Book Review: Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline

In 2011, Ernest Cline wrote the bestselling book Ready Player One about a boy competing in a high stakes video game contest in the future virtual reality world of the OASIS. In 2045, the OASIS basically is the internet and is humanity’s escape from a world ravaged by global warming, an energy crisis and social unrest; and its ownership is up for grabs in the biggest video game in history. (It also sparked a 2018 film adaption, which was pretty good.)

But now, it’s 2020, and Ernest Cline has written a sequel, imaginatively titled Ready Player Two. And now, it’s 2048, and Wade Watts/Parzival won the contest three years ago. Shortly afterwards, he finds a final gift from the OASIS’s creator, James Halliday: a working brain-computer interface, that makes the OASIS feel like real life and takes it to the next level, literally and figuratively. It also triggers a new contest…and ruins his life. And then, things get much, much worse.

I’m having trouble parsing how I feel about this book. Technically, it’s very well done, and it kept me engaged and listening (to the audiobook) at a much faster pace than I normally go. Emotionally, though, it didn’t work for me. It didn’t take me to the same place of wonder and excitement as the original. The stakes were higher; the adventure was more over-the-top, and the technology was more miraculous. (And, honestly, the ending was still pretty good, too.) But I don’t think it was where the story needed to go.[1]

(I didn’t look at other reviews until after I wrote my own, and it looks like I might actually be one of the kinder ones out there. Go figure.)

One of the people I saw reacting to the announcement of a sequel said that they always recommended Ready Player One to their friends as one of the best standalone book out there, which I can definitely agree with. It didn’t need a sequel. In fact, even with Ready Player Two out there, I would still recommend Ready Player One as a great standalone. Ready Player Two is just too different.

My rating:

On the merits: 4.0 out of 5.

As a sequel: 2.5 out of 5.

Warning: spoilers below.

The first thing I noticed about Ready Player Two is that this story is much darker. Ready Player One was so much fun that I not only read it twice (which is rare), but I read it twice only a few months apart. But Ready Player Two feels completely different. To start, the whole first act is kind of a downer, showing all the ways Wade has screwed up his life since the end of the previous book. His relationship with Samantha/Art3mis only lasted a week, and he tubed his reputation by griefing his critics. In other words, it reverses a lot of the character development from the previous book when it doesn’t really need to (like you more commonly see in longer series).

To use an example Mr. Cline might relate to, it’s like Alien 3, where the little girl Ellen Ripley goes to so much trouble to save in Aliens dies in the opening scene for no reason.[2] It’s a similar backtracking, and it’s not fun anymore. Maybe it’s just because real life ensues. Fame and fortune tend to do that to people. But the world in general didn’t have to go to the place it did after the first book.[3]

By the same token, this book reminded me of Hank Green’s A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor, which I reviewed a few months ago. It has similar themes, a similar plot, and it was also much darker than its predecessor, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing; but where Green deftly follows a logical progression from one to the other, Cline’s hard left turn at the end of the first act feels like a much clumsier, heavy-handed way to get to the same place.

In fact, it feels like something of a bait-and-switch. The new contest appears, Wade eventually gets his first lead, and the book is just starting to feel like the Good Old Days again. But Wade doesn’t get to relive the Good Old Days, nor does he learn that he can’t relive the Good Old Days, because suddenly, BAM! Outside Context Problem! It breaks the chain of character development that had already been backtracked.

The larger messaging has the same problem. It could have explored the social consequences of the ONI headsets, but instead, a rogue AI that no one knew about hijacks them all and holds the world hostage. That doesn’t teach them anything about virtual reality addiction or the dangers of an automated society. It teaches them to be wary of artificial intelligence, which they were already doing anyway. Wade takes the whole thing as a big, fat I-told-you-so, but if you think about it, it’s a Space Whale Aesop. He’s learning the lesson for the wrong reason.

To be fair, Art3mis points out that no one could have predicted Anorak showing up, and they both had a more balanced perspective on the situation by the end.

On the technical side, there are still a few problems, but they’re smaller—and more debatable. Ready Player Two has a lot of exposition to catch the reader up with what’s happened over the last three years. The first book had a lot of that too, of course, but this doesn’t quite feel the same. I’m not sure if it’s out of place in a sequel or if it just doesn’t feel integrated as well with the plot. It also feels more polemical, even though the messaging is decently nuanced, and it’s not like the first book didn’t have a strong message. It might just be that it’s a more provocative message.

One problem I’m pretty sure about, though, is that the timeline is messed up—far too rushed—and Anorak’s plan has definite issues.

Anorak seems to be putting all his eggs in one basket, threatening the lives of the only two people who can help him with a time limit that there’s no guarantee is achievable even in principle (it nearly wasn’t), plus deliberately holding back useful information because it’s “more fun that way.”

It took me until after I finished the book to figure out his real game. He was using Wade to solve the puzzle so that he could then take control of Og’s avatar and gather the shards himself. Wade would have outlived his usefulness at that point. And if Wade couldn’t do it in twelve hours (which Anorak thought likely), his failsafes would kick in, and he would try again the next day by threatening him in other ways. But even accepting that, why did none of his hostages point out the flaw in his declared plan? That seems like an actual plot hole.

Also, the reveal about Sorento will only make sense if you’ve read Andy Weir’s (of The Martian fame) canonized fanfiction about his origin.[4] Without that, it’s really out of nowhere and isn’t explained to the reader or the characters. Plus, it’s very brief, so it feels shoehorned in. It’s something that easily could have come out at Sorento’s trial, but it apparently didn’t, and it doesn’t fit.

The biggest redeeming feature of the story is the ending, where all of piled-up conflicts get resolved most elegantly. We not only get to see Wade’s master plan in action and enough hints to reconcile Anorak’s plan, we also see what Halliday’s real plan was, walking him back from being an outright villain, and implicitly see the other characters’ reconciliation with him, as well as with Wade. It’s all tied up with a neat bow and even implicitly acknowledges the lingering problems of the ONI technology as well as its benefits. But all of that, I think, doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of the story not working well as a sequel, which is why I had to give it my split rating.

[1] In fact, maybe a slice-of-life serial story would have been better,

[2] Disclaimer: I haven’t actually seen any of the Alien films.

[3] The ONI headset was more powerful than it needed to be. It could have done what it did by only recording sensory input, not brain scans, and it could put the user in a dream state without putting them in a coma that was slow and difficult to reverse safely—you know, more like an actual dream. But that would wipe out 3/4 of the plot.

[4] Honestly, even though Ernest Cline liked that fanfiction so much that he accepted it as canon, it doesn’t really fit with the portrayal of Sorento in the first book. Of course, having him be IOI’s head Oologist doesn’t quite fit either. I actually think the movie version, which recasts him as the CEO, is the best portrayal of him.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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