In 1989, The Cure released the best album ever, Disintegration. I, along with many of my friends became immediate converts to what some would describe as “whiny British music.” Fast forward to 1992 and the release of Wish, the non-remixed follow-up to Disintegration which, well, didn’t quite live up to what I was expecting. Wish wasn’t more of the same but more of a different side of The Cure and what they had to offer not pop music but music. Similarly, the recently-released follow-up to the 2011 smash hit Ready Player One has left many reviewers feeling disappointed that Armada didn’t deliver the freshly original futuristic environment that RPO did and that the plot line was lifted directly from The Last Starfighter. Personally, I found it more akin to Iron Eagle—to which Cline also referred throughout Armada, but that’s not the point of this. Rather, I’m just curious if reviewers are actually reading the books they’re expected—and paid—to review.
Added among the things I would really rather not do is go up against Ernest Cline in a pop culture trivia challenge. Reading through both RPO and Armada brought back many memories of films, shows, and music enjoyed throughout my childhood, though there were a few references in Armada that I didn’t know (I’m one of a very few my age who have never seen neither The Goonies nor Say Anything); it’s clear Cline really knows his stuff. But the pop culture kitsch serves merely as garnish to stories unintended to replicate one another.
OK, sure, Armada was really riddled with almost gratuitous pop culture references (such as the combination to the safe) but just because Armada didn’t reinvent the world with its contemporary setting is no reason to dismiss the novel as unoriginal or disappointing. Even the static nature of most of the characters or the somewhat predictable story arc of Cline’s work (lone, pop culture-obsessed dude goes on an eye-opening adventure, finding love with a woman who happens to be into the same stuff he is, and getting “saved” by someone of significant status at the zero hour in order to clear the level by seeing a movie before it’s released, winning the game/contest, or literally saving the world) fail to serve as sufficient reasons to think less of Cline or (worse) not read what he’s written. Cline is hardly the first to find something that works and serve it up.
At the risk of offending the literati, consider the follow-up (of sorts) from another author whose first novel defined her as a writer and became what any future novels would be compared to. Unlike Armada, though, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman not only used several of the same characters from To Kill a Mockingbird but it was also apparently written beforehand. All the same, some have been purportedly unwilling to accept the novel, unable to get past the implication that their childhood hero is a racist. Well, from a certain point of view. So they pretend the novel doesn’t exist, and their childhood memories remain intact. Easy enough when the author has but two published novels. But when discussing Shakespeare, things get a tad more complicated.
One running joke amongst those in my former circle of high school English teachers (yes, high school English teachers have a sense of humor) is that Shakespeare wrote two plays: Everyone dies in one and the two most antithetical characters get married in the other. In spite of this, Shakespeare wrote some three dozen plays, most of which had predictable settings and story arcs allowing audiences of varying levels of education and/or social status to relate to them in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through today.
This is not to say that Ernie Cline is today’s Shakespeare. No, that honor would be conferred by me to Joss Whedon in that Whedon is what I consider to be the most talented storyteller in contemporary times—even if so many of his stories have echoes of one another (the series Agents of Shield is actually Firefly which is actually Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although The Dollhouse references in Agents of Shield were great), including making the same film twice in one year. (You did know that the first Avengers film was actually Much Ado About Nothing, only with more elaborate CGI. Right?)
Unlike Whedon’s double dipping from Shakespeare and The Avengers/Much Ado About Nothing (the latter of which I found to be a far more enjoyable film, making one of Shakespeare’s comedies actually tolerable), Ernie Cline did not double-dip or otherwise gyp his readers by writing the same story twice (or thrice, if including Fanboys), nor did he fail readers by not creating another fantastical futuristic world the likes of which had never been seen for Armada. (Honestly, the most striking part of RPO for me was his vision of the future of school in the OASIS. Something along those lines was what I had imagined for the focus of my graduate research project of the classroom of the future; participants in my research study had a serious lack of vision, Cline’s or otherwise.) Instead, Cline took his readers to the world of their very own doorstep and had them question themselves and what they might do if encountering something akin to alien life.
Sadly, to some critics, Cline’s intent with Armada appears to have across as alien, not unlike the swastika on the surface of Europa. Seeing something so seemingly familiar, conclusions were leapt to and mistakes were made by dismissing Cline’s sophomore effort as simply more of the same pop culture allusions and storyline straight from 80s, unworthy of succeeding his debut. How literally superficial.
It’s been 23 years since the release of The Cure’s Wish, the studio follow-up to Disintegration. I somehow doubt there will be a multi-disc re-release of Wish in the same manner there was of Disintegration, complete with unreleased tracks and other B sides from the quartet of successful singles the album spawned. That said, in the time since first hearing the opening distorted chords of the aptly titled “Open” and wondering if I’d just wasted twenty dollars, an appreciation of Wish has grown—by listening to the whole album. A lot. Even though I’ve listened to Disintegration more. There’s no harm in preferring an original to a follow-up, but there is harm in providing an opinion on something when the opinion is formulated with inadequate information in order to rush to judgement. And press.