Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Were you a hard-core nerd or geek in junior high and high school in the 80s? You know, the ones who clustered at the library or at benches far from the jocks and cheerleaders, who thrilled at quoting lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, War Games, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Short Circuit, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Blade Runner, Legend, Dark Crystal, Krull, Star Trek, Conan the Barbarian, etc. The nerdy, awkward, pimply guys with the Members Only jackets and calculator watches whose closest contact with girls was ogling female goddesses in the Deities and Demigods Handbook. Or worse, an uber-nerd who was so uncool that even the other D&D guys wouldn’t accept you – not ME, of course, but A FRIEND, you know. Or perhaps you were a girl equally into the same pop references. I’m sure you knew the kids who were so good at arcade games that they could win them on a single quarter (I mastered both Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace to the point I would go through the moves in the car on the way to the arcade with my eyes closed). Yeah, I’m talking to you, now in your late 30s and early 40s, who have grown into upstanding citizens with real jobs and responsibilities. This book is especially for you, so set aside those income taxes and yard work and read something fun!
The story revolves around Wade Watts, a teenager living in a resource-depleted dystopian future in which the impoverished masses retreat into the giant shared virtual-reality called OASIS, much of which is devoted to enshrining all those precious geek moments from the 1980s. It seems a bit implausible that a virtual-reality MMORG in the year 2044 would feature many planets devoted largely to obscure 80s game trivia (like whole worlds devoted to games like Centipede or Joust, or Flock of Seagulls music videos), but that’s because the creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, was a huge devotee of 80s pop culture. It’s also true that with infinite virtual real estate, no matter how obscure the subculture or reference, you can find enough devotees to create an online community. The more I think about it, the more it sounds like the otaku subculture that Japan is famous for. But seriously, if you question the central conceit of the story, then it just doesn’t hold up. So it’s better to just go along with Ernest Cline, because he will not disappoint.
Wade Watts spends all his time in OASIS and barely cares about the real world, so he’s a bit overweight and out of shape. But in the OASIS, he has a cool avatar and is a well-respected “gunter,” or “egg hunter,” one of millions who make it a full-time pursuit to discover the Easter Eggs planted by Halliday throughout the OASIS. Halliday has declared that he will bequeath his entire estate, including the OASIS itself, to whoever can find the Easter Egg (i.e. Holy Grail) he has planted, but only by following a series of ever more obscure keys to unlock it. Gunters have been feverishly searching for years, but when Wade becomes the first to discover the first three keys, this brings him to the attention of the Nolan Sorrento, an executive of an evil multinational that wants to control the OASIS for profit. Initially he approaches Wade with offers of riches and fame, but when this is rebuffed, he turns into a classic villain stereotype and tries to wipe out Wade.
This triggers a lightning-paced adventure as Wade and his gamer friends race from one key to the next, each one increasingly difficult, trying to stay ahead of Sorrento and his army of corporate minions who imitate his every move and have huge financial resources at the their disposal, while Wade and his crew have to keep one step ahead in the physical world as well. Each key gets more and more difficult, which allows Cline to drop increasingly obscure and hilarious 80s geek trivia into the story. The book’s pace never really lets up, and is entertaining up to the very end, which is fairly rare for the typical door-stoppers written these days.
Is it plausible as a likely future outcome? Not really. Is it incredibly entertaining and addictive? Absolutely. If you lived through those times, you will enjoy this book like none other. Every time you think he can’t possibly come up with another, more obscure reference that only you could possibly remember, he drops a name (Zork and Battlezone come to mind) that even I had forgotten the existence of for almost three decades. Ernest Cline is an expert on 80s nostalgia, but what can he do for an encore? Is he a one-trick pony? We’ll find out very soon since his new novel Armada is coming in July, and is supposedly based on The Last Starfighter.
I listened to the audibook narrated by Wil Wheaton, fondly remembered as Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He is absolutely perfect for this book, with that knowing fanboy voice. I can’t imagine anymore more suited to read it, and he actually gets a little shout-out in the book if you’re listening carefully.
BTW, I’d like to ask our readers in their teens and 20s who’ve read Ready Player One: not having lived through the 80s, did you find these pop references interesting or not? I’d think full enjoyment really hinges on that, but would like to hear your opinions.
Ready Player One: *tries to insert obscure 80s reference and fails miserably*
My childhood consisted largely of wizarding duels and Pokemon battles (sometimes both at once), so I was a little dubious about picking up Ready Player One, a nostalgia fest about pop-culture in the 1980s. What’s more, gaming culture is at the heart of the novel. The closest I got to videogames was playing Solitaire on my dad’s computer, and I’m not even sure that counts. I was more than a little bit ambivalent about the book…
Wade Watts (alliteratively named in the hope he’ll turn out like a superhero) has a dreary life. He lives in the stacks — Ernest Cline’s futuristic interpretation of a trailer park, in which trailers are stacked on top of each other in towers — with his aunt and her knucklehead boyfriend. He spends his days plugged into the OASIS, a virtual reality full of thousands of planets, spaceships and avatars, each representing the millions of other people who live their lives out in the computer world.
James Halliday, founder of OASIS, has just died, leaving the key to his unimaginable fortune hidden somewhere in his creation. He has left a trail of clues based on 80s pop culture, and it is now up to the millions of gunters (“egg hunters”) to complete a sprawling treasure hunt through virtual reality. Finding this prize is Wade’s only hope of escaping his depressing life and he becomes obsessed with Halliday’s quest.
The concept of Ready Player One is a really cool one (despite being poached off The Matrix). The whole world is plugged into the OASIS. Kids go to school there and people have relationships in virtual reality without ever meeting. It’s not that far removed from our current reality. But the long diatribes about gaming graphics, album covers, song lyrics, and TV shows were just unnecessary. I don’t even think it’s an issue with age (though at times the novel definitely felt like it was written by a middle-aged white guy for middle-aged white guys). The lengthy expositions just felt overindulgent, and there were times when the whole book could’ve just done with a good editing.
At one point, Cline must’ve twigged that he should try and broaden his target audience and inject some diversity, and if you want to read the spoiler, highlight starting here: reveals that Aech, Wade’s best friend in OASIS, turns out to be an African-American, lesbian female. You couldn’t possibly fit another cliché into one character, though I wouldn’t put it past Cline to try. [end spoiler]
Criticism aside, Ready Player One was actually one of my most enjoyable reads of the year so far. Wade is the underdog of all underdogs, and you can’t help but root for him. He’s massively likeable in a self-deprecating sort of way, and the rat race for Halliday’s fortune makes a hugely compulsive read. He’s got a voice that will ring true with the YA audience the book has been marketed at, with a kind of Holden Caulfield-esque flavour.
You don’t need to be a connoisseur of 80s pop culture to enjoy this book, you just need stamina during the info-dumps. You don’t even need to be a gamer — my own videogame knowledge extends no further than Tetris. Ready Player One is definitely a read I’d recommend, and with a movie directed by Steven Spielberg in the pipeline, I’ve no doubt that Cline is about to become a household name.