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The Last Gasp of the Gen X Nerd Kings

A crappy sequel book and a disgraced genre director are signs of a very specific type of guy and so-called generational voice on the way out

I’m a better writer than Ernest Cline. You probably are too: Quick, open a Google Doc and write a little story. Provided that it didn’t end in “it was all just a dream… or was it?” then you too are a better writer than Ernest Cline. You’re probably also a better human being than Joss Whedon, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

It’s not just that Cline, most notably the author of Ready Player One and Ready Player Two, can’t put a sentence together as well as Vladimir Nabokov, it’s that he breaks the kind of rules for writing you’d find in an airport paperback called something like Sell Your Screenplay for $$$ in Eight Seconds!. In particular, in Ready Player One, he introduces the antagonist too late, the second act sags, every character except the one Black best friend has the exact same speech tics, every action is over-determined 10 different ways thanks to pages of convoluted rules involving admin privileges. The book’s sexual and racial politics are a car crash, but the specific kind of car crash that only happens when somebody on the road is so insulated from the results of said crash that he knows he’ll walk away safely — Cline may drive a DeLorean, but he acts like an SUV driver.

You probably have an idea of the story already: It’s 2045, a dystopia, and the world is collectively addicted to a virtual world called the OASIS. Its creator, James Halliday, hid “easter eggs” in the world that will give whoever possesses them complete control over the OASIS and Halliday’s fortune. The clues to finding the easter eggs come from pop culture, mainly that of the 1980s, and Halliday’s own life. To get anywhere near the easter eggs, you need an encyclopedic knowledge of both, despite neither mattering in a world that’s gone to hell. Teenager Wade Watts has this knowledge, and with the help of his multi-ethnic subordinates and a hot girl who turns out to actually be a hot girl with a birthmark, he raises an army of all your childhood toys to fight the baddies and claim the final easter egg.

At some point between Ready Player One’s release in 2011 and the writing of Ready Player Two, someone, most likely a female someone, told Cline that trivia contests about one’s own life are no way to decide who gets to be the most powerful person in the world and Halliday’s obsession with his best friend and business partner’s wife Kira, a significant plot point in the first book, wasn’t cute but deeply creepy. As such, in Ready Player Two an AI simulacrum of Halliday emerges, eventually, as the villain, trapping millions of people in the OASIS, and making it so that when they die in the game, they die in real life (the reader is told, repeatedly, how similar this scenario is to the light novels and anime series Sword Art Online). 

This Halliday, going by the moniker Anorak, doesn’t want the players to obsess over his obsessions, he wants them to obsess over Kira as he did. Halliday, it transpires, created a technology to record and play back memories, and created perfect digital copies of both himself and Kira with the hope that on a long enough timescale she’d love him back. Cline is quick to point out that this is weird and creepy, and what little emotional arc Wade has in the book comes from him finding out that his idol is deeply flawed.

Generational politics and culture aren’t exactly useful in doing the kind of high-level thinking about the world that we need. There are a few people, however, who become a particular Type of Guy because they were born between two arbitrarily chosen dates and because they embrace the clichés about their generation. Cline is one of them, so are Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, Patton Oswalt and Harry Knowles. The Generation X Nerd Auteur type of guy. There are millennial and zoomer nerds, and even the Boomer nerds who established what it meant to be nerdy at the early Star Trek conventions where they created fanfic and cosplay. But the Gen-X Nerds stand out for coming of age at a time when being a dork was still meaningful and for having amassed incalculable cultural power.

And for letting us down — both by refusing to pass the baton to the next generation like Halliday in RP1 and by being gross creeps. By the time the first Ready Player book was released, a handful of Gen-Xers (Bryan Singer, JJ Abrams, Zack Snyder, the Russo Brothers and so on) had unilaterally decided that the only movies that would ever be made would be about the comic book characters they liked as kids. Chief among them, to me at least, was Joss Whedon.

I liked Buffy the Vampire Slayer a lot when I was a kid. And I’m not just talking about the 144 episodes of the series that ran on The WB and UPN (or for me, BBC2) from 1997 to 2003. I somehow acquired a VHS of the 1992 film, starring Kirsty Swanson and Luke Perry, when I was far too young and watched it obsessively. I also watched/read pretty much everything else Whedon did — Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, his run on Astonishing X-Men and the comics that continued Buffy’s story up to Season Twelve.

With that out of the way, you’re probably expecting me to say how I was “heartbroken” by the recent allegations against Whedon, started by Ray Fisher and continued by Charisma Carpenter until seemingly everyone on Buffy issued a statement, that he creates abusive, toxic, high-school-like environments on his sets, belittling cast members, pitting them against each other and acting very gross around young women. 

But honestly, I’d moved on from Whedon a long time ago, perhaps even before he directed the first Avengers movie in 2012. I had come to hate the self-aware soy dialogue that’s in every movie now (which Cline might be reaching for in his own writing and wildly missing), Whedon’s insanely grating deradicalized corporate feminism and the fact that the video below shows that he does soy dialogue in real life. 

I especially hated how everything he has ever done, from scripts to TV shows to movies, involves somebody, usually a beautiful young woman, being objectified for use by another, more powerful person. It’s not just Buffy in Buffy, River Tam in Firefly and Echo in Dollhouse, it was everyone from the toys in his script for Toy Story and Ellen Ripley in his script for Alien Resurrection, right up to Black Widow and Scarlet Witch in Age of Ultron and Cyborg in Justice League. He just can’t help himself.

Ready Player Two attempts to acknowledge the profound toxicity of this type of guy, retconning Halliday into a misogynistic control freak warped by the collision of his wounded beta-male pride and unlimited power. But it’s too late, and in the hands of a writer as catastrophically untalented as Cline, much too little. That and the inclusion of a trans character who is as necessary and well-executed as the Oreos Twitter account revealing that trans people do in fact exist feels more like pandering than Cline growing up. What do the young people like today? Genders — they can’t get enough genders.

It’s the last gasp of a so-called generational voice whose relevancy is as dated as his references.