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.
A couple years back I was given a Kindle as a Christmas present. I had acquiesced to the idea of getting an e-reader when it became obvious to me just how many paperback novels I had
stashed in my parents’ attic and in my own apartment and that, when I moved, they filled a cool dozen cardboard boxes after I had jettisoned at least 60% of them to goodwill (enjoy my complete collection of Dragonlance novels, suckers!). Since then, I have purchased only e-books and hardcovers. The e-books are for reading; the hardcovers are for those really cool books I want to collect and show off. Most of my paperbacks have sat on various oddly-matched bookshelves in my office for the past couple years, collecting dust.
Fast-forward to this past weekend: I had dug out my old copy of Asimov’s Foundation to give it another read prior to discussing it in one of my classes. I’ve done this every year for a few years now, but this time I happened to get a whiff of the pages. It was that stale, dusty, library smell – a shoebox-ish odor of old paper drenched in too much sunlight. It took me on a journey.
I was fifteen. I’d come home from high school the long way (I took public transit to and from school; it taught me all the values of independence without the cost or anxiety of owning a car). I’d swing through Quincy Center and, rather than take the first bus, I’d wait on the second and wander up the street to my favorite bookstore. I say ‘favorite’ as though the quality mattered to me – it did not. They had books there and I bought them by the armload. I stuffed them in my backpack and smuggled them home, reading by metal desk lamp in the darkness of my room long after I ought to have been asleep.
Everything I bought was from the science fiction/fantasy section. I had no idea what was good – nobody I knew had any idea about this stuff and the bookstore employees were just as clueless – so I bought things more-or-less at random, based off of cover art or title. This was how I met Heinlein and Asimov, purchased by purest accident at the same time – Foundation and Starship Troopers, side-by-side, forever bookending my understanding of the genre (I wouldn’t meet Clarke until much later, in college). I got hooked on Robert Jordan from a free sample being given away at the counter – the first nine chapters of The Eye of the World, back when everybody figured there would only be six books. Jordan, in a very real sense, changed my life. He made writing as a profession seem real, and I can’t say how. Maybe I had always sought a medium to tell my stories, and Jordan’s books showed me how to do it. Maybe it was something else.
My parents were athletes of modest renown. My mother held swimming records at her college until well into the 1990s and, indeed, she still might hold a few somewhere. My father was one of those guys who could play anything pretty well. They took their kids camping, swimming, to the beach, hiking, skiing, sailing – you name the physical activity, I did it. Everytime we went to one of those places, though, I would have a paperback squirreled away in a bag somewhere. My teenage years sometimes come back to me as just one long string of people interrupting my reading. “Auston, why don’t you go swimming?” or “Auston, we’re going for a hike – put the book down.” or “I can’t believe we took you on a sailboat to an island in the middle of the ocean and you’re going to sit there and read.”
It isn’t that my parents were against reading – far from it. My father is one of the best read people I know, devouring three or four books at a time. My mother was a teacher. I just don’t think they quite understood why I had my nose buried in those space-books so much. The reasons are layered, nuanced, submerged beneath unknowable strata of my unconscious, most likely. It doesn’t really matter. I did it, I still do it (though not enough).
Picture me in an attic bedroom, curled up on a carpet under the eaves, a skylight over my head. I’m an awkward teenager of the 1990s, so I’m dressed like an idiot – poofy hair, glasses held in place by a tie-dye Oakley cord, a collared shirt with an alligator on it. I’m fit – athletic, even – but I’m nose deep in C.S. Friedman’s In Conquest Born or book four of The Death’s Gate Cycle, breathing the stale air of a room in the summer with no windows open. My mom is yelling for me from downstairs. I pretend I don’t hear her.
For as convenient as the Kindle is and, by extension, as convenient as the whole Internet is, there is something to be said for hunting down something unknown. Making informed purchases is wise, of course, but also sad. It lacks romance. Of course, there’s nothing stopping me from going and smuggling my paperbacks home today, I guess (I now have a whole new set of people I love determined to interrupt my reading). Maybe I’m getting old and I just don’t have the energy anymore, or maybe I’m just being a curmudgeonly hypocrite, but I know I won’t go back to a bookstore anytime soon. I won’t spend an afternoon in a deathly silent library, just me and the soft roar of the air conditioners and the smell of old books.
For the rest of my life, though, when I open an old paperback and breathe in that scent, I will remember.