Books

Ready Player Two Is a Horror Story but Doesn’t Know It

Ernest Cline’s sequel is just as vacant and nostalgia-drenched as its predecessor, but with a sinister twist.

The cover of Ready Player Two, with bold blue lettering on a black background, in a repeating pattern.
Photo illustration by Slate

The simplest way to summarize the plot of Ready Player Two is to repeat the plot of its predecessor, Ready Player One, as they are largely the same. In the mid-2040s, as the world outside crumbles into poverty and environmental ruin, a young man named Wade Watts undertakes a virtual reality quest where all the puzzles can be solved with his personal superpower: an encyclopedic knowledge of trivia about ’80s movies, TV shows, music, and video games. It’s obvious why author Ernest Cline decided to repeat the formula, given the success of the first novel, which sold millions of copies and inspired a Steven Spielberg film adaptation. As befits a book whose sole purpose is to borrow more successful stories and make them worse in every way, Ready Player Two now plunders its own precursor, too.

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Sure, Ready Player One was a self-indulgent and philosophically bankrupt piece of nostalgia porn stitched together with page-long synopses of vastly superior media, but in between its awkward prose (and even more awkward treatment of women), there were glimmers of the mindless joy a child might feel while smashing action figures together. And the book ended with some small growth for hero Wade, who realizes that “as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness.” In Cline’s follow-up, however, instead of an underdog orphan trying desperately to escape his poverty, our protagonist is now a bored, vindictive tech billionaire who has learned nothing from his previous adventure.

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After winning the contest in Ready Player One, Wade is awarded something akin to godhood in the OASIS—a VR universe where most of the world spends their days to escape from the horrors of reality—as well as ownership of the monopolistic corporation that runs it. Wade’s new CEO status gives him access to a new technology, one the now-deceased OASIS creator and questmaster James Halliday had hidden away: the Oasis Neural Interface, or ONI, a brain-computer link that projects the OASIS directly into people’s cerebral cortexes and allows them to experience it not just through a headset and haptics, but as though it’s really happening.

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What this means in practice is that a callow nerd now has dominion over the linked brains of two-thirds of the global population and the “unstoppable” megacorporation that controls pretty much everything else: communication, commerce, entertainment, education, medicine, national security, law enforcement, and the internet itself. Wade also secretly possesses a big red button that can destroy the OASIS and cause the instant collapse of human civilization. He tells no one. “Nobody knew the fate of the world was literally in my hands. Except me. And I wanted to keep it that way,” he confides. From the perspective of anyone but Wade, Ready Player Two is a horror story that thinks it is a fantasy, narrated by a monster who thinks he is the hero.

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Like any monarch who fancies himself a humanitarian, Wade is eager to tell us how vastly he has improved the lives of his subjects. “The ONI made the lives of impoverished people all around the world a lot more bearable—and enjoyable,” Wade says. “People didn’t mind subsisting on dried seaweed and soy protein when they could log on to the ONI-net and download a delicious five-course meal any time they pleased.” It would be fascinating to learn how Wade knows this, as we never see him interact with anyone outside of his tight coterie of equally rich friends, his employees, or the superfans who instantly drop to one knee when they meet him. Regardless, he seems quite confident that he has a finger on the pulse of the starving masses, gesturing to the plebes from his digital balcony like a 21st-century Marie Antoinette, blithely telling them to eat virtual cake.

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When Wade’s girlfriend Samantha shares her grave concerns about releasing the brain-computer interface to the public, Wade shouts her down, so convinced of his rightness that he even pauses to document their fight as a replayable memory: “I want to record how ridiculous you’re being right now, so you can play it back later and see for yourself.” After she very reasonably dumps him, Wade begins to abuse his powers in tyrannical ways large and small: tracking down his online critics and using his godlike admin power to kill their avatars; filing lawsuits against a band that made fun of him and suing its members into bankruptcy; digging into the personal documents of a female player who tries to help him, hacking her camera, and spying on her chats; and casually offering a $1 billion reward to anyone who helps him solve an ’80s trivia riddle while most of the world lives in crushing poverty.

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“I was both omnipotent and invulnerable, so there was literally nothing anyone could do to stop me,” he says, every bit the little boy in that Twilight Zone episode who wishes anyone who upsets him away to the cornfield. Sometimes he confesses his misdeeds with chagrin, assuring us that he is a good guy who has since gone to therapy (with a virtual version of Robin Williams from Good Will Hunting), and now gets it. Then he continues to be just as awful, mistaking self-awareness for atonement and real change.

Wade announces that he has single-handedly solved police brutality and systematic bias by replacing human officers with security drones and remote-controlled “telebots” (because nothing would solve the problems of the police like transforming them into a force of private-funded robocops administered by a tech megacorporation). Other problems he supposedly solves with a wave of his techno-magic wand: crime, disease, addiction, and of course all forms of prejudice. When his ex-girlfriend continues to questions the wisdom of jacking the brains of humanity into the Matrix, Aech, the book’s sole queer, Black character, jumps in to insist that it’s actually great because ONI has caused a plummet in hate crimes, “along with an overwhelming drop in racist, sexist and homophobic ideologies” across the globe because “for the first time in human history, we have technology that gives us the ability to live in someone else’s skin for a little while.”

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The idea of VR as a revolutionary tool for changing hearts and minds that Cline portrays really is popular in some corners of the real-life tech and gaming industries. After all, what could be more attractive to Silicon Valley than believing human bias can be solved with an engineering fix, or that being an ally is as easy as downloading the DLC? But there’s a rich body of criticism around the limits of games and virtual reality as “empathy machines,” and why despite their potential to create powerful experiences, there is no shortcut to truly understanding what it’s like to be someone else. (When Mark Zuckerberg projected a VR avatar of himself in front of flooded houses in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico via an Oculus Rift headset, he virtually high-fived a colleague and mused about how “magical” it felt.)

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Author and game designer Anna Anthropy skewered the idea with an installation that gave players a pedometer and asked them to literally walk a mile in her shoes. “You could spend hours pacing in a pair of beaten-up size thirteen heels to gain a point or two […] and still know nothing about the experience of being a trans woman, about how to be an ally to them,” she wrote. Rather than wanting to educate themselves or do the work, “it seems like the people with the greatest investment in the ‘empathy game’ label are the ones with the most privilege and the least amount of willingness to improve themselves.” Wade is precisely that kind of guy, someone who thinks that empathy itself is the endpoint rather than the beginning of a journey, a way to feel good about himself by feeling bad for a few minutes, then calling it a day.

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Two major redemptive moments in Ready Player Two revolve around the idea that after reliving the recorded memories of women, supposedly clueless men experience a moment of enlightenment and now realize that women are people. After simulating a few super-VR cutscenes from one woman’s life, Wade says he “felt closer to [her] now, more aware of her as a human being.” He also suddenly understands that his former tech hero Halliday—an abusive boss who stole her work, sexually harassed her, and violated her privacy and consent in existentially gruesome ways—was a bad guy after all. It never occurs to him that he also could have come to the same conclusion by using the greatest empathy machine of all, his brain, and running the revolutionary program that is listening to other people and believing them about their experiences.

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Despite the novel’s patina of self-awareness, Wade will never be aware of how terrible he is or change in any way that matters. Instead, like a true modern villain, he will simply gaslight you with performative feints at regret and solidarity that ultimately trail off into nothing as he doubles down. You may then be tempted to think that this is intentional, some sort of knowing, ironic commentary on the failures of the previous book or the very concept of “wokeness.” It is not. If Cline had any meaningful awareness of his protagonist’s dramatic heel turn, it might have made for a far more interesting read. He does not.

If there is anything relevant to praise about Ready Player Two, it is how Cline inadvertently nails the inner monologue of entitled, out-of-touch tech moguls, particularly their limited understanding of how human beings actually work, their belief that deep, systematic problems have simple technological solutions, and their conviction that despite all evidence to the contrary, they are a still a hero whose haters would stop them from changing the world for the better. The book’s ostensibly happy ending feels more like a grim twist in a rejected Black Mirror episode where the characters force their faces into strained, rictus grins while eerie strings play over the credits. In Ready Player Two, the villain wins, and he is so caught up in indulging his own fantasies that he never realizes he’s the scariest person in the narrative.

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It feels almost redundant to say that the rest of the plot feels like a Wikipedia list of ’80s media loosely assembled into a story; that is the point of Ernest Cline’s books. A cackling villain appears to menace our heroes and shout mean things that sound remarkably similar to negative reviews of Cline’s previous work: “Don’t you kids ever get tired of picking through the wreckage of a past generation’s nostalgia?” Wade responds by telling the bad man to go away and leave them alone, and subsequently drives off to fight Prince in a little red Corvette while wearing a raspberry beret. (This is not a joke.)

The obvious swing at critics might make me feel like a bit of a killjoy, if there were any joy to be had between the front cover and the back. The book doesn’t even understand the criticism: Like Ready Player One, the problem with Ready Player Two isn’t its desire to play in a nostalgic toy box of ’80s movies and books and games, but its total failure to evoke what made them fun. There are no pleasures to be had here, only a reminder of things that once produced pleasure. A random page of dialogue from The Princess Bride does not inspire a sense of romantic, swashbuckling adventure. Reciting the names of stars in every John Hughes movie does not convey their adolescent joy and heartbreak. And telling us that a climactic battle “was like Yoda versus Palpatine, Gandalf versus Saruman, and Neo versus Agent Smith” does not make it feel like any of those far more interesting things.

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Nothing about what Ready Player Two serves up is satisfying, in the same way that reading a shopping list isn’t as satisfying as eating a meal. You will never eat the meal. There is no meal. As with its predecessor, Ready Player Two will simply come to your table, tell you the names of delicious dishes cooked by other chefs, recite the ingredients they used, and then shake your hand and thank you for coming. This time, you will leave even hungrier, emptier, and poorer for the experience.

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