In 2012 I wrote what would become my most popular book review on Goodreads: a skewering of Ernest Cline’s (somehow) beloved heap of geek porn, Ready Player One. Despite a six-year cool down period, it remains the most disappointing reading experience of my life. I still hate it with every fiber of my being, and I’ve yet to understand how someone can pay for this book, read all 370+ pages, and then feel anything but embarrassed and sad.
If the point is to re-enact sections of D&D modules and 80s cult classics, then your readers are just getting third-hand retreads of things that aren’t even important to begin with. It’s sort of like when your socially-awkward friend resolutely recounts a super-sweet TV show for you, word for word, and all you can do is just sit there and wait until he’s finished. Pay $20 for that experience and you get Ready Player One.
And what’s worst—no, I haven’t even gotten to the worst part yet—is how the entire thing reeks of elitism. Yes, you read that correctly. This is a book about an overweight, unattractive, lazy, delusional, uber-geek elitist, who believes—truly believes—that his knowledge of 80s trivia makes him superior. And Cline basically affirms this! Some guys buy cars, others put socks down their pants, Cline writes 80s trivia novels.
– from my Goodreads review of Ready Player One
That review is probably the most tactless piece of writing I’ve ever produced. It was pure, unadulterated venom. It felt like Cline had injected me with a poison, and the only way to save myself was to regurgitate it back onto the page. It became something of a passion project for me, saving others from similar afflictions.
But at the same time I was conflicted: was there any virtue in a purely negative review?
Eventually I came to some sort of peace about what I wrote. The novel is so bad (at one point Wade describes his abject poverty and lack of real world opportunities as “like being in the world’s greatest video arcade with no quarters”) there is value in condemning it: something should be said about a book that legitimately makes people dumber.
But for the past year or two there was this lingering itch inside me, a regret perhaps, that I couldn’t quite shake. Even though that review is the third-most liked 1-star review of Ready Player One on Goodreads (a book with more than 40,000 reviews) there still seems to be something missing from it.
I never knew what that something was until recently, when I read Bob Proehl’s wonderful (and wonderfully nerdy) book, A Hundred Thousand Worlds. Then it hit me: my review didn’t offer readers a better alternative. It’s since become painfully obvious that it’s perfectly okay to be negative as long as that negativity leads the reader to something positive.
And so, today, I’m ret-conning that review by adding this piece of advice: if you hated Ready Player One, go read A Hundred Thousand Worlds.
Like Ready Player One, A Hundred Thousand Worlds is steeped in stories. Ones that “can be true, even if they aren’t real.” In it, nine-year-old Alex Torrey has been living in a world of fiction most of his life. He’s a young writer, an obsessive reader (mainly of a Harry Potter-like YA series) and his parents were the stars of a hit sci-fi television series called Anomaly. His mother, Valerie, is taking him across the country from New York to Los Angeles to see his estranged father, but he doesn’t know that the visit is going to be much longer than he’s anticipating (thanks to a secret that Valerie has kept cooped up for years).
The novel is the story of that road trip, which is punctuated by stops at three different comic book conventions along the way. Like most former sci-fi stars, Valerie’s post-show career is spent appearing at cons and meeting with fans. They befriend Brett, an artist who takes a shine to the lonely, introspective Alex; a host of women cosplayers who are actually paid by convention runners to parade around their shows (whose sole purpose is to provide a running commentary on the the industry); and Gail, a blogger-turned-writer who rails against a lot of what’s wrong with the comics: discrimination, objectification, homophobia, and unbridled sexual assault.
“It’s how you motivate a male character,” says Gail, feeling like a mother explaining some of the less pleasant parts of sex to her daughter. “You kill off the woman he loves, then he swears revenge. Maybe her death keeps coming up in flashback, a kind of emotional touchstone moment. But after ten, twelve issues, he meets somebody new and moves on.”
For the most part, the book is centered on people who don’t quite understand the maelstrom they’re in the middle of. Take Valerie: she doesn’t exactly get the unbridled devotion of her fanbase, but she’s encouraged by it because it’s genuine.
“It’s something she likes quite a bit about this little world: the capability of those within it to get deeply and sincerely excited about things. She wonders how they fare in the real world, where excitement is poorly valued, and she tries to think of things she has been excited about. There are so few.”
But as much as the book is about comics and the convention circuit and everything that goes along with it, it’s ultimately about stories: the ones we read and the ones we tell ourselves. It’s about how many of us–those who deign to label ourselves “readers”–have grown up surrounded by fiction, and at times it warps our sense of reality and offers false expectations.
We’ve been programming ourselves to think that everything is supposed to work out a certain way, that life, too, comes with earned climaxes and happy endings and payoffs for those who do right and wrong. It’s through writing his own story that Alex comes to realize how stories are, in fact, contrived. Life almost never is.
“What happens if the ending isn’t the one you want? What he wants is to be able to step in, before the ending happens, and change it, although he knows the Idea Man would probably say that’s cheating and makes for a bad story. But he’d mean for the readers. And Alex knows it’s important to give the readers a good story. But what he’s wondering is if it’s important to make the characters happy, too, if there’s something they’re owed for coming this far, and for trying so hard. And if both things are important, which is more important? If if he can’t make both happy, whom should he choose?”
Proehl’s biggest accomplishment with the novel, though, is the relationship between Valerie and Alex. It’s simple, but it’s sweet: the undeniable bond between a mother and son. Alex is the rare child in a novel who never acts like anything but the nine-year-old that he is (okay, he’s definitely smarter than your average kid, but it’s plausible).
Valerie, meanwhile, has that wonderful quality that every good mother has: reverence for this beautiful, weird, mind-blowing process of having and raising a child, where you discover that everything you did before pales in comparison to guiding this little person into something better than you.
“He’s not anything but himself,” she says. “I used to think he was the best parts of you and me with everything awful sifted out, but he’s not. It’s like everything you and I ever pretended to be, he is. He’s smart, he’s so smart. And he is caring. He cares about everything and everybody in a way I’ve only ever managed to care about him. There’s nothing cold in him, Andrew. And if you take that away from him, I’ll never forgive you.”
A Hundred Thousand Worlds is every bit as nerdy as Ready Player One, it’s just more subversive about it. Proehl’s a far superior writer, and possesses a sweetness and sentimentality that feels genuine rather than shoehorned. He obviously loves this subculture–“This is the immune system of the human soul. Superheroes, space rangers, time cowboys, they are the T cells of the spirit. They were always here to save us. We made them to save us.”–but he’s not up his own ass about it.
Cline has a way of aggrandizing his own nerdiness, using his novel as a pat on the back to his 18-year-old self. His Wade is a Stephanie-Meyer-eclipsing Mary Sue that attempts to justify, even glorify, the behaviours of an overweight, socially awkward kid.
Proehl, instead, turns his focus outward. He celebrates what’s beautiful about his community. It never feels like it’s about himself.