Ernest Cline’s Ready Player Two was released Tuesday, and with it comes bizarre pop culture references to everything from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to Ranma ½. But one viral passage from Ready Player Two has queer and transgender Twitter users scratching their heads: The book’s main character says he’s had “straight and gay and nonbinary sex.”
During Ready Player Two, protagonist Wade Watts spies on user data for a fellow gamer named L0hengrin. L0hengrin is an OASIS Neural Interface (ONI) user, or a virtual reality-like user engaged in a massively multiplayer online simulation. While peering into L0hengrin's private user profile, Wade discovers that her real name is Skylar Castillo Adkins and that she is transgender. The passage itself is invasive: Wade outs Skylar by examining her private user data's personal information, and when he finds out Skylar is transgender, he says it's a "surprise."
"Her school records included a scan of her birth certificate, which revealed another surprise. She'd been DMAB—designated male at birth," Wade says. "Discovering this minor detail didn't send me spiraling into a sexual-identity crisis, the way it probably would have back when I was younger."
Despite Wade's shock, he proceeds to monologue about his psychosexual relationship with gender, listing how the ONI-net has given him the ability to be "all kinds of different people, having all different kinds of sex." The scene suffers from awkward wording around queer sex, unintentionally implying Wade does not, in fact, know what it's like to be different kinds of gender identities.
Moreover, his insistence that queer sex is identical to straight sex flattens queer sexual experiences, which are uniquely different from straight ones.
"I'd experienced sex with women while being another woman, and sex with men as both a woman and a man. I'd done playback of different flavors of straight and gay and nonbinary sex, just out of pure curiosity, and I'd come away with the same realization that most ONI users come away with," Wade says. "Passion was passion and love was love, regardless of who the participants involved were, or what sort of body they were assigned at birth."
Ready Player Two's "nonbinary sex" passage received scorn after Twitch streamer Jacob Mercy posted the segment in a tweet about the book on Monday. In just 12 hours, Mercy's tweet landed over 270 quote tweets and 540 likes, mostly from queer Twitter users upset with the passage.
"Ah, the three kinds of sex: gay, straight and non-binary," Twitter user @littlesaddoge replied to the tweet.
Game developer Kate Barrett previously parodied Ready Player One with a video game called Ready Player Fuck, where players star as "the ultimate geek" in a virtual world full of "exasperating pop cultural references and stuff [she] stole from models-resource.com." Barrett, who criticized the new book's passage, told the Daily Dot that Ready Player Two fails to accurately depict queer trans experiences partly because Wade is so obsessed with himself and his cisgender, heterosexual male identity.
"Well from the get-go we learn he's stalking a girl and looking at her past. Her school records no less. How deep did he go?! The rest of the passage suffers from the exact same problem as much of the first book, where our protagonist makes everything about HIM," Barrett said. "He's talking about how he's a stand-up dude for not being revolted by [her gender]. He goes over and over all his solipsistic thoughts about himself—all the sex he's had, minus any details about when and why, only that it happened."
Meanwhile, Cline's narrative suffers from "some weird and poorly-researched errors," such as the term "DMAB" instead of "AMAB," or "assigned male at birth." This is particularly obvious with the phrase "straight and gay and nonbinary sex," she said. Cline does not just stretch the reader's suspension of disbelief that Wade has changed, he also shows his own limitations with writing about the trans experience.
"He clearly didn't ask or talk to any nonbinary or trans people when he wrote this, and it's overly fetishistic," Barrett told the Daily Dot.
To Cline's credit, an attempt was made to be inclusive. When Wade peers into Skylar's user profile history, he discovers that she previously identified as "øgender," or an ONI gender identity for "individuals who chose to experience sex exclusively through their ONI headsets, and who also didn't limit themselves to experiencing it as a specific gender or sexual orientation." The passage further explores the ways queer sexuality and gender-nonconforming experimentation can help change peoples' "perception of gender identity and fluidity in profound ways," including Wade's own relationship with these issues.
But the inclusive characterization rings hollow due to Wade's bigotry and misogyny throughout the original Ready Player One. Revisiting the novel in 2018, the Daily Dot's Michelle Jaworski compared Wade to a geeky "gatekeeper" who "[tells] you they support women, but whose actions tend to say otherwise."
"In a scene that smacks of transphobia, Wade interrogates [Ready Player One's love interest] Art3mis about whether she’s biologically female after she laments that everyone assumes that she’s a man," Jaworski wrote at the time. "Wade also initially views it as a betrayal when he discovers Aech is, in reality, a Black lesbian named Helen Harris, who uses a white male avatar because of privileges it grants her."
It's hard for readers to believe Wade, in Ready Player Two, has grown from these early problems. Nor do trans readers believe Ready Player Two is interested in realistically exploring queer and trans life to begin with. At least not without centering cisgender, straight men first.
"I wanna say that I think it's fine and should be encouraged for men to feel able to experiment with sex in these ways. I was struck by how [Wade] said he'd had sex with men, as a woman. And sex with women as a woman—hard to believe this is the same Wade I got to know in book 1, huh?" Barrett said. "I agree that Wade still does cling to misogyny despite this. It's also hard to know how much of Wade is a reflection of the feelings of Ernest— considering Wade strikes me as a bit of an author-insert (to put it mildly)."
The Daily Dot reached out to Ready Player Two publisher Ballantine Books for comment.
Update 3:23pm CT, Nov. 30: The passage from Ready Player Two shared and criticized has since been removed from Twitter "at the request of the copyright holder," according to the platform.