Ready Player One is the debut novel of Ernest Cline, the filmmaker behind Fanboys, a look into the nerdiest of Star Wars nerds that earned rave review on the indie film circuit. Cline’s first attempt at the science fiction novel market has similarly been met with rave reviews, though at times it is hard to reason why.
Ready Player One takes place in a dystopian, not-so-distant future. In 2044, the Earth (and the United States in particular) isn’t doing so hot. A global energy crisis has made refugees out of a substantial portion of the population. The country’s poor typically find themselves holed up in ‘Stacks’—literal stacks of mobile homes, the ghettos of the future. Most don’t mind, however, for there is a way out of the dull and dreary every day of the substantially reduced human condition: the OASIS.
The OASIS is a world-spanning, virtual reality MMO that nearly everyone on Earth ‘plays’. While there are levels to achieve and quests to complete, the OASIS is more sandbox than theme park. Thousands of worlds exist within the OASIS universe, spanning the absurd to the obscene and everything in between. The OASIS is so ubiquitous that most of the world’s economy seems driven by it; in fact, the credits of the OASIS game have become the standard by which ‘real’ currency is measured against.
Things begin to get interesting when the creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, passes away and leaves his considerable fortune as a prize in an Easter egg hunt in the OASIS. As his last will and testament, Halliday broadcasts a recorded message from beyond the grave called 'Anorak's Invitation'. In it, Halliday weaves a twisted web of 1980s pop culture references that spur on a revival of such classics as Zork, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Pac-Man. The payoff for whomever completes Anorak’s quest is the inheritence of 240 billion dollars and ownership of the OASIS itself.
The search begins immediately thereafter, but fizzles out as the years pass and no one gets so much as a single solid lead. A small community of diehard ‘egg hunters’ (shortened to 'gunters', as Internet communities often do) lives on, thriving on everything that a child of the 80s loves.
Enter Wade Watts, who goes by the name ‘Parzival’ in the OASIS. He’s a teenager who lives in the ‘stacks’ of a midwestern city, those future ghettos consisting of mobile homes and shipping containers stacked to perilous heights. He is an orphan with no real friends outside the OASIS. He attends school virtually while living (sort of) with his aunt. One day he is able to crack the first code that Halliday left behind, and he finds himself thrust into Internet stardom as the first Gunter to progress along Anorak’s quest.
What follows is a fast-paced adventure as Wade does battle with various challenges in the OASIS, such as playing a perfect game of Pac-Man, reciting from memory every line of the lead in famous 80s movies, and fending off his fellow Gunters, several of whom are hot on his trail. In the real world, however, things are quite a bit more sinister.
The IOI organization, the world’s largest Internet service provider and primary method of gaining access to the OASIS, is a sinister corporation who will stop at nothing to win the hunt and inherit the OASIS for the sole purpose of monetizing the free-to-play MMO. The fortune they stand to inherit is so great that they will go to any lengths to achieve their goal—including murder. Wade soon finds himself on the run in the real world while also putting up with the pressure of celebrity in the OASIS, girl problems, and even a little bit of Catfish action.
The Predictable Ending
The major failing with Ready Player One is that it is a more than a little predictable. The pacing is great. When I read it, I couldn’t stop until it was finished—less than 24 hours later. The writing is serviceable, with perhaps a penchant for telling rather than showing when it came to a few topics. It was an enjoyable book, but not ultimately satisfying. At the end of it, I was left with a feeling analogous to that of crushing a bag of Cheetos—it was great while it lasted, but no substitute for a four-course meal. However, it must be given high marks for not drowning in technobabble (something that could have easily happened), remaining accessible, and nailing all the good parts of the 80s with uncanny accuracy.
If you are a child of the 80s, enjoy MMOs (or speculation about where they will end up), or like a good ‘quest’ story every once in a while to break up your usual fare of technical darkness or philosophical meandering, you’ll enjoy Ready Player One.