“Ready Player One” and Popular Culture in Storytelling

Look, I’ve been around. I know how online anger in general, and pop culture snobbery in specific, work. I’ve read about three billion hot takes on Ready Player One already. As such, I promise I’ll keep this short and not assume I’m being too clever or revolutionary in my thinking.

I read the book at the suggestion of some wonderful people whose opinions I trust implicitly. Still, it didn’t strike my fancy. Not everything does, everyone likes different things, et cetera. But only as of this week am I starting to figure out what kept me from enjoying it.

For a story all about pop culture, Ready Player One doesn’t work because the pop culture isn’t important. There are thousands of nods and references thrown at you, but all those movies and songs have almost no bearing on the story. They’re never substantive. Everything mentioned in the text is essentially interchangeable.

(Which explains why the book’s ‘80s-centric properties, like Joust and Blade Runner, are replaced with ‘90s-centric stuff in the movie’s trailers, like Battletoads and The Iron Giant, and why nobody seems to notice or care.)

Worse than that, all these pieces of entertainment the characters obsess over has no bearing on them. There are pages-long arguments about the minutiae of an old film, but we never really get the sense the characters actually like it. They simply have to watch it for their quest.

(The quest is essentially to memorize every detail of some piece of media that was arbitrarily given value, not that they have any personal connection with. But how this story celebrates the worst elements of fandom is a completely different essay.)

The protagonist, Wade, says he enjoys Ladyhawke, but not why, and we don’t see how this makes him any different from the characters who don’t. Of course, every character in the book has seen Ladyhawke. They all watch and read and listen to the same things, which makes it even harder to get any sense of what they like or dislike. Which means it’s even harder to get any sense of *them*.

This frustrates me because pop culture is the best way to have a reader or viewer connect with a character. Who would’ve associated with Peter “Starlord” Quill, the impossibly cool guy on an alien planet, if he didn’t rock out to “Come and Get Your Love”? Wouldn’t we have been kept at a distance from Peter Parker, super-smart teenage superhero, if we didn’t see how excited he was to build a Lego Death Star with his friend Ned?

I think the reason this came to mind is because I recently finished reading My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix, a book that was possibly even more drenched in ‘80s pop culture. Still, this one pulled it off beautifully.

The ‘80s stuff in Exorcism is largely there to ground the story in that decade. That setting isn’t arbitrary, since the Satanic Panic informs much of the events, and horror stories are always better when you don’t have to explain why the characters don’t just use the internet.

But pop culture also reveals things about the characters. ET: The Extraterrestrial is how Abby and Gretchen first bond as kids, but it becomes a symbol of Abby’s childhood that she’s afraid to outgrow. The two friends love The Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat”, but mostly because they sing along and substitute their own gibberish lyrics. While there are laundry lists of ‘80s songs and movies and celebrities in those pages, each one means something special to the characters.

In the end of My Best Friend’s Exorcism, Abby has to remind Gretchen of all the important things they’ve shared over the course of their friendship, and this involves plenty of references. Pop culture is what literally saves the day. Still, it works. And it works in the way Ready Player One doesn’t, because like any good plot element, the constant pop culture nods serve to strengthen the characters.

It’s fashionable, and frankly easy, to hate Ready Player One. I don’t want to go that far with any criticisms. There was a lot that didn’t work for me, personally, but I am happy to see it being adapted for a movie. It will give them a chance to fix some of those issues, plus the story really lends itself to cinema. I’m not positive I’ll like it or anything, but I do have some hopes for it.


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