONI’s presence allows users to escape their circumstances. The ultimate escapism has been created where a user only needs to take care of bodily functions for 12 hours a day and be logged in the other 12.
The team, in their various ways, set out to help humanity. Samantha AKA Art3mis created a foundation dedicated to eradicating world hunger. Shoto created his organization called the Daisho Council, which provided food, housing, healthcare, and counseling to millions of isolated Japanese kids referred to as hikikomori. Aech, (the story’s single queer character) created charities and organizations that focussed on helping LGBTQIA kids in North American and providing impoverished African nations with access to technology. Also privately, Watt’s teammates grew in their personal lives. Aech got engaged to their girlfriend turned fiance, and Shoto got married and expected a son. But Watts didn’t and couldn’t move one much to the detriment of his relationships with the team. He became obsessed with the new riddle to solve, and he threw himself into that.
“Two-Face was right. You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
Pausing at this part of the story, I thought that “none of this needed to be done again.” Ready Player Two wasn’t just belaboring an idea, “the geek inherits the Earth,” it was taking a Gallager style sledgehammer to a plot idea and bashing it like a watermelon on stage while simultaneously singing Karma Chameleon by the Kulture Club. To say that this felt “done” is not doing it justice.
Also, the characters at this point in the story, especially Wade, are either self-righteous or irritating. Wade spends much of his time mopping or being an indulgent jerk. Samantha goes in the opposite direction and has decided to save the world. At least her path is noble, but her interactions with Wade, who stares at her with lovelorn eyes, are annoying. It is the kind of love spats you have in the 8th grade with your boyfriend of the week. Not the type that mega-billionaire philanthropists have. But, maybe that is the point. Even though these people have done something incredible in solving one of the world’s largest puzzles, they are still just young adults trying to figure things out.
“If it weren’t for Tolkien, all of us nerds would’ve had a lot less fun during the last ninety years.”
The group’s choice to give ONI to the world means that Wade and the rest of this company’s owners control over 2/3rd of the world’s population when strapped into the brain device. An important note on the device’s connection, if a user disconnects early without slowly powering down, the user will basically scramble their brain. Also, for some reason, Wade is given access to a big red button. The button is something like you would see in a Wiley Coyote cartoon. When pushed, the entire Oasis will disappear and disconnect all users instantaneously. Plus, the ONI system is now a massive part of the infrastructure, education, medicine, national security, and the ilk. Destroying the OASIS like this would put all these areas in Jeopardy. This idea in itself seems like a stretch, all of your eggs in one basket type thing.
A small problem with that is that it would lobotomize, for lack of a better word, all disconnected users. So DON’T EVER TOUCH THIS GIANT SHINY RED BUTTON. Also, Wade being Wade, did not tell the other owners/teammates about the existence of said button. Why he did not think this was useful information I have not been able to glean. Another foreshadowing slam with Gallagher’s hammer. At this point in the story, Ready Player Two feels like a mugging. The book stole the idea of a happy, fun time, hearkening back to the first book. It replaced it with a Deus Ex Machina machine that can meld perfectly in a user’s mind creating any experience with perfect clarity. Wade is now a childlike Emporer having tantrums and love spats with his gaming partner, who could destroy the world with the push of a button, much like the snap of Thanos.
“How the fuck do you negotiate with a piece of software?”
I paused at this moment in the story, “It cannot possibly be this bad. This writing is a first-year creative writing course terrible.” But I know from the first story that the well crafted and exciting parts are when Wade and the gang are questing together. This is the point where they are most themselves. How would someone make these parts come together to force the team to do another quest? Well, they are forced together because a sentient evil copy of James Halliday stored inside the OASIS has leaked like Skynet wills it. Clone Halliday says that if the group does not finish the quest in 12 hours, Clone Halliday will disconnect 2/3rds of the world and kill them instantly. Those killed instantly include three of the four owners, Wade, Aech, and Shoto.
My poor bedraggled mind threw her popcorn in the air and stomped off for a while to have a cigarette and watch the 1980’s Annie.
The first section of the novel explores many of the stereotypes and problems with immersive VR, mostly by accident. VR seems like a peeping tom in this context; it is a voyeuristic experience. Just because you inhabit a user’s body for twenty minutes does not give you in-depth and informative experiences about being that person. It does not bring the world together, as one of the argument’s Wade uses in the story to justify the widespread use of the headset. There is a big voyeuristic disconnect.
“My friend Kira always said that life is like an extremely difficult, horribly unbalanced videogame. When you’re born, you’re given a randomly generated character, with a randomly determined name, race, face, and social class. Your body is your avatar, and you spawn in a random geographic location, at a random moment in human history, surrounded by a random group of people, and then you have to try to survive for as long as you can.”
But, just as the first book had a three-act narrative, so does Ready Player Two. We shall now call this act 2, the exciting fun times. Wade and the team set off at breakneck paces, traveling to different parts of the OASIS, playing games they are excellent at, and deriving clues from obscure bits of trivia or a misplaced item in a movie. From these obscured clues, they obtain shards, and per Halliday’s instructions, Wade must pay a toll. The toll is the immersion in a woman’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions central to the plot. Wade realizes that he feels closer to her and more aware of her as a human being. I am not sure how I feel about this revelatory moment.
This section of the novel is overflowing with Easter eggs, visits to movies and games. It is exciting, and its frenetic pacing keeps the tension moving from moment to moment. One of the best things in the book is when Samantha lops the head off of a duck. Trust me, it is great. This is something that should have been done long, long ago. I chuckled and cheered.
The ending, we shall call this act 3, would have made Black Mirror blush. I do not say this lightly; it came out of nowhere, and it had a sinister edge to it. I cannot say much more about it, but the tone is dark.
Was there plot growth? Did anyone learn anything, Maybe? I am not sure that Wade grew up at all; I think that his circumstances changed. While Wade has an entire list of qualities we can talk about, the novel’s more interesting characters are the supporting cast in Shoto and Aech. They behave in ways that allow me to believe that they understand the gravitas of the situation they put humanity in.
I think one of the main problems that Ready Player One had was how divisive it is. As a viewer, you are either a “have” or “have not.” As in you have seen this movie or played this game, and those experiences are the joy that fuels the book’s engine, or you haven’t. If you are a “have not,” looking at an Atari Machine does not bring happiness. It doesn’t elicit a response. The game is meant to be played, the book read, the music listened to. The experience is in the doing, not the watching. Unless you can have some way to empathize with a character playing a particular game, it is very polarizing, with an increasingly small percentage of the readers getting it. Ready Player One dealt with similar problems.
Ready Player Two is a confusing novel. I want to give it points for enjoyment in the second section, but my enjoyment ultimately hinges on my past actions. I played some games and read some books which I loved. Those moments helped create large swaths of my childhood. I can empathize and get excited about the characters’ situations. But I don’t know many people who had a very similar childhood like mine. If someone unfamiliar with this niche comes to read this book, what do they get? Songs they have never sung, books they have never read, and games they have never play. Did I like this book? No, not really. I wanted to like it as I liked Ready Player One. I enjoyed the second act, though—lots of fun references and easter eggs. Cline excels at catering to these pop culture moments, much like Ready Player One; he did a great job on this. Otherwise, unless they are like me, an early forties ultra reader and gamer, their experience would be confusing and disheartening. Just watch the movie or read the first book; it was more entertaining.