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Book review: ‘Ready Player Two’ falters with repetitive plot, troubling undertones

(Courtesy of Ballentine Books)

"Ready Player Two"

By Ernest Cline

Published November 24

By Kaia Sherry

Dec. 11, 2020 5:52 p.m.

Welcome to the OASIS, where “The Silmarillion” is biblical and Depeche Mode is your “Personal Jesus.”

Here, a pouty-in-pink Molly Ringwald bums cigarettes off velour-clad versions of her younger self, who all take turns cursing John Hughes to the rhythm of his IBM Selectric typewriter; a greased-up Rizzo dukes it out with the Polka King of the Midwest in the Chicago ‘burbs; Ferris Bueller scales the final fourth-wall and never takes a day off.

If that sentence inspired thoughts of Glamdring seppuku, you may want to avoid Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player Two.”

Following 2011’s bestseller “Ready Player One,” Cline’s November 2020 release is a test of self-plagiarization. Set after OASIS creator James Halliday’s egg quest, it introduces an almost identical search for the Seven Shards of the Siren’s Soul – and a return to the oversaturation of ’80s pop culture. However, this time the technological stakes are upped for protagonist Wade Watts with the OASIS Neural Interface, which connects users’ brains directly to the virtual universe.

[Related: Book review: ‘Midnight Sun’ fails to eclipse problematic points of past ‘Twilight’ novels]

Although Cline occasionally succeeds in producing intrigue through implication, he rarely follows through. The passing reference to hikikomori, the Japanese term for reclusive OASIS-junkies, is uncanny in its conceivability. Meanwhile, the L0w Five’s side quest for the Dorkslayer, the all-powerful sword needed to vanquish Halliday’s evil artificial intelligence copy Anorak, is omitted altogether. Snarkily boiled down to implied offers of future film adaptations and TV spin-offs, the new questers’ Dorkslayer quest is impossible to describe because Cline never writes it.

More worrisome than Cline’s brand of listicle exposition is his hollow attempt at faux-wokeness – perhaps in response to critiques he received for his last book. In “Ready Player Two,” Wade illegally accesses the user profile of L0hengrin, the L0w Five’s effervescent leader, and finds she was “designated male at birth.” What follows is a self-fellating ode, deviating from a searing portrait of L0hengrin’s abject poverty to what is presumably Wade’s erect penis.

His support for L0hengrin’s transgender identity – although admittedly better than absolutely nothing – is rooted in his ONI-playbacks of “several different flavors of straight and gay and non-binary sex.” Oddly stilted, the framing of the scene reinforces the troubling association of transgender identity with sex, reducing L0hengrin to her bodily sum of parts.

[Related: Book review: The Hunger Games’ prequel pays tribute to saga, leaving main character static]

“Ready Player Two’s” cis-women don’t fare much better. Karen “Kira” Underwood, the eponymous Siren and Halliday’s unrequited love, exists as an AI created when Halliday copied her consciousness before the death of her In Real Life counterpart. A literal ghost in the machine, Kira is characterized as little more than an Easter egg to be found and is eternally subject to the beta-brand of misogyny hard-wired into the OASIS.

With her privacy obliterated and her agency non-existent, Kira’s memories are accessed by Halliday to fuel an undeserved redemption arc – leaving Anorak as the primary antagonist simply because he is evil and uncomplicatedly so. Later, Art3mis, Wade’s love interest, forgives him unconditionally after similar intrusions of privacy, despite her rote, boss-babe feminism.

The OASIS itself – a libertarian wet dream in which power is vested in joystick dexterity – is paradoxical in its politics, aiming to have its billionaire and eat him too. Art3mis donates most of her wealth in an effort to backtrack Earth’s dystopian crises, waging humanitarian efforts like transforming Ohio’s indentured servant tenements into housing for the homeless. But by the end of the book, the class structure is still in place, with Wade, Art3mis and their friends left fabulously rich in the face of a dying planet.

“Ready Player Two” is science fiction for people who don’t read science fiction, written for men who still harbor hatred for Anita Sarkeesian. It peddles the same soft-core sexism seeded in the slack-jawed leers of “The Big Bang Theory” or rape-apologism of “Revenge of the Nerds,” allowing closet misogynists to carry on with a clean conscience.

Touting itself as the unsung geek anthem, “Ready Player Two” merely exposes the underbelly of the nerdom it tries to deify.

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Kaia Sherry | Alumna
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