Ready Player One, Ernest Cline’s tepid love letter to the toys of yesteryear masquerading as a novel, is, like many of the archaic video games it canonizes, a book full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Its characters are vapor, its plot transparent, its relentless mining of pop-culture pandering to the point of nausea, its invention derivative, its writing soporific, its ending a merciful relief.
Apologists (and there must be many, judging by the book’s almost universal acclaim upon release) might argue that Ready Player One, in spite of its weaknesses, is still a lot of fun, and even prescient, in its modest way. On initial reflection, I’d probably have made the same argument myself. It’s hard to be too critical of a work whose dénouement prominently features both MechaGodzilla and Voltron, and whose major plot points involve besting virtual reality wraiths at games of Joust and kill-screening Pac-Man, after all.
But therein lies the trouble. A book with such a deliberately light touch will inevitably be defended as “critic-proof” — an expression that, when not simply being employed as a thought-terminator, might best be defined as the notion that you can’t take too seriously that art which doesn’t take itself too seriously. Turn off your brain and have fun, fans will say — it’s not supposed to be Nabokov.
But the problem with Ready Player One isn’t that it’s a sugar pill — it’s that it isn’t a particularly tasty one. That the book aims low is forgivable, that it still somehow manages to miss its target is not.
This misfire is even more puzzling when you consider how laser-specific that target is — namely anyone with a memory of, or an affinity for, any work of (mostly) American popular media from roughly 1977 through 1990. Cline desperately wants to craft a loving ode to this supposedly halcyon period of human history, when arcades were full of skinny adolescents sporting mullets and bad mustaches, Reaganomics was a policy instead of a punchline, and Oingo Boingo was a going concern.
All well and good, but Cline, overeager to impress the reader with deep cuts from the 1980’s, is too busy genuflecting to wistful suburban dads to find the heart of his book. Lost in affectation, he forgets that nostalgia’s hold doesn’t stem from the object, but from the association. And Ready Player One is too in love with objects, and too indifferent to human connection. The end result is less a novel and more a studious collection of pop-culture references, expertly deployed to fool the casual reader into believing that she is experiencing an emotional connection to the work, instead of her own past.
This give-and-take is a part of every work of art, no doubt, but the difference here is that Ready Player One asks its readers to do all of the heavy lifting, and gives nothing back in return. It’s a breakneck whirlwind of name-dropping that ends up feeling more like a hyperactive trip through a museum than an evocation of a lost world; a madeleine without a memory.
Though Ready Player One never succeeds in becoming the pop-culture Yggdrasil it so transparently wants to be, it does succeed in tapping into a pervasive (and lucrative) cultural moment: the commodification of the past. And therein lies the only truly interesting question that Ready Player One raises: Why it exists at all.
The term “Nostalgia” dates to 1688, when a Swiss medical student named Johannes Hofer observed troubling physical symptoms in patients who had been separated from home, friends, and family — symptoms that curiously vanished when the patients were returned to familiar surroundings. Hofer, at a loss to explain these disorders, coined a new term to describe them, combining the Greek words nostos — an ancient Greek literary form recounting a sailor’s perilous return home from a sea voyage — and algos, meaning pain. True to its namesake, nostalgia was for a long time considered a psychiatric disorder requiring medical treatment, though with time it came to be considered less an affliction of the mind and more a natural, even beneficial, aspect of the human condition.
And there it sat until Social Media ushered in a new age of hyper-capitalism, a ruinous culmination in which not products, but the most intimate recesses of our selves, were brought to the marketplace, and suddenly found themselves subject to market forces. Nostalgia now became not only a private, ineffable longing, but a cottage industry — a psychological niche ripe for exploitation. This is the niche that works like Ready Player One mine so crudely, yet so effectively, and it offers at least one — perhaps the only — reason for the book’s baffling popularity. Without the force of the Nostalgia Industry blowing the wind in its sails, it would never have made it out of the dock.
Corporate nostalgia hijacks the institution of memory, re-imagining the past not as a series of connections amongst people, but amongst things. The commercial flotsam of bygone days now becomes imbued with a meaning blown out of all proportion by the demands of the market, helped along by the passage of time and the intimacy of association (another way in which capitalism piggybacks off genuine emotion). Thus mass-produced junk attains the level of cherished lares and penates in the Capitalist idiom, a deliberate confusion perpetrated for the sole purpose of easy profit, endlessly regurgitated, repackaged, and resold to a bewildered audience. Video games and toy lines thus become the mileposts of one’s history, popular TV and movies the shared lexicon through which all thought is filtered. While the links of these products to real emotion are tenuous, their omnipresence is undeniable, and this conflation is enough to bludgeon overwhelmed consumers into a kind of false consensus, their mental worlds remade according to the dictates of Capitalist excess.
Genuine art — or at least that art made without the sole intent of profit — can also be exploited, remolded, and resold by the Nostalgia industry, though this often proves more problematic for Capitalists, who run the risk of alienating the very audience they intend to reach. The most obvious example of this is the trend of “rebooting” popular films — not really a trend, so much as a concerted effort to squeeze the most profit out of the least art in the least time. Hollywood, always risk-averse, has historically been more than happy to dig through its back catalogs in search of properties to repackage, but the recent movement is — in true late-Capitalist style — desperate and overreaching. Films that are critically acclaimed or particularly beloved (and, tellingly, are almost always situated within living memory) are no longer allowed to rest on their unprofitable laurels, but instead are resurrected in a kind of sad pantomime. Such attempts are indeed pathetic — in the sense of evoking pity — for in seeking to immortalize art, they instead underline its essential impermanence, and in the process increase both our affection for the source material, and our contempt for the re-make.
This is not a philosophy shared by the big studios, of course. For them — and for the uncritical viewer — here is not just the past for sale but the promise of the past renewed — a return to the happy highways where one went, and can come again. True, you may not be able to experience the feeling of your first kiss a second time. But, Hollywood promises us, you can experience the sensation of a return to the mental spaces in which such events originally occurred, and through the emotional weight of this association have your memories rekindled. This is essentially the definition of a memorial — a sacred space in which to remember — turned on its head. But the virtual Hollywood version is not a place to find closure with the past, but a place in which to relive it, a place where the passage of time is not affirmed but denied, where the visitor pays homage not to others but to herself. Once again, capitalism grows by destroying the authentic, appropriating it’s remains, and selling an ersatz form of it back to us at twice the price. Corporate Nostalgia promises us nothing less than a return to the past we’ve lost, a past which, as the creator of that past, only it can deliver. It is a form of flattery so obsequious that it borders on contempt. But for many viewers, the pull of this promise — even in this debased guise — is simply too strong to resist.
Corporate nostalgia is bolstered still further by what might be called the tangibility of the past. Toys, for instance, have been mass-produced for over seventy years, but the pace of production ramped up significantly in the final decades of the twentieth century, creating a glut of cheap products that flooded the market, many of which still survive. It is no coincidence that the timing of this increased production (and commensurately, increased consumption) coincides with the childhoods of those who are today either in, or approaching, middle age, a period when studies have shown nostalgic feelings are at their peak. The objects of the past now persist into the present as never before, blurring the line between then and now. For the Capitalist, this fact creates an agreeable state of perpetual vendition, an endless now in which nothing is forgotten. The emotional import which consumers attach to these objects has the added benefit of increasing their value in the marketplace, allowing them to be exploited again and again. Once more, human connection and historical interest are — like everything else — useful only in the service of profit.
Tangibility need not exist only in the physical sense, of course. The Internet has become the dominant player in the Nostalgia Industry, with sites like YouTube instantly serving up even the most arcane moments from our shared history. This remarkable development comes with a cost, however: the “past” on YouTube is seldom the impersonal past of historical texts and documentaries, but is the past of capitalism itself, masquerading as our own. Here old commercials, television clips, and endless discussions of “retro” media are available at the click of a mouse, fostering warm feelings of nostalgia for a bygone era who’s most tangible remnants are — paradoxically — largely disposable products. Such histories have proven difficult for modern Capitalists to directly exploit, but no matter — they serve the wider purpose of keeping the Corporate past always in focus, of reducing the fullness of memory to a ledger of things bought and sold.
Capitalism, we are told, always proceeds from “good intentions.” It purports to sell us what we want — or at least what it thinks we’ll pay for — and nothing more. In such a depiction it is not poor multinational corporations or influential social media companies who are to blame for our guttling appetite for their wares, but us. They are merely “giving the public what it wants.” But the rules of the marketplace are fierce, and companies must grow or die. After giving us what we want — or rather what they want us to have — they must continue to give us more and more of it, and to find new and deceptive ways to sell us the same things, over and over in countless variations. As such they beguile, prod, and batter us to open our wallets through clever psychological tricks, appropriating the best — and exploiting the worst — of our nature. In a realm where morality is useful only to the extent that it can be utilized to increase profits, this is a dangerous thing indeed.
The Corporate Nostalgia of the sort displayed in Ready Player One may not be the worst exemplar of this, but it is one of the most obvious, and therefore is an object lesson in such Capitalist myth-making. It comes to us robed in the past, arms outstretched, and with glistening eyes offers us a way back to the places and the people we’ve lost, a way to rediscover the joys and sorrows that have been dulled by the weight of time, all for a small price. It is a seductive deception to be sure, but it is a deception nonetheless.