About this time last year, I was sitting on a bus in Disney World reading two different novels about dystopic hellscapes. The stark contrast was not lost on me as I read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and William Gibson’s Neuromancer for an hour each day while I was ferried around The Happiest Place on Earth, an oasis for pale Midwesterners like me. Ready Player One was definitely a hate-read for me (I had first heard of it on a podcast about bad books), but I found it surprisingly breezy to get through despite all my groaning and eye rolling. Neuromancer, on the other hand, was a really compelling and revelatory work that seemed to be unfairly categorized as “genre sci-fi.” Reading both books simultaneously was a happy mistake, but I was grasped by how each writer chose to build their respective fictitious worlds around them. I know it’s unfair to compare Ernest Cline, a popular nerd culture rememberer, to William Gibson, the man who birthed cyberpunk from his loin, but comparing their approaches can be useful in determining what makes for good world-building, and what falls flat.
For Ready Player One, my major gripe is the sheer amount of explanation that Ernest Cline allows to interrupt the narrative. Normally, for a sci-fi/spec fic novel, explanation is appreciated as a way to explain the norms of the world that the author is crafting. However, Cline’s world-building explanations are the equivalent of a near-future “Explain Like I’m Five” thread. For writing to an audience that values how intelligent they are, he spends a lot of time treating his readers like they are idiots who might lose sight of an important character trait if it isn’t repeated multiple times. For example, an early characterization of the narrator Wade makes it very obvious that he doesn’t have a healthy home life:
“I selected an episode of Family Ties, an ‘80s sitcom about a middleclass family living in central Ohio. […] I’d become addicted to the show immediately, and had now watched all 180 episodes, multiple times. I never seemed to get tired of them.
Sitting alone in the dark, watching the show on my laptop, I always found myself imagining that I lived in that warm, well-lit house, and that those smiling, understanding people were my family. That there was nothing so wrong in the world that we couldn’t sort it out by the end of a single half hour episode (or maybe a two-parter, if it was something really serious).
My own home life never even remotely resembled the one depicted in Family Ties, which was probably why I loved the show so much.”
Rather than letting the readers figure out for themselves that Wade loves Family Ties because his own home life is complicated (as is abundantly clear in the first two paragraphs), Cline can’t help but put in that last sentence that blandly explains Wade’s motivation. Depressingly, the book is full these of instances where world-building and characterization are undone by redundant details.
Early in the novel, it is established that, because Wade doesn’t have money in the real world, he isn’t able to leave the starting planet in virtual reality, severely limiting the amount of cool stuff he can do. Initially, I thought this was a really interesting piece of world-building, as it clearly established that the game’s rules didn’t allow for much in the way of social mobility. The game was free for all, but the poor and downtrodden ultimately stay poor and downtrodden, even in a fantastical game world. However, once Wade finally gets money in the game, there is little reflection on his jump in status, just an explanation of how money works in the game:
“I found thousands of gold and silver coins hidden in the pews, right where they were supposed to be. It was more money than my avatar could carry, even with the Bag of Holding that I found. I gathered up as many of the gold coins as I could and they appeared in my inventory. The currency was automatically converted and my credit counter jumped to over twenty thousand, by far the largest amount of money I’d ever had. And in addition to the credits, my avatar received an equal number of experience points for obtaining the coins.”
The paragraph just ends right there. Wade doesn’t reflect on his newly found wealth, he doesn’t reflect on how the money makes him feel, he doesn’t even reflect on how messed up it is that his experience points are tied to how much gold he could find. Cline misses an opportunity to develop his main character and how Wade thinks critically about the game world in an interesting way in order to explain a system to you in nauseating detail.
In contrast, William Gibson goes about world-building in an almost minimalist fashion. Neuromancer, despite codifying cyberpunk’s stylings for generations to come, intentionally relies on a lack of explicit explanation to build up a world filled with hackers and corporate espionage, which is bold considering it was published before most readers had a firm grasp on the possibilities of computing. Consider this early description of Cyberspace:
“Cyberspace, as the deck presented it, had no particular relationship with the deck’s physical whereabouts. When Case jacked in, he opened his eyes to the familiar configuration of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority’s Aztec pyramid of data.”
Gibson only presents the essential, need-to-know information about Cyberspace, with few stylistic flairs (it doesn’t correspond with the physical world, the data is visually represented as a pyramid, you access Cyberspace by “jacking in”). While this approach can initially confuse readers, eventually the repeated use of the new terms effectively forces readers to learn how the technology works, thus creating a bigger investment in the world of the novel.
The other benefit of this approach is that the reader can fill in the blanks and let their imagination do some of the work of world-building. Later in that same passage, Case meets with the virtual manifestation of his old mentor, Dixie Flatline. The ensuing conversation does more to characterize the motivations of Dixie, without relying on outright explanation or summarization by other characters:
“‘How you doing , Dixie?’
‘I’m dead, Case. Got enough time in on this Hosaka to figure that one.’
‘How’s it feel?’
‘What bothers me is, nothin’ does.’
‘Had me this buddy in the Russian camp, Siberia, his thumb was frostbit. Medics came by and they cut it off. Month later he’s tossin’ all night. Elroy, I said, what’s eatin’ you? Goddam thumb’s itchin’, he says. So I told him, scratch it. McCoy, he says, it’s the other goddam thumb.’ When the construct laughed, it came through as something else, not laughter, but a stab of cold down Case’s spine. ‘Do me a favor, boy.’
‘What’s that, Dix?’
‘This scam of yours, when it’s over, you erase this goddam thing.’”
In this short exchange, Gibson fleshes out Dixie without explicitly explaining what a construct is, what he looks like, what he talks like, or his backstory. The reader can put together that a construct is like a virtual representation of someone’s consciousness or that Dixie is kind of a “cowboy” figure (or even that the world is in enough upheaval that hackers were locked up in Siberia for some reason) without being explicitly told. Further, Dixie’s primary motivation (having his construct deleted) is expressed in the space of three lines, without endless pontification about the nature of being a construct.
Does this approach work all of the time? Not exactly, there were a few events towards the end of the book that were hard to wrap my head around because they whizz by with little explanation. But it’s remarkable how a book that relies on so little explanatory information manages to stay as coherent as it is.
Returning back to Cline, he isn’t only guilty of ham-fisted world-building and overabundant system explaining, but he manages to fumble the nerdy references with over-explanation. In nerd culture, references act as a form a social currency that essentially signify to other nerds that you are superior because you can recall the name of Conan’s sword or what comic Aunt May died in during the original run of Spider-Man. Part of the ‘fun’ of the game hinges on identifying obscured references without an indicator that they are a reference to another work at all. Ready Player One certainly recalls this tradition, considering how the entire plot of the novel is based on a competition of recognizing obscure references (literally), but Cline’s clumsy writing doesn’t actually participate in this game. Nearly every reference is unobscured from the get-go, with Cline clearly giving a source along with the reference. For instance, while introducing a minor character, Cline spells out the etymology of her preferred name in the most obvious way:
“Morrow had moved in with his high-school sweetheart, Kira Underwood. Kira was born and raised in London. (Her birth name was Karen, but she’d insisted on being called Kira ever since her first viewing of The Dark Crystal.)”
A better writer would have eliminated that parenthetical statement (or at least, let the damn character speak for themselves why they decided to go by the different name), but Cline just bluntly puts an explained reference down and refuses to elaborate on why it is important. Reading this novel quickly devolves into a 80s-tinged word association game, instead of quizzing yourself with nerdy brain teasers. It’s like playing Trivial Pursuit with someone who blurts out every answer, except he has a book deal. Cline’s failure to leave well enough alone leads to unintended hilarity with some references though. My favorite:
“‘It looks just like Rivendell,’ Aech said, taking the words right out of my mouth.
I nodded. ‘It looks exactly like Rivendell in the Lord of the Rings movies,’ I said, still staring up at it in awe.”
It really makes you question why this book was praised so heavily by mainstream critics and readers (the book has a whopping 4.31 average on Goodreads), considering Cline seems to think that the audience is too dumb to realize that Wade naming his ship “the Vonnegut” is a reference to Kurt Vonnegut Jr., or that a character named “Art3mis” is a reference to the Greek goddess. You would think in a novel otherwise devoid of fleshed-out characters and interesting writing, he would get the pandering right, but he strikes out in a spectacular fashion.
At the end of it all, Ernest Cline might as well be the poster boy for a “lost” generation that has become a major market demographic in the entertainment industry due to how easily you can take advantage of their nostalgia to sell Products. (I mean, the dude drives around in a Delorean with Ghostbusters stickers on it.) We live in a world where there is a slow, steady churn of properties being dredged up from the murky depths of our collective memories, largely because they have a single iota of brand recognition for that sweet, sweet 24-35 year-old white male demographic. The main thing that is outstanding about Cline’s place in this continued con of nerd culture is how tactless he is at rubbing the Nostalgia Zone in your brain (critics reading his latest book Armada seem to have caught on to this revelation). It’s hard to discern whether he is a brilliant genius that is constantly testing the limits of what his notoriously consumptive audience will eat up, or an earnest (no pun intended) dork who thinks the 80s didn’t have enough wish fulfillment fantasies already. Either way, Ernest Cline ends up representing some of the worst tendencies of nerd culture’s nostalgia market, and he isn’t going away any time soon.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, Broadway Books, MSRP: $16.00
Neuromancer by William Gibson, Ace, MSRP: $16.00