DeFlip Side #186: Decrypting Ready Player One

DeFlip Side #186: Decrypting Ready Player One.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis, and this is DeFlip Side.

Fandom, we have a problem.

A common expression I’ve been hearing over the last year or so is that “fandom is broken” – uttered mainly in reaction to the irrational hatred spewed by GamerGate types who bewail more inclusive visions of Science Fiction that have the audacity to include women and people of color. But while such biases certainly exist, I thought it absurd to let such a small-minded minority define the state of fandom for the rest of us.

But lately…

As a Star Trek fan, I got chills when the U.S.S. Enterprise warped onto screen during the season finale of Discovery. It was thrilling to see the iconic starship on TV again, awesomely tweaked and updated to fit the Discovery aesthetic. But a hugely vocal contingent of Trek fans took to the web to bitch about the changes, complete with hashtags like #NotMyStarTrek.

I can’t say I was surprised. But it’s causing me to ask: when did so many fans of a genre defined by bold visions of the future stop wanting to see new things? And more importantly, why? Why are so many in our community clinging to nostalgia, holding it sacrosanct above all else?

This week’s big screen debut of Ready Player One is a bombastic affirmation of this trend.

For those who don’t know, the novel the film is based on takes place in a dystopian near future where people escape reality by logging onto a VR network called the OASIS. Upon his death, OASIS creator James Halliday announces that he has left a series of clues that lead to a hidden Easter egg somewhere in the network. And whoever finds it gets to inherit his virtual kingdom. A massive virtual scavenger hunt ensues.

Enter Wade Watts, a Gary Stu who happens to be an expert in any bit of 80s pop-culture that the plot requires of him – you know, until he isn’t, because drama. The book’s narrative relies wholly on call-backs to D&D, old video games, anime, 80s genre films, and anything else that a 13-year-old would have found cool about 30 years ago.

Ready Player One is essentially a Young Adult novel for 40-somethings. But it’s not even good YA – the best of which gives young people the tools to grow and handle change.

Instead, Wade’s success is predicated on wallowing in nostalgia that’s not even his own, as he attempts to recreate Halliday’s hollow video game victories and meaningless memories. Personal growth is sidelined in favor of playing a perfect game of Pac Man and reciting exact dialog in virtual simulations of old movies like War Games and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

And Stephen Speilberg is apparently doubling down on this conceit – cramming his adaptation with every 80s IP he can, from the Iron Giant to Chucky to Doc Brown’s flying Delorean and beyond.

It’s all tremendously derivative fun, sure. But for me it’s also indicative of something fundamentally wrong with the way we’ve currently decided to deal with reality.

I first heard of Ready Player One when I was on vacation last year. A guy about my age was raving about it like it was the second coming. Naturally, the book snob in me wrote it off as best-seller beach-read nonsense. But fast forward to about a month ago. I was at a local pub and two guys about my age were talking about Ready Player One. The soundtrack to this conversation was a blaring retro playlist of 80s songs. I finally said something like, “Man, it feels like 1986 in here!”

I got to chatting with the guys about the awful 80s pop that we had to suffer through growing up. And one smiled and said, “Yeah, but I bet it brings you back to when you were 14, and at your first school dance, nervously walking onto the dance floor…”

To which I wanted to shout at him, “No! That never happened because my life wasn’t some bullshit John Hughes movie, and neither was yours, and why are you deluding yourself into thinking that it was?” But I just smiled and drank my beer. And realized that we’ve somehow veered into the Watchmen universe.

Stick with me. A small but ever-present element in the Alan Moore graphic novel Watchmen is advertisements for a cosmetics line called Nostalgia, put out by the company owned by the book’s main villain Adrian Veidt. Ever the puppetmaster, Veidt spells out in a company memo: “It seems to me the success of this campaign is directly linked to the state of global uncertainty that has endured for the past forty years or more. In an era of stress and anxiety, when the present seems unstable and the future unlikely, the natural response is to retreat and withdraw from reality, taking recourse either in fantasies of the future or in modified visions of a half-imagined past.”

Now stand back! Because Ready Player One does both at the same time, a monstrous ouroboros in which our fantasies of the future have become a complete immersion into a half-imagined past. And it’s the biggest crossover Science Fiction success in recent memory. What does that say about the state of our genre? What does it say about the state of our society?

It got me thinking of the last Science Fiction book that hit big with mainstream audiences, Andy Weir’s The Martian. And comparisons are inevitable.

The Martian, which embraces reason and gleefully celebrates the power of science, came out in 2011, and rose to popularity in the midst of political administration that championed similar values and believed in civility.

The tenor or our national discourse has taken a nosedive since, predicated on fear, spite and divisiveness. The present seems unstable, the future unlikely, and people have taken recourse in fantasies of a half-imagined past. A past where the U.S.S. Enterprise still exists in all its original glory and happiness is just a Wonkaesque fanwank away.

I can only hope that Ready Player One represents the zenith – or more fittingly, the nadir – of this disturbing trend. We need to once again embrace those bold future visions that have defined our genre, and escape this cultural cul-de-sac.