Ready Player One is only as cynical about nostalgia as we are

It’s easy to mock Ready Player One, Ernest Cline’s science fiction novel about a battle for control of a virtual world, where the prize will go to the one who demonstrates the greatest knowledge of 1980s pop culture. It’s seemingly built on little more than recycled nostalgia and a protagonist with a severe case of the Mary Sues. But we have become far too defensive of the cultural output from that era, which was itself frequently a throwback to a previous golden age. Ready Player One confronts us with the unpalatable fact that we like mining our past for rose-tinted nostalgia on a 20-30 year cycle – and we probably always will.

In 2015, we have been enjoying 80s nostalgia for almost a decade. Truly, it’s about time for 90s nostalgia to take over. In this time, we have seen a resurgence of leg warmers and new-romantic haircuts, of Space Invaders T-shirts and Ghostbusters cinema screenings, of Human League beats and remake after remake after remake; and just this October we are due for Back to the Future Part 2 mania as we catch up with the moment Marty McFly grabbed a hoverboard and defined the hopes and dreams of an entire generation of children.

Ready Player One capitalises on this current wave of nostalgia. It imagines a future world, about thirty years from now, gripped by recycled nostalgia for the 1980s. Or possibly nostalgia for the 2010s nostalgia for the 1980s – it’s hard to tell. The world is dominated by its addiction to an online virtual world called OASIS, founded and owned by a genius technologist and game designer who himself grew up in the 1980s and forever held an obsession with the culture of his youth: James Halliday. When Halliday dies, his will stipulates that control of OASIS will pass to whoever finds the Easter Egg he has hidden in OASIS. Solving the clues and completing the challenges necessary to find the Egg will depend on players’ acute knowledge of 1980s pop culture. It will require intimate familiarity with games like Joust, Zork and Tempest; films such as Wargames; and the discography of Canadian rock band Rush. In the stampede to find the Egg and control OASIS, the world devotes itself to nostalgia.

At this point, we could throw up our hands and complain that author Ernest Cline is simply cashing in on what is near and dear to our hearts. He is plundering the collective culture of our youths and adding the most threadbare original plot to tie it together. He is one step away from a Lucas-esque raping of our childhoods!

But consider what it is we are nostalgic for today. So much of what we grew up with, what we enjoyed in the 1980s, was not high culture or even that original. Star Wars recycled classic fairy tales of white knights rescuing princesses from black knights. Indiana Jones recycled the matinee adventures of the 1930s. Back to the Future and Dirty Dancing recycled the rock’n’roll culture of the 1950s. The new romantic movement in pop music recalled 1930s cabaret.

However counter-cultural we think we are, we are almost certainly following in the footsteps of a cultural movement that did the exact same thing

Almost everything we love from the 1980s was, at the time, cashing in on some form of nostalgia for an age gone by, when things were simpler or more exciting. It’s hard to blame Cline for cashing in on our 80s nostalgia today. I find it especially hard, because I suspect that’s not all Cline is doing in Ready Player One. By suggesting another wave of 80s nostalgia approximately thirty years from now, he’s exposing a common theme in modern culture: that we are relentlessly cyclical in our tastes. However original, groundbreaking or counter-cultural we think we are, we are almost certainly following in the footsteps of a cultural movement that did the exact same thing twenty or thirty years ago.

So what about Wade Watts, the Mary Sue at the heart of Ready Player One? He knows more about the 1980s than anyone, he has a more deserving sob story than anyone, his plans always work, his intuition is flawless, and his luck is divine. Oh, and he gets the girl. He is a manifestation of the common wish that our useless and oft-derided hobby or arcane knowledge might one day be of supreme importance. We should laugh at this cardboard cutout masquerading as a character. But Wade Watts is part and parcel of our nostalgia and belongs at the centre of Ready Player One as much as Ferris Bueller.

Think, again, about our loves from the 80s. How many of them feature a down-on-his-luck teenage boy thrust into the limelight or into another world because he is, inexplicably, the “chosen one”, and his seemingly useless skills or experience prove essential. Luke Skywalker is a farm boy who discovers he has magic powers and wins a war against an evil empire, aided by all the practice he had bulls-eyeing womp rats in his T-16 back home. Marty McFly single handedly births rock’n’roll in 1955 even though his contemporaries thought his music was a waste of time. Daniel-san becomes a karate master and defeats his bullies because he knew the correct method of waxing a car and varnishing a fence.

Wade Watts isn’t a disappointingly thin character amid a 1980s wonderland. He is a necessary part of that wonderland, because 1980s nostalgia is full of reverential love for thin characters who achieve what we could only dream of – the very embodiment of our wish fulfilment fantasies. Though we can be hyper-critical of Mary Sue-type characters, the truth is that we often love Mary Sue, because she gives us what we really want – a vessel for our own escapist dreams of unimpeded success.

The honest truth is that much of it simply isn’t that good. It only seems good because we, like James Halliday, imbibed it at an impressionable age.

Ready Player One isn’t a great book, and Ernest Cline probably isn’t a very good author. But if we mock the novel for its possibly cynical nostalgia or its Mary Sue protagonist, we should take a hard look at our own nostalgia and the things we defend so sincerely. The honest truth is that much of it simply isn’t that good. It only seems good because we, like James Halliday, imbibed it at an impressionable age. And in the same depressing way, in twenty or thirty years from now, people will religiously defend the sanctity of their memories of iCarly.

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