As my summer reading-for-pleasure run continues, I’m in the midst of Cline’s Ready Player One. I’m enjoying it – certainly more than my last half dozen reads or so – and this bodes well. There is, however, one (fairly large) aspect of the book that I’m not enjoying half as much as I feel I should, and I kinda want to talk about that. It has to do with the 1980s.
Now, I’m a bit younger than Cline, but not by a lot. I remember the 1980s well – they were my childhood. So far, I’m picking up just about every 1980s reference the book is laying down (which is a LOT) with the possible exception of Zork, which was a bit before my time. I’m getting the impression (and have picked up from others) that this incessant river of 80s nostalgia is part of the book’s appeal. But, like, it isn’t really doing anything for me. I mean, I nod my head every so often and think to myself “oh, right – WarGames. I should watch that again,” but I do not, myself, feel anything upon the reference to WarGames. Reciting dialogue from the movie does not have the same feel or magic as actually watching the movie.
And this is where I think the book is failing to grab me: I love the 1980s, but I don’t especially love a non-stop discussion about how much I love the 1980s. That kind of nostalgia-based story doesn’t grab me, because it does not, in and of itself, actually do anything but reference the existence of some other story I liked. It’s like watching a clip show of your favorite show in lieu of an entirely new episode.
Now, to its credit, Ready Player One does have its own story and its own characters and plot and so on, and the aspects of the book I’m really enjoying are entirely in those parts. The problem develops when we have a five paragraph explanation of a movie I’ve seen dozens of times and then I have to be led through it all again, scene by scene. Cline does his best to get through these things with efficiency, but the fact is that I’m not so much getting a new story as a re-shoot of a classic thing I’ve known since childhood. I don’t really want to play through the Tomb of Terror again, since I’ve already done that before.
What I’d really prefer is a story that takes the elements of the movies and stories common to the 1980s that I enjoy and see those elements used to make a new story in the same loose genre. Ready Player One is, on some level, telling a “1980s” story in a number of ways (the love interest, the down-on-his-luck kid, the evil rich guys, etc.), but it isn’t doing it as well as I feel Stranger Things does, and that’s because too much of Ready Player One expects me to cheer when they reference Joust or Back to the Future without actually replicating the emotional content or importance of either of those properties.
Now, in Stranger Things, I felt real, actual nostalgia. The film looks, feels, and sounds like the movies and books I watched and read as a kid. However, it does all of this without constantly bashing us over the head with “ain’t the 80s cool” stuff. Yes, yes, many of the camera shots are direct homages to Spielberg and Zemekis and others. Yes, a lot of the elements are things we’ve seen in Stephen King novels or Richard Donner films. However, the show is not actually about any of those things. They are incidental – they’re establishing a mood, but the mood is not the main course. Even if you don’t pick up any of those references, the story is, in and of itself, is emotionally compelling and interesting. This is in large part because it is telling the kind of story that is emotionally compelling in a similar way to its forebears. It is not, however, a simple retelling of any one story, nor is it a ripoff or shallow imitation. It is a new, legitimate entry into a genre of film that has been somehow forgotten.
The same, unfortunately, can’t be said about Ready Player One. If you don’t get any of the references, a significant aspect of the plot and action is going to be lost on you. Yes, Cline does a pretty good job of trying to get you up to speed, but if there is no actual preexisting emotional attachment to the things referenced, the book isn’t going to work half as well as it should.
Here’s another way to look at it: we are currently as far away from the 1980s as the 1980s were from the 1950s. So, let me ask you this question: does Back to the Future still hold together as an interesting, emotionally compelling film even if you don’t know jack about the 1950s? Of course it does! Because, even if you don’t get the “Marvin Berry” joke, more or less everything of significant import in that film is relatable to anybody. Now, if, on the other hand, the movie asked us to follow along as Marty went through an incessant primer on 1950s scifi from his father, all the way to the point where he began summarizing Asimov’s Foundation and Marty started quoting passages, you’d lose the audience. Because at that point you are more interested in making references than you are in telling your own story, and story always has to come first.
I realize that I’m coming down a bit hard on Cline here, and I don’t really mean to say that Ready Player One isn’t a good book – as mentioned, I’m enjoying it a good deal – but I think the things it does best are not the things everybody seems to pay attention to and the things it struggles the most with are the things everybody assumes are the draw.
Do you remember a time when you believed there were people living on the moon? Or Mars? Or Venus? I do.
I’m a kid – no older than eight – reading Ray Bradbury in a sunny room, thinking about the color of the kids’ raincoats on Venus. A casual browse through my shelves will reveal reams of construction paper upon which has been illustrated a wide variety of spaceships, including the Costello – an interplanetary craft based upon the rough outline of the swing set in my backyard. On the floor, scattered about on their launch pads, a legion of Lego spaceships point through the skylights of my bedroom, waiting for lift-off.
This is me before true scientific understanding had dawned. Before I had my subscription to Odyssey, before I learned everything I could about the Solar System and beyond. This was when I still thought there might be Martians and wondered whether they were friendly or not.
Explorers was released in 1985. I did not see it in the theater – I didn’t know it existed until probably a few years later, when I was browsing through the local video rental store (remember browsing the rental store? Man, I loved that!) and saw it sitting on the shelf. The movie was, along with The Goonies, a representation of all my idealized childhood fantasies. A couple kids manage to build a spaceship out of junk in their backyard and fly off to explore the universe. Never mind how they did it (I don’t really remember – something about a computer program that makes bubbles out of thin air, I guess – this was also back in the days when computers were tantamount to MAGIC). The important point is that three kids, without the need for adults, built a spaceship and went off to explore space.
List off the films that did this in the 1980s – had kids/teens on the forefront of space exploration/science fictional adventure:
- The Last Starfighter
- Space Camp
- Flight of the Navigator
- My Science Project
- Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
- Back to the Future
I’m probably missing some, too. In any case, I grew up thinking fantastic adventure was just around the corner. All I needed to do was meet a crazy inventor or stumble upon a meteorite or get locked in the National Air and Space museum after dark and discover, to my shock and wonder, that the Apollo Capsule still worked!
And when I did manage to travel through time or open a portal to another world or fly off to Mars, there would be people there. Life, in this halcyon age of my imagination, was as common in space as it was here on Earth. Every planet would have a secret ecosystem of aliens creatures waiting to be explored and (possibly) zapped with a ray gun. There would be cultures of intelligent creatures there, both primitive and advanced, and I would make friends and enemies, establish diplomatic relations, and so on. I swore I’d have a flying car by now and that space stations would be places people went for vacation or stopped over on their way to Saturn.
I was wrong, of course. Space isn’t really like that or, at least, it doesn’t appear to be. It is vast and mostly empty and our planet is a little island of blue all alone in a sea of black, not just one member of an archipelago of habitable worlds. Getting off this rock seems harder and harder, even as it also looks to be more and more essential that we manage it. I wonder if this is just part of growing up for everybody or whether my generation was uniquely spoiled – probably the former. I also wonder: do the kids of today have similar dreams? Do they hope to explore the Great Unknown? I worry sometimes. I seem to meet a lot of young people who don’t bother looking past the ends of their noses and whose ideas of the future involve merely a steady job and a 401K (if that).
That’s not enough, though. We need to look further than the necessities of our own survival. We need to be dreamers – crazy dreamers – if we’re going to have a shot. When somebody accuses of you of riding moonbeams, you need to take it as a compliment. It’s gotta be better than just squatting in the dirt, right?