Ernest Cline apparently came from nowhere. A slam poet and screenwriter of moderate success, there was no particular reason to suspect that his first novel would become a cultural phenomenon. But it did. Ready Player Oneis Cline’s first novel. It was published in 2011 after a lengthy bidding war between publishers. The film rights were sold the following day. Apparently everyone knew Ready Player One was a book to get excited about. Now, the Steven Spielberg movie is about to hit screens, and the initial slew of reviews are full of praise.
Here’s the gist: in a near future dystopia, the poverty-stricken middle-class are addicted to virtual reality. Our young hero is Wade Watts, who joins millions of other players in the ‘Oasis’ - a game designed by an eccentric genius, James Halliday. In a Willy-Wonka style set-up, Halliday’s death brings about an irresistible call to arms: there is a secret hidden inside the game. The one that finds it will inherit Halliday’s enormous fortune. Wade must face off against a plethora of enemies and challenges to find the treasure. Each plot point is saturated in 80’s nerd nostalgia. Pop culture references abound: Dungeons and Dragons, War Games, Star Wars, Joust, Pac-Man, Black Tiger, BladeRunner…even Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
When I read Ready Player One a few years ago, I was hit with such a beautiful whack of nostalgia that I was immediately suckered into the narrative. I couldn’t put the book down. It is, unmistakably, wonderfully written. Even though I am probably five years too young for the pop culture sweet spot that this book trades in, it didn’t matter. The book felt like my childhood, it reminded me of so many teenage pop culture experiences. It gave me a kind of literary high. I don’t use the allegory lightly - it was like a drug. I couldn’t stop reading. It felt great. I don’t think I’d quite experienced anything so engrossing since Harry Potter.
Cline’s earlier work provides some clues to this blockbuster. His early couple of screenplays focus on fandom, or passionate specific niches of pop culture. Ready Player One came at just the right time in a cultural zeitgeist. Television streaming was becoming the norm and all your old, favourite TV shows were more accessible than ever before. Virtual reality is inevitable. Generation Y and the millennials were coming of age, and everything old is new again. Despite its futuristic setting, Ready Player One is a book that relies on nostalgia. It both exploits and is responsible for the current cultural zeitgeist of resurrecting the 80’s and 90’s.
In the last few years we have seen the re-launch of a cacophony of pop culture icons: The X-Files, Will & Grace, Full House, Star Trek, Star Wars… Not to mention the entire film industry almost being swallowed alive by superhero comics. Some of the biggest original pop culture hits, while independent of any existing franchise, also deliberately self-reference the work that influenced them. Stranger Thing’s unique blend of Spielberg, Stephen King and 80’s product placement (and use of the synth, possibly the greatest crime against music ever recorded) is a heady and intoxicating mix for the nostalgia-hungry folk of my generation, who can’t quite bring themselves to grow up.
If I sound grumpy, it’s only because I’m fully aware that my childhood memories have become a massive corporate entity…what’s that? A new Star Wars film is out? I’ll pay for three Gold Class screenings please, and I’ll pre-order the books and comics that will release with it right now. Is there a video game spin-off that’s pretty crappy but will probably capture my attention for a week anyway? I’ll grab that too. Collector’s edition? Sure.
It makes delightful sense that Spielberg would direct this film. The book references his work many times. Early reviews say it’s a return to 80’s form for Spielberg. From the look of the trailer, he’s managed to incorporate a whole range of other visual references into the jam-packed adventure tale.
The cynic would roll their eyes at the whole charade. After all, there’s nothing particularly new in Ready Player One. There’s nothing innovative. And it knows this. But out of the hundreds of books that I’ve read over the last few years, it speaks to me unlike any other. And this back-referencing of childhood isn’t exactly new. Grease, after all, is set in the 50’s, but was released in the 70’s - a perfect, generation-sized gap designed to appeal to the 30 and 40 year-olds of the time. The first Back to the Future film, released in 1985, winds the clock back to 1965. Almost Famous, released in 2000, is set in 1973 and drenched in the popular music of the time.
Nostalgia is a commodity. Ernest Cline, Steven Spielberg and Ready Player One are cashing in. I, for one, don’t mind. They can take my money. I’m a sucker.