Ready Player Two doesn’t wait to accelerate into its plot. On page 6, the main character learns about a new piece of civilization-changing technology; on page 17, after one brief test run, he unleashes it on the world.
This is our first return to the fictional world dreamed up by Ernest Cline since the publication of Ready Player One nine years ago—or, for a considerable percentage of readers, since the movie adaptation in 2018. Released last Tuesday, the sequel novel replays all the hits from the story that made The New York Times bestseller list, and Cline’s career. But in the process, and in the rush to leap into a breakneck plot, the sequel loses the creativity and balance that made the fictional world worth mining.
Like its predecessor, RP2 takes place in the 2040s and mostly in the OASIS, a virtual reality simulation game that dominates global entertainment. In the first book (spoilers), protagonist Wade Watts uses his obsessive knowledge of nostalgic pop culture to win a scavenger hunt organized by the OASIS’s late creator, James Halliday, and become his successor. And in the sequel, Wade must use his obsessive knowledge of nostalgic pop culture to win another of Halliday’s posthumous scavenger hunts.
If those two sentences sound eerily similar, that’s because they encapsulate the first problem with RP2: its embodiment of sequel creep. RP2 is basically RP1 but bigger and better, with even more stakes. For instance, in the first book, Wade needs to collect three items to complete the quest; in the sequel, that number is seven. In the first book, the lives of Wade and a few others hang in the balance; in the sequel, that number is a lot higher.
This sort of artificial inflation of stakes is a common issue with sequels, afflicting even the most lucrative and famous franchises. The Force Awakens asks “What if the Death Star were the size of a planet?!” and The Rise of Skywalker wonders “What if there were a bunch of ships with the power of the Death Star in a massive fleet?!?!?!” But because the crux of the story remains the same, a rerun of the same plot brings diminished returns.
The broader RP2 plot, of course, is chiefly a vehicle for nostalgia. As in the first book, your mileage may vary with the multitudinous pop culture references, which are still present and still overwhelming. Wade wakes up every morning to a song from Marty McFly’s clock radio—that is, if he’s not woken by a call on Cameron Frye’s bedside phone first. In an early passage that’s already made the internet rounds, Wade enters Vault #42 (from Hitchhiker’s Guide, natch) using passcode 8-6-7-5-3-0-9.
And so on. This is the kind of story that describes, with complete earnestness, its climactic battle like so: “It was like Yoda versus Palpatine, Gandalf versus Saruman, and Neo versus Agent Smith, all rolled into one epic clash of the titans.”
That myopic focus on references causes the second broad problem with RP2’s storytelling. Ironically, given that Wade sometimes reflects on how his obsession with the OASIS prevents him from enjoying the real world, the story follows in its protagonist’s footsteps: The plot frequently forgets about the real world, too.
Although the first book was also centered in the OASIS, it maintained a deft balance by frequently leaving the VR arena to world-build and show the progression of time. The most entertaining sequence, in my opinion, doesn’t involve the OASIS at all, but rather Wade’s clever execution of a scheme in the real world, made all the more tense because he’s forced to rely on his own person rather than an avatar in a simulated environment.
This is the same principle by which the best Black Mirror episodes—your “San Junipero”s and “Be Right Back”s—ground their futuristic tech in the people who use and experience it. (Without giving anything away, the “San Junipero” comparison is particularly unflattering for RP2.) Sci-fi stories are far more interesting when they explore the societal effects of a given piece of technology rather than merely marvel at the technology itself.
RP2 lacks this sort of relatable grounding. Cline packs almost all of the sequel into the OASIS—so much so that he adds a new plot mechanism that prevents the characters from taking breaks and visiting the real world.
So while he thoroughly explores the implications of new technological advancements in the simulation, the real-world ripples are far less developed. In one particularly unsettling paragraph, Wade notes that his company has supplied the government with police robots, which boost safety because “their programming and their operational fail-safes prevented them from harming anyone in the line of duty.” Yet at other points in the story, such tech is easily compromised, and Wade himself notes his fears of robots rebelling against their creators. (“Probably because I’d seen too many robot-uprising movies,” he says.) The tension between these two strands—and between the book’s broader utopian view of technology and dystopian view of the actual world—goes unaddressed.
Elsewhere, the narration edges toward societal commentary, only to veer away before actually arriving at a profound conclusion. Wade’s company (and the protagonist himself) steals consumers’ data and spies on their homes, builds and controls its own police force, and simultaneously attacks its critics while lying to its entire user base—and all of this malfeasance is curiously forgotten once the plot gets going and the quest begins. Global warming and income inequality are concerns—right up until a planet devoted to John Hughes’s filmography needs exploring, and then never again. Cline’s long-running problem with writing well-rounded female characters persists, as well.
And if any reader is searching for a nuanced look at a society overcome by nostalgia and unable to create new cultural touchstones of its own, and the tricky balance of embracing the past and forging a different future, well, this isn’t that kind of story. Only once does a character question the value of “picking through the wreckage of a past generation’s nostalgia”—and his argument is ignored, because he’s a villain.
This limited focus also harms character development. The first book employs varied pacing; Wade solves some clues instantaneously, but others take him months to decipher. Time passes as he works on his quest and carries on relationships; he changes as a person from start to finish. RP2’s quest effectively comes with a short countdown clock, meaning the main characters must condense all of their growth into a single half-day.
The effect is a 366-page novel that feels uncomfortably like a speedrun of its own plot, so concerned with reaching arbitrary goals that it doesn’t bother to survey the world in the meantime. But the world is the reason to consume the story in the first place; the first book had its issues, but it was still a fun romp because of the imagination in its creation. Here, that imagination is largely recycled, and lacking the sort of necessary familiar footholds readers of any fantasy or sci-fi story need when entering a fictional realm.
That staleness might not stop another adaptation: The RP1 movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, grossed $583 million at the worldwide box office, which placed it just behind a Harry Potter movie and a Marvel movie on the 2018 leaderboard. (Cline has said he consulted with Spielberg while crafting the sequel and thanks the director in the acknowledgements section.) Much like this story, Hollywood loves preexisting IP, and Hollywood loves a sequel, so a Ready Player Two movie announcement would seem imminent.
But at that point, the story might resemble a copy of a copy of a copy, each successive entry degrading the sharpness and clarity that defined the first. A successful sequel can’t work as a mere rehash of its predecessor; it needs freshness and an expansion of the fictional world, with new challenges and characters. Given its relationship to old movies, the Ready Player–verse should know this better than anyone.