Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Published: Crown Publishers, 2011
Awards Nominated: Locus First Novel and Campbell Memorial Awards
“It’s the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place. Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets. And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune-and remarkable power--to whoever can unlock them.
For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday’s riddles are based in the pop culture he loved--that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday’s icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes’s oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.
And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle. Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt-among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life--and love--in the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape. A world at stake. A quest for the ultimate prize.” ~WWEnd.com
Ernest Cline’s first novel, Ready Player One, has met with a lot of success, including a deal for a movie that will reportedly be directed by Steven Spielberg. I have to agree that this novel is a lot of fun, and I think it has a good chance of becoming an excellent movie adaptation as well! On another note, Ernest Cline is publishing his next novel, Armada, this summer.
I knew going in that the novel was going to play heavily on nostalgia for the 1980s, and that is very true. The quest for Halliday’s Easter Egg requires all of its candidates to have an extensive knowledge of 1980’s pop culture and skill with the video games of the era, and movies, games, and music are constantly references throughout the story. It seems like Ernest Cline must have really enjoyed the decade, to naturally have such an extensive bank of knowledge to weave into his story! One thing I wasn’t expecting, but which was quite welcome, was the nostalgia for MMORPGs. So much about the OASIS seemed designed to trigger happy MMO memories, though it is clear that OASIS exists after the unfortunate migration of games from subscription-based to free-to-play/pay-to-win. In any case, I would expect this novel to hit some positive buttons for anyone with happy memories of either 1980s or of MMORPGs.
For me, most of the novel was an exciting thrill ride, but the beginning started off a little bit bumpy. I know it was important to establish the physical world and Wade’s part in it, but I felt like the bleakness of that beginning segment dragged on too long. It featured a little too much of Wade being alone, thinking about his lack of meaningful family or friends, the environmental and social ruin of the world, and how his life was a miserable march towards death. For a book that I’d expected to be mostly a fun quest story (and had chosen to read specifically for that reason), I found this dismal enough that I almost decided to start reading something else instead. Happily, once the story moves to Wade in the OASIS, his virtual friends, and the treasure hunt, the pace and tone both perk right up.
As you can probably gather from the description, this is a quest story, where the main character Wade is trying to acquire three keys and pass through three gates in a virtual world using his knowledge of 1980s pop culture and skill in gaming. The story really is that straightforward, so it is a credit to Cline’s storytelling ability that it is so engaging and entertaining. Wade’s companion top egg hunters (‘gunters’)-- Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto/Daito--are interesting characters in their own rights, each with their own stories and dreams. There is a stereotypically evil corporation, but its existence makes a certain sort of sense in their dying world--they may impress people into debt slavery, but some people are willing to accept that in exchange for food and shelter. I was hopeless at figuring out the solutions before the characters, because I’m just not that good at the 80’s, but the riddles seemed both challenging and well-designed. I’m glad I finally got around to reading Reader Player One, and I’m excited to see what Cline will write next.
My Rating: 4/5
Ready Player One is a highly entertaining debut novel, which makes excellent use of 80’s pop culture and MMO experience in an Earth that is in environmental and societal decline. The beginning is a little bit too bleak and full of existential dread for me, but the story soon picks up as the dangerous puzzle quest that Wade has made his life’s goal starts to get underway. The story is pretty straightforward, featuring Wade and some of his enthusiast friends squaring off against an evil corporation in the search for Halliday’s Easter Egg. However, the pacing, the characters, and the storytelling ability that are on display here are really impressive, and make this one of the most fun books I’ve read so far this year!