You can't run blindfolded through a bookstore these days without bloodying your nose on a dystopian novel. And every one of these books runs on its own apocalyptic engine: The world could end because of nuclear bombs (hinted at in Cormac McCarthy's The Road) or viruses (The Passage, The Strain) or credit defaults and befuddled complacency (Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story). Sometimes, the apocalypse looks very familiar because we've seen it so many times, it's practically an old friend by now—pop culture's renewed infatuation with the zombie apocalypse fad, for example, is now entering its seventh straight year with no sign of abatement.
Ernest Cline's new thriller, Ready Player One, has scavenged together a different engine to power its dystopian doom: The world is running out of resources, and so everything has to be reused and exploited until it's as gray and worn as everything else. But that's not really what has leveled the world. Instead, the force that has crushed everyone's spirit is nostalgia—specifically, nostalgia for the pop culture of the 1980s.
Ready Player One takes place in 2044, in a world where the internet has been replaced by a virtual universe called the OASIS. Created as a massively multiplayer online role-playing game by an eccentric computing genius named James Halliday, the OASIS quickly grew to consume everything online—it licensed other MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and made them planets of their own in the larger OASIS constellation—until finally people realized that they preferred the virtual pleasures available in their helmets and haptic skinsuits to the drab world outside their run-down homes. Most business and socializing is performed inside the OASIS, so when Halliday dies and leaves a treasure hunt behind that promises the winner control over his fortune and the OASIS itself, everyone in the world pays attention.
Because he's a good gamer, Halliday's quest involves riddles and esoteric information and personal challenges and moral lessons. But because Halliday was born in the 1970s, the quest he creates is built from the material that he loves most: nerdy pop culture, most of which originated in the 1980s. Instead of slaying dragons, questers in search of Halliday's fortune will have to best a challenger in the classic video game Joust. The riddles involve obscure Dungeons & Dragons modules, and avatars take the form of characters from The Lord of the Rings and fly around in TIE fighters.
This book would be entirely impossible to read for a human from the 1950s: On a single page, you can find references to Max Headroom, Kurt Vonnegut, Star Trek, Lewis Carroll, Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars, Back to the Future, and Firefly, along with one or two references that may have gone entirely over my head. This is not a book for the pop-culturally faint of heart. Ready Player One is an experiment in nerd cred—it tries to make a book that could not exist without sampling from preexisting texts, taking that '80s-centric vocabulary and transforming it into a language.
These are interesting topics to ponder, given the interesting times in which we live. Corporate entertainment forces have conspired to transform our culture into a self-reflexive nest of nostalgia, because when you're trying to launch a movie on an international scale, tried-and-true "properties" are a safer bet than a new idea—that's why successful movies from 10 years ago are routinely remade. And tighter copyright laws keep the old ideas locked up, away from the public domain, where they might otherwise be chopped and quartered into a kind of intellectual mulch that fertilizes new concepts. In short, this rebootophilia isn't likely to abate anytime soon. A quest built from the detritus of the 1980s—all of which is guarded in real life by armies of slavering copyright attorneys—is practically a transgressive act.
It's a shame, then, that Cline lacks the creativity to do anything new with all the toys of his youth. It feels like just another reboot, only this time starring everyone you've ever heard of. The protagonist of Ready Player One—and it's already a bad sign that we're in the penultimate paragraph of a review and I haven't felt the need to discuss the main character yet—is the same boring white kid from all those '80s adventure movies (this time he's named Wade Watts) with a good heart who surrounds himself with friends of all ethnicities and sexualities. Wade talks a good game about equality and teamwork, but of course he's the only one who can save the day when it matters. Cline is inattentive to clichés—he can't stop referring to one character's "Cheshire grin"—and narrative twists are telegraphed. There's no extending beyond the simplistic structure of a video game from the 1980s: The bad guys are bad, the main character is good, and giant robots are still totally fucking awesome, even if they're lifted wholesale out of that cartoon you really liked for a couple months in 1986.
Ready Player One is, at least, a fast read, a fluffy genre jolt that zooms from place to place and keeps the stakes relatively high, but it's never as meaningful or energetic as, say, The Hunger Games. Cline does seem to hint, with the introduction of a bright-red Chekhovian gun in the final few pages of the book, that there's more story to come, and that the characters will finally begin to address the whirlwind of nostalgia that's choked the life out of their world. That would be something to see, something of value. Good dystopian fiction shows us what could happen if we keep going down the wrong road. Great dystopian fiction suggests how we can forge another path, away from the follies of our future.