Ready Player One, the 1980s, and the 1970s

Last week, Mark Judge had an interesting piece on the 1980s and Ready Player One, the new movie by Steven Spielberg.  While I enjoyed his piece, I have a different take on both of the subjects of his piece.

The movie is based on book of the same name by Ernest Cline.  The book, which I enjoyed quite a bit, is an example of cyberpunk science fiction – a genre which is set in a world in the near future, where there has been decline, corporations have overarching power, and people escape to an online world which is superior in many ways to their reality.  Pioneered by William Gibson’s book Neuromancer (also quite good), and perhaps hitting its high point with Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson X, cyberpunk has developed its own offshoots, such as biopunk and steampunk.

Significantly, Ready Player One won the Prometheus Award for science fiction given by the Libertarian Futurist Society.  Watching the movie (which changes many of the details of the book, but stays faithful to its essence – perhaps because the screenplay was cowritten by Cline), one might scratch one’s head as to why libertarians would like the book.  After all, it appears to be about a corporation behaving badly, as occurs in so many movies these days.  But libertarians presumably would be aware of how the government allows abuses by this corporation, such as imprisoning workers who owe debts within their facility.

Cline’s book combines cyberpunk with a nostalgia for the 1980s.  In that respect, it seems to be part of a trend of nostalgia for the 1980s, exemplified by the excellent science fiction/horror series, Stranger Things.  Judge’s essay takes exception with the movie on the grounds that it slights the 1980s, which he sees as a time of cultural accomplishment that exceeds our present day (rather than simply being a time of videogaming that the movie emphasizes).

Everyone is entitled to their view of the culture, but I have a different take on the 1980s, especially since I see it in comparison with the 1970s.  For me, the 1970s had the preferable culture, but the 1980s had the better politics. The 1980s had the Reagan presidency and the reemergence of an economically healthy America.  By contrast, the 1970s were an awful period politically – a Nixon presidency, the overreaction against Watergate, and then the malaise of Jimmy Carter.

But culturally I enjoyed the 1970s better than the 1980s.  Of course, culture turns on what you were interested in.  Judge dismisses the 1970s as “bad clothes and tacky disco.”  But I think the decade had the best rock music ever, especially since (like some other libertarians and conservatives) I am a big fan of the progressive rock of that period.  Sadly, the 1980s killed that type of music, especially with punk (or “know nothing”) rock.  I also favor the movies of the 1970s over those of the 1980s.  What can compare with the Godfather movies?  The decade also included other powerful movies, such as, Network.  And even as to red meat movies for right wingers, the 1970s (Death Wish) was superior to the 1980s (Red Dawn).  Of course, these preferences can viewed as somewhat subjective.

In the end, I enjoyed Ready Player One – the book especially, but the movie as well – but not because of its retrospective on the 1980s.  Instead, I found it to be a fine and fresh example of cyberpunk.