Book Review: READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline (2011)
Ever wondered what it would be like to live in a video game? Me too!
The story of READY PLAYER ONE takes place in a fantasy version of the year 2044. Well, dystopian fantasy. In the year 2044, the world sucks– bad, worse than now, even. The megacorporations have destroyed the planet and it’s basically like “Repo Man” out there. Not to fear— video game virtual reality has come a long way baby, and pretty much all of life— school, dating, and everything— takes place in a mega-server artificial environment, like an excruciatingly real MMO. In the book, our young hero is named Wade Watts, which is practically the definition of a mild-mannered-day-job name, doncha think? Within the colossal virtual world of OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation) however, sad and lonely Wade has taken the avatar name Parzival, an epically nerdy sobriquet. And Parzival is really who Wade lives his days as, because most of living is done in-game.
The OASIS online world, where all of humanity is basically logged in avoiding the toxic trash compactor that is Earth, was originally created as a VR game by James Halliday, just an average tech genius with a pathological 80s fetish and a perverse sense of humor. Halliday, who became a kagillionaire from his invention, has died and left behind a puzzle, his final challenge to the denizens of his virtual creation. Find the Easter eggs planted in the code of his behemoth creation and you will win it all! (Easter eggs are hidden elements in a game, usually references to other games or films, that the astute nerd will recognize.) When Halliday designed the labyrinthine OASIS framework, he hid several Easter eggs inside it so well that only the deepest-cut geeks and fanboys would ever have any chance of finding any of them, let alone all of them. But finding all of them is exactly what Parzival must do– that is if he wants to leave his wretched real-life dumpster fire existance to become the filthy rich king of OASIS. To complicate the quest, Halliday was clearly a level-capped narcissist. In order to find these eggs and solve the puzzle, the egg hunters (Parzival and the other competitors, nicknamed gunters) will have to think just like the departed OASIS creator, down to knowing his favorite episode of “Family Ties” and how to beat his pet obscure video game from 40 years before any of them were born. They will use this knowledge along with all manner of arcane and very specific trivia found in Halliday’s “Anorak’s Almanac,” which chronicles all his obsessions.
READY PLAYER ONE is rich with well-remembered 1980s callbacks to both mainstream popular culture and the burgeoning geek subculture of the same era. The juxtaposition of these anachronisms against a Blade Runner-flavored 2044 backdrop makes for a fun roller coaster ride for the imagination. The combination works to great effect on a reader such as myself who grew up in the 80s, and I have friends who were kids a decade or two later who also were able to appreciate enough of the references to make this dissonant funhouse ride work for them. I hope that younger readers will be able to get the same enjoyment without catching all the winks and nods.
I’m a gamer and I love the way Cline helps me imagine what it might be like to really inhabit an online world. He connects with the part of me that appreciates the escape of games and fandoms. Moral lessons and metaphors abound in the novel, but the gaming ethos and retro pop culture callbacks are essential to what makes READY PLAYER ONE a joy to read and a culturally important work. Readability is good; the chapters are constructed from well-developed prose at the young-adult level. The plot is solid, and not massively predictable. I found there were a few draggy parts but the puzzle and overall pace are satisfying, and there are subplots and interpersonal entanglements to move things along.
The Scale: DEFINITELY READ THIS– READ THIS– PROBABLY READ THIS– MAYBE DON’T READ THIS– WHY THE HELL WOULD YOU READ THIS
I give the book a DEFINITELY READ THIS for gamers, nerds, and aficiandos of pop culture. I think a READ THIS would be more appropriate for those who don’t identify as belonging to one of those groups. If you dislike pop culture, you probably didn’t land here but if you did, this book is a MAYBE DON’T READ THIS for you.
Steven Spielberg will direct the film adaptation due next spring which will be co-written by Cline and Zak Penn. This is the teaser from San Diego Comicon 2017.