This is an entry for the Insecure Writers’ Support Group, which cross-posts on each others’ blogs on the first Wednesday of each month.
The suggested theme in this month’s edition is ‘pet peeves’.
One of my biggest peeves is writers using references in place of humour. Both Family Guy and The Big Bang Theory get stick for this – rightly in my opinion – but during the last week I’ve read an extract from the Ernest Cline novel Ready Player One which takes this to an incredible extreme.
There’s nothing wrong with fiction drawing on references to real life of course – in fact it’s a good thing, as it connects the fictional world to the wider real world, giving the fictional world a greater sense of depth and a broader range of material to draw jokes from.
One of my favourite examples of this kind of humour is from the second ever episode of Family Guy. After Stewie Griffin opines that television is evil because of its influence on Charles Manson, the show cuts away to Manson’s jail cell where he’s watching TV. Manson says “If I haven’t seen it, its new to me” – a slogan NBC were using at the time to promote their repeats. On the surface level this is (darkly) amusing because of the contrast between the very serious image of the mass murderer and the very silly idea of him repeating back an advertising slogan.
In this extract Wade Owen Watts (the narrator and protagonist) informs the reader of the work he put in to understand the things that inspired James Halliday, the creator of a massively popular multiplayer virtual reality system.
The tone suggests that Cline is trying to be amusing, but there’s nothing recognisable as an attempted joke on that page. If the writer was purely trying to inform the reader that Watts put the time in to learn from Halliday’s inspirations, he could have achieved everything that page of text achieved in a single sentence, by listing nine or ten disparate points of pop culture.
There’s no real reason to list so many works – these are the things that A Generic Geek would like. There’s no amusingly eccentric or lesser known properties, such as My Little Pony or Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
This passage represents a missed opportunity to tell the reader something about Halliday’s tastes, personality and worldview, beyond that he has very orthodox mainstream geek views.
The same goes for Watts, the character who the reader will spend the majority of the book alongside. Other than that he has a “serious cute-geeky-girls-playing-ukeleles fetish”, the passage tells us nothing about Watt’s personal likes and dislikes. Surely there must have been some of these books and shows that he disliked, even loathed. Going by this section, other than sycophantically agreeing with Halliday’s dislike of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (certainly not the worst thing on that list) Watts doesn’t seem to dislike anything.
My instinct based on this passage is that Ready Player One, like the worst of Family Guy, understands the pop culture it professes to love on only a superficial level. It’s worth asking if any of the things he’d watched and read had an impact on Watts as a person. I’ve only read one book by Robert Heinlein – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It’s the story of a political rebellion on the Moon and their attempts to gain independence from Earth governments. There’s two things from the book that have stayed with me long after I read it – the idea of rocks being propelled from the Moon with enough force that they hit Earth with the power of a nuclear explosion, and the fictional tradition of ‘line marriage’. (In brief, the idea is that there are multiple participants in the marriage across generations, with the protagonist’s line marriage being over a hundred years old.) This marriage is presented in a bit of detail, and has prompted me to think about the nature, purpose and structure of the family unit, and how it could work differently in different times and periods. Similarly, the Netflix series AKA Jessica Jones has prompted me to think in more detail about emotionally abusive and manipulative relationships. But other than his ukelele girl fetish, there’s no hint of how watching this vast quantity of fiction has impacted on Watts. When I do use references to the wider world in my own fiction, I’m careful to ensure that they serve a purpose within the story, beyond the superficial act of recognition.
It may be that the author’s intent is that Watts is a superficial protagonist who has only understood the fiction he’s engaged with on a skin-deep level – memorising “every scene by heart” in certain films. This may well be something that the book returns to later, so I’m conscious that I may be being too harsh on Ready Player One. But that’s not the impression I got from this passage of the novel, and it reflects a wider irritation I have with The Big Bang Theory and later series of Family Guy.