Ready Player One (2011)
Ready Player One is a science fiction novel by Ernest Cline, originally published by Random House in 2011, and already on its way to becoming a major motion picture. Set in the not-so-distant future of 2044, the plot follows 18-year-old Wade Watts AKA Parzival, as he spends his days hunting for an Easter egg in his favorite video game. Sounds kind of uneventful, doesn’t it? Or at least, it sounds like my Saturday afternoons, and therefore not exactly novel-worthy material, but the book is surprisingly awesome and realistic.
The novel takes place after a resource crisis forces most people into the cities. Due to the increase in the cost of living, almost everyone relies on an MMO called “The OASIS” for entertainment. The MMO is made to be so multifaceted and versatile that people eventually start using it as a public school and a place of business. One day, the creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, dies and leaves behind a will that’s virtually released to every person on the planet. It seems Halliday set up a Willy Wonka-esque contest in which riddles must be solved and challenges completed in order to find the aforementioned Easter egg and win the prize. That prize is all of Halliday’s money and a controlling stake in the OASIS. Naturally, this causes a frenzy of people searching for the clues to the egg. The excitement fades as the majority of people realize they don’t have the superior ‘80s nerd knowledge needed to decipher the first clue.
Enter Wade, a broke guy living with his aunt and a dozen other people, who mods and repairs computers to make ends meet. He becomes the first person to solve the first clue, which leads to an item called “The Copper Key”. Conflict then ensues between his group of egg hunters (“gunters” for short) and Innovative Online Industries, an evil corporation hell-bent on monetizing the OASIS, even at the cost of human life.
The book is slow to start; Wade doesn’t really leave the Shire until around chapter seven, but once the plot gets going, shit gets real. Wade is an extremely believable and relatable character in all the best and worst ways, right down to his desire to ditch everything if he finds the egg. The cast is balanced and diverse, but not in a way that feels like Cline is trying too hard. Of the main/supporting cast of six, there are two strong female characters (one of which is a lesbian), and three people of color. More impressively, Cline captures gaming culture perfectly, except in one regard: His characters talk smack, but their language is nowhere near as vulgar as what most gamers are used to.
The two major concerns for readers are that it takes a while for the plot to get going, and that it’s steeped in nerd culture of the ‘80s. However, neither of these things particularly bothered me. The slow pace in the beginning is mostly due to the world building, as Cline spends a lot of the earlier chapters explaining how the future works and how the OASIS functions. Personally, I appreciated it as a person who enjoys both tabletop and video games. The loving detail used to describe the OASIS makes sense. If I played a free, full immersion MMO like that, I would go all Dickens about the beautifully rendered trees, too.
The latter concern about all the trivia being tiresome mostly applies to people outside of the gaming community. I liked yelling at my steering wheel* about Dungeons and Dragons and Zork, as if Wade could hear me. But if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t care about the Rush album 2112, or about War Games, or about a perfect game of Tempest, then you probably aren’t going to be as enamored with this book as others.
[*I listened to this on audiobook, which I highly recommend, if only because it’s read by Wil Wheaton. It is nerd-ception. Wheaton is actually referred to by name in the book, and at one point, he has to call himself a geezer, and it is seriously the best part of the audiobook just because it’s hilariously meta. ]
Even if you don’t get all the references, you still might enjoy Ready Player One, or appreciate the amount of research that went into writing it, or you may agree with the book’s ethos, but the people who will like the book the most are the people who would likely be gunters for non-monetary reasons. And I’m totally one of them.