Ready Player One has had a strange life in the world of pop-culture. The book came out to high acclaim, and developed a devoted following. However, since the release of the trailer for the film adaptation there has been a huge backlash on the title. In fact, there’s been suspiciously little word on the movie since the SDCC trailer dropped.
Which brings me to my alternative recommendation for pop-culture lovers who are burnt out on context-free references, and that is John Scalzi’s Redshirts. The story of Redshirts follows some entry-level crew members on a starship, as they slowly realize that things are off. Statistically, the number of deaths among non-bridge crew is high, and for a peaceful space-faring ship things just aren’t adding up. And then things get weird. If this sounds a bit meta, that’s because it is. I’ll try to proceed without huge spoilers, but fair warning that I might give something away. Really, you should just go read it right now.
There’s a lot of humor mixed into the mystery of what’s going on aboard the Intrepid. What’s brilliant is that the pop culture hook is all founded on the connection to a Star Trek-like setup. While the references are packed in, they’re all there for a reason. Things aren’t thrown at the reader just to be recognized; they’re layered on top of an initial premise. Ready Player One, while a fun read, isn’t necessarily humorous. The competition for OASIS1 is seen as a deadly serious endeavor and most of the fun comes from somewhat mindless action rather than humor.
The other thing that makes Redshirts a fantastic novel is that it’s not just commentary on Star Trek and science fiction tropes. The main story is, but the characters are all fully realized, not just references to existing archetypes in science fiction. The fact that these people are all background to the Intrepid’s story means that they’re not Kirk, Spock, Picard, Data, etc. stand-ins. They are the people who live mostly in the blind spot of what would be a Star Trek episode. The fact that some of the plot may be happening invisibly in the Trek source material, and you’d never know, means that not only will this make you think about the science fiction you’ve seen, but watching more science fiction will make you wonder about what’s around the corner, hidden from the camera and main narrative.
Ready Player One, on the other hand, seems to be chock full of pop culture references for their own sake. There’s no actual reason to have them in. The main character, Wade Watts, doesn’t even particularly like the 80s, from whence the majority of the references come. He is deeply familiar with them, steeped in them, obsessed with them, but only because the creator of the VR environment he spends his life in (OASIS) was obsessed and has hidden his fortune behind a series of 80s pop culture reference riddles. But Wade’s is a clinical expertise, one of function rather than love.
RPO ends simply enough, with the guy getting everything he ever wanted because he knew a lot of pop culture minutia that makes him valuable and desirable. He even lands a trophy of an underdeveloped girlfriend as part of his prize. Redshirts, while likely not a response to that directly, takes a nearly opposite approach. Structurally it becomes more complicated at the end; after the main novel ends there are three codas. Do not skip these. They are not afterwords or even afterthoughts. If anything, these codas are even more conceptually dense and important. If this novel has a core theme, it’s identity, and each coda takes an aspect of said theme and spins it out in the world of the novel. And each one will pluck at your heartstrings a bit more than the last.
So this is your current installment of Read This, Not That. Or, Read This, Then That. It’s not that Ready Player One is a waste of a read, but it is a tried and now familiar premise. The book itself never really rises above a Willy Wonka retread, with acerbic criticism of rotten children and bad parents switched out for arbitrary 80s references. It has the structure and depth, of a blockbuster movie, and I have a hard time seeing how a blockbuster budget is going to add any sort of depth to the premise. But Redshirts takes something that has already been filmed with care, and then adds a layer of depth beyond even that. In a way, it’s almost like the opposite of a film adaptation of a book, and weirder than any book adaptation of a movie you’ll ever find. Maybe it’s the ultimate fanfic.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↵||Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation OASIS is a massively multiplayer online environment. It was meant to democratize society to an extent. It is incredibly cheap to access, and the hardware can be scaled. For example, someone can put on cheap VR goggles and log in for 25 cents and attend exclusive schools anywhere in the world. On the other hand, there are immersion rigs that include walking hamster-ball type equipment, touch gloves, and smell towers. The addition of in-game currency and economy also temper it as a utopia.|