io9 Roundtable: We Need to Talk About Ready Player Two, Especially That Ending

“OASIS schmoasis.”
“OASIS schmoasis.”
Image: Warner Bros.

Author Ernest Cline has returned to the OASIS with Ready Player Two, the long-awaited sequel to his science fiction ode to pop culture references. Time hasn’t been kind to Ready Player One, but has Cline learned the error of his ways? Not really. Jack into the Matrix as we engage in a spoiler chat about the highs and lows of this latest nerdgasm.


Beth Elderkin: All right, time to plug into the OASIS—I mean ONI—or The Singularity. Oh, the places you’ll go in Ready Player Two.

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Germain Lussier: My brain synapses are ready.

Beth: Germain, what were your thoughts going into the sequel? Did you have any expectations, or things you were hoping to see?

Germain: Well, as I stated in my review, I’m a big fan of the first book. I KNOW. Blasphemy. Having not cared for Armada (Cline’s second book) though I went into this pretty pessimistic he could meet expectations. I think he tried really hard and ultimately misses but, yeah, going into it I was cautiously excited. How about you?

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Beth: I had similar expectations. I really enjoyed Ready Player One when it first came out, as a lot of people did...and I think that’s okay. However, evolving cultural criticism has soured things—and the fact remains that RP1 doesn’t hold up over time. Armada was a disaster, general consensus. I went into this one assuming little but hoping to be pleasantly surprised (I even muted the Twitter discourse to keep an open mind). At first, I actually was feeling okay about it. Then it went off the rails.

Illustration for article titled io9 Roundtable: We Need to Talk About iReady Player Two/i, Especially That Ending
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Okay, basis synopsis. Wade and his friends are multi-billionaires after winning the contest and taking over Halliday’s VR empire. Wade discovers Halliday had invented a new hyper-real technology called the ONI and left him with the task of whether to release it to the world. He did—leading to bad things, more bad things, an evil AI, and finally...the next phase of human evolution?

There seem to be two phases of the book: I’ll call them Before Anorak and Post-Anorak because why not. Let’s start with Before Anorak, which I thought was the far superior part. It’s really the story of decline and failure—in a way that surprised, maybe even impressed me. Wade was making the world worse...and he knew it.

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Germain: And he was paying a price for his success. In the first book he just kind of wins and is celebrated for it. Here’s he’s got everything he’s ever wanted and he’s miserable. That was a great start.

Beth: Totally, like at one point Wade basically says, “Here’s what I did so history can judge me for my actions.” That’s hardcore. Of course, when you take it in context with who is actually telling the story and why, it stops making sense [Note: it turns out the story was being told by a virtual, ageless Wade who lives in the OASIS permanently]. But at the time, it was evocative! You mentioned in your review that this was the section that excited you the most. Why is that?

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Germain: Well, for the reasons you and I just said, mostly. Cline introduces the Seven Shards quest pretty early on, but it’s an afterthought. The story is about Wade’s personal failures and disappointments. I just really got interested in the book telling a new story. Something more introspective. Plus, the whole ONI thing opens up such a fascinating discourse. The ability to live inside anyone else’s body? That’s both a super cool sci-fi idea and absolutely terrifying. I was all in on that stuff.

Beth: I was kinda with you on that until Wade said people were ONI-ing their own labor and birth. No one would do that…unless they had some major kink.

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Germain: But that’s what I mean. It was so absolutely weird I kinda wanted to explore that in greater detail. By the time we get to Post-Anorak, the fact they are in ONI rigs only figures into the plot, not the subtext.

Beth: As cool as the concept of the ONI was, I have to say the technology was poorly designed and I couldn’t embrace it. The first book tried really hard to explain its VR tech and connect it to our own, but the ONI made so little sense. It triggered the brain without touching it? The more we learned about it and what it could really do, the more implausible it seemed. What did you think of the ONI?

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Germain: I loved the idea of it. The fact it was evolving the story. But I do agree it’s preposterous and the rules with it seemed rather arbitrary. But again, the way it opened up all these ethical wormholes made me kind of forget about all of that.

Beth: It worked as a plot device, just not as an actual device.

Germain: I find it hard to fault a sci-fi book for not presenting believable tech but yeah. Something like that.

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Beth: Going into characters. I liked the way Wade was represented in this portion of the story, but what did you think of Samantha? Did you see any improvements with her character over the first book?

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Germain: Yes and no. It was good that she was the one discerning voice in the argument on ONI. But that also kind of isolated her from the main drive? Cline tells us about all these amazing things she’s been up to but we don’t really explore it. The most we get is her awesome plane escape. I think it goes almost with the entire theme of the book that he knew he had to bulk up that character but didn’t follow through. How about yourself?

Beth: Yeah, so I was not a fan. This is gonna get into some Post-Anorak stuff, but it’s best to chat about here. Cline dropped the ball on giving Samantha an actual character arc. She was there to be the naysayer until Cline needed her to be complacent again. In other words: She hated him…until she loved him again. That’s it. There was no middle ground. I mean, Wade apologized for some of his asshattery but that’s only the first step of many, many steps. These two have problems. Their reconciliation wasn’t earned and the two of them never talked about their deep-seated relationship issues. Instead, he did the bare minimum and it felt like he got off easy. Also, I also find it hilarious that they were only together for a week IRL before breaking up. Wade says they’re, like, the love to end all loves. It was one week, kid.

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Germain: But they knew each other IN THE OASIS BETH!!!!

I completely agree though. A) The one week is hilarious. B) Just because he starts to become himself again doesn’t quite justify her coming back around. I guess the one thing I would say about that though is the whole book Post-Anorak has this ticking clock. So the stress of the day and the need for them to all band together could have maybe helped mend some stuff. But beyond that, yeah I agree with you. It’s not a very well balanced, believable relationship. I did like that Aech and Shoto kind of got a lot more to do. That the whole book wasn’t just Wade running around.

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Beth: That’s true, but their actions were still full of stereotypes. This is where I’m having trouble with Cline as a writer. He’s fucking up in the same ways as before. You can tell he was trying to be more thoughtful with the sequel—but the key word here is trying. He doesn’t succeed. Not with L0hegrin, not with Aech and Senegal, not with Shoto, and not with Kira. How much weight should we give that effort if it ultimately fails?

Like, this might sound harsh, but at some point, I think we need to call a spade a spade. “At least he tried” is a luxury. One that, for the record, is less likely to be awarded to my work as a woman–and much less so for a person of color.

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Germain: I think that’s probably the biggest reason RP2 fails. Because in RP1 we can almost miss some of that because the plot and world are so strong and unique. But by RP2 it’s the same thing, so he needed to go deep by actually going deeper, and not just pretended like he was. L0 is a great example. That whole section feels forced in there and sticks out like a sore thumb. It would have almost been forgivable had the character played any significant role, but she doesn’t. The whole L0-Five feels like a step up for a spin-off or sequel in a very lazy way.

Beth: It did seem like he was writing for the eventual movie adaptation at times. Like he was saying to himself: “What would Spielberg do with this?”

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Germain: I think at certain points. Other points I don’t agree with that. If they ever make a movie of this, which I doubt, there’s no way they’d clear all the Prince stuff. Or John Hughes stuff. Two sections of the book that I loved in theory but went on soooooo looooong.

Beth: Oh yes, the quests! In the Post-Anorak part of the story, the AI shell of James Halliday goes rogue and threatens to kill billions in 12 hours (though not really) if Wade doesn’t find and assemble the “Seven Shards of the Siren’s Soul.” I enjoyed the Educational Planet quest, namely because 1) it was short, and 2) it focused on Wade as a person. But the Prince and John Hughes ones were painful. I eventually started skimming them, and feel I lost nothing. What did you think?

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Germain: Agree with all of that. As a bigger John Hughes fan than Prince fan, I enjoyed that section more, especially because the references felt a little more obscure than “Get the Raspberry Beret to drive the Little Red Corvette.” If I get Prince references, they aren’t good Prince references. But the whole Robert Downey Jr. was almost Ducky so you need to find him in Weird Science and give him the old script thing? Way too long and elaborate, but my kind of nerdy. I even may have gotten a tad emotional when they go to Hughes’ house. But that’s the sap in me.

Beth: That’s sweet! And it was a nice moment of “meeting your hero” that contrasted with the Halliday stuff.

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There is one thing from your review I wanted to discuss a bit more, and that’s Kira. AKA the “Seven Shards of the Siren’s Soul” quest goal. You mentioned that focusing on her arc, lost to gunter history, shows that Cline is recognizing his weakness with female characters. Do you think it worked?

Germain: Oh, absolutely not. I think it’s like we mentioned above. “In theory” it would have worked. But the execution and way that Halliday treats her really dials that back. Plus, though we see everything through Kira’s eyes, it still feels more like Og’s story in a way? Yeah, the whole emotional connection to Kira and boosting her up as one of the true architects of the OASIS didn’t land for me. I’m very curious to hear your thoughts.

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Beth Elderkin: My thoughts exactly. Like, in my previous essay about Cline’s problems with female characters in RP1, I mentioned how the biggest problem is that the book’s world is filtered through the interests and lens of one male character: James Halliday (and, by extension, Cline himself). That means everyone else shares that same filter. This is exactly what happens with Kira in RP2, and it’s probably the thing that infuriated me most about this book. He didn’t fix the one thing he needed to really badly.

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We’re not seeing Kira’s memories—we’re seeing what Halliday wants us to see from them. Halliday mapped her digital consciousness (without her consent) and hand-picked the memories that Wade experiences on his quest. Therefore, every scene we experience with Kira is through Halliday’s gaze. In all of the memories, she’s with Ogden, Halliday, or both. We never see her by herself or doing something Wade doesn’t already know about from Ogden’s memoirs. After seven quests about this woman, we don’t learn anything about who she is as a person because Halliday doesn’t care about who she is apart from them. It’s still his story, not hers.

I get the purpose: Wade and the audience are supposed to be learning the lesson Halliday did. But women don’t exist to teach men a lesson. It turns us into props, not people. A literal trophy to make a guy feel bad about his sexism. This was a problem Cline had in Ready Player One, and one we see echoed in Ready Player Two. Cline may have “seen” the error of his ways, but he sure as hell didn’t change them. And it’s so frustrating! Especially since the ending message is: “It’s fine that he did this because I’m immortal now.”

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Germain: Right. I think I was giving Cline the benefit of the doubt throughout, hoping he’d stick the landing, but when it’s revealed that Halliday basically stole her consciousness, trapped it to talk to behind his friend’s back, then broke it into seven pieces so that she couldn’t be together again, I was like “Holy shit this is rough.” I think by the end of the book you’re supposed to forgive Halliday a little bit but I did not. I think Halliday is a fucking dick.

Beth: Apparently, all it takes is a 30-minute ONI scan to upload your whole consciousness into the digital world. Who’da thunk?

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I still can’t get over the ending of this thing. Out of nowhere, it becomes about The Singularity and digital immortality, and the story ends with Wade and his friends giving themselves virtual afterlives and jettisoning off into space—promising to one day share the ONI’s capabilities with the world. Do you think this was Cline’s original planned ending? To be honest, I kinda don’t.

Germain: I honestly have no idea what to think about the ending. The idea that Halliday created this method of resurrection was “okay” at the start. There was some meat to explore there. But once he chooses people to go aboard his spaceship with embryos and they HAVE FRIENDSHIPS WITH THEMSELVES I was more creeped out than curious.

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Beth: I HAVE SO MANY QUESTIONS ABOUT THIS TECHNOLOGY AND ALL OF THEM ARE BAD. I’m just gonna list them here because I’m dying, Germain.

Germain: Haha. Please do.

Beth:

  • How are people going to react when they learn that the OASIS has mapped their consciousnesses without telling them (outside of Terms and Conditions)?
  • What if someone pulled a Black Mirror and trapped a bunch of digitally eternal avatars in their own hellscape?
  • What’s to stop people from dying by suicide so they can be resurrected in the digital afterlife?
  • What would an eternity of ageless existence in a digital space that, even though it feels real isn’t actually real, do to a person? Wouldn’t people just atrophy like in The Good Place?
  • CAN YOU EVER LEAVE?

Germain: FIND OUT...IN READY PLAYER THREE.

Obviously, the ending is supposed to keep things open-ended but it’s such a radical departure from the rest of it…yeah. I didn’t like it. Give me more John Hughes riddles and Indiana Jones workouts.

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Beth: I think the two things that I will never, ever understand are:

1) Why was Samantha instantly okay with this? The reason she hated the ONI was because it encouraged people to be even more disconnected from the real world. This twist ending removes the real world entirely. But the moment a digital Kira shows up and says it’s fine, Samantha revives her dead grandma?

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2) Is there any other way to revive the dead than that stupid Rod of Regeneration (or whatever it was called)? If not, why would you give the only way to achieve digital immortality to Wade Watts, a 20-something gamer who, time and time again, has shown he’ll abuse the technology he was given for his own ends?

Germain: I can take a crack here.

Beth: Yes, please!

Germain: The first question, I think Samantha maybe for the first time is being a bit more Wade. She’s being selfish for herself. And that’s okay. If it means being with her grandmother forever, she’ll do one since mind scan. I get that.

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As for question two, it speaks to what I wanted from RP2 and what I got. I thought it was going to be a book to explain maybe the fate of humanity shouldn’t be in the hands of Wade Watts. But in the end, it’s literally there. So whether there’s another way, I don’t know, but I don’t like that it’s Wade’s decision. Then again...who else’s could it be? We don’t know about any kind of government or anything in this world.

Beth: Yeah, like at one point they mention that Gregarious Simulation Systems had paid off America’s national debt in a throwaway line?

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Germain: Right, in the section of the book where everything is possible.

Beth: I’m just livid that Ernest Cline spent hundreds of pages telling us why the ONI was bad. It could fry your brain. It damaged the planet. It turned friends against each other. Then, in the final few chapters, he makes the ONI so much worse but says it’s instantly great and everybody loves it and it doesn’t have problems. This, to me, is one of the most morally clumsy things I’ve ever seen a writer do. I don’t think Ernest Cline can ever come back from that. What was your ultimate takeaway after finishing Ready Player Two?

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Germain: Ultimately my takeaway is: I’m glad I read it. I enjoyed reading it. The good moments made me really happy. The bad moments were things I expected to be bad. I’m a super fan of pop culture adventure and Cline delivers that once again. I just think he wanted to do more with this book and even tried but, in the end, while the first book was something I thought about constantly afterward, this is one I’ve already begun to forget about. What about you?

Beth: I wish I’d waited until the book was on sale.

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Entertainment Reporter for io9/Gizmodo

Video Editor and Staff Writer at io9. My doppelganger is that rebelling greeting card from Futurama.

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DISCUSSION

bethelderkin
Beth Elderkin

A few random things Germain and I didn’t touch on during our chat but continue to bother me:

1. There was no need to bring Sorrento back—it wasn’t even good fan service, because I don’t know anyone who cares about that guy enough to justify it. That said, the moment he dropped by to talk shit about nostalgia before peacing out was probably my favorite passage in the book.

2. These two clumsy plot devices Ernest Cline employed during the book: a) Wade had secretly gotten his engineers to create fake Siren’s Soul shards that inexplicably combined to form a singular form in the exact way the real one did, b) Anorak saved all the people trapped in the ONI right before their brains were about to fry. Both of these moments removed dramatic tension and lowered the stakes for the sake of convenience.

3. This book would’ve benefited from a sensitivity reader. If it already had one, then Ernest Cline and/or the editor should’ve taken their notes to heart.