Ready Player One
Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is an adrenaline fueled, high-octane, non-stop thrill ride through nostalgia-land. It is a novel that takes its inspiration from various sectors of the geek world borrowing as much from classic 80s films, movies, and games as much as it extrapolates from today’s contemporary media. For better or for for worse Ready Player One wears its geeky heart openly on its sleeve. If the novel has a message it is only as a vague background noise to the technicolor adventure at its core. Ready Player One isn’t art via the Louvre, it’s art via Gallery88.
In the bleak future of 2044 the world isn’t a happy place. Poverty and famine run rampant with people more or less unwilling to do anything to save the world. Like most of the world the orphaned Wade Watts (his father was a comic book fan) escapes the misery of everyday existence by plugging into OASIS and real-time, virtual world where anything and everything is possible. On his death bed the creator of OASIS, James Halliday, left users with a challenge: a series of hidden puzzles and tests leading to the ultimate prize. Countless people in OASIS have tried to track down the start of this quest to no avail. Years later it is Wade Watts stumbles across the first test and starts a battle with the fate of OASIS as its ultimate reward.
The opening section of Ready Player One, say about the first 100 pages, sets up the way the world works. It explains and shows the abject poverty and dire straits that Wade is faced with on a daily basis. It summarizes the nature of OASIS and explains the quest set forth by James Halliday. Truth be told it drags and is by far the most difficult part of the book. Only once Wade truly begins his quest to things really kick up into an almost montage-like frenzy of action. When this novel is on, firing on all 12 cylinders flux capacitor charged and ready, it is a frantic edge-of-your seat page-turner that you don’t want to end.
Ready Player One uses the notions of power fantasy and wish fulfillment as the foundation of its world. OASIS is a place where your every wish can come true. There is a certain joyousness to its freeing nature and a believable and well-reasoned structure to the culture governing its use. At the same time beneath the gloss there is a certain uneasiness to OASIS. Cline lays down a not-so-subtle yet surprisingly easy to overlook metaphor between OASIS and a drug. OASIS, not religion, is the new opiate of the masses and none exemplify this more than Wade (seriously take the original Marx quote and replace every instance of religion with OASIS and tell me that doesn’t work). Our glimpses of the real world, like Wade’s tenement home or the indentured servitude glimpsed late in the novel, reveal a society teetering on the brink of collapse. Even Wade, when discussing what he would do if he wins Halliday’s competition, has written the world off as too far gone to save. What is particularly odd about the dire situation of the world in Ready Player One is precisely how little it weighs upon the plot. The novel is so grounded in its unreality that the situation of the world outside OASIS fades to a barely audible hum; it is a minor obstacle to overcome or endured in order for Halliday’s quest to proceed.
There are moments, those in the real world, that are quite noteworthy over the course of the novel. In fact I would argue that the elements that occur when Wade is (mostly) unplugged have a more tangible heft to them when compared to hyperkinetic sensory overload of OASIS. Wade’s meeting with Aech, the corporate espionage, and the novel’s early daring escape have a greater sense of accomplishment to them and do a lot to blur the line between Wade’s online persona and his flesh and blood self. While the nostalgia factor is cranked up way past 11 there are some surprisingly meaty bits buried beneath the bright colors.
Ready Player One is probably the shortest 384 page novel I’ve read. When the action heats up the pages fly by and the novel comes to a close far faster than expected. The almost frightening speed at which the novel moves, particularly in the last third, left me feeling a bit deprived. There are some interesting social questions raised over the course of the novel but they are questions that are never directly addressed. Ready Player One is such a tantalizing step away from being great, from providing something truly amazing. It never quite makes it there though. It sticks to its guns veering close to social commentary before flooring back out to lighthearted entertainment again. With perhaps one notable exception (Wade has a sort of extended Bella Swan-eqsue “Woe is me” mopey emo section) Ready Player One is consistently entertaining and never less than fun. It is a novel that the young, and the young at hear, the geek and the reformed geek, can enjoy equally. It isn’t perfect, but is remarkably accomplished first novel (it should be noted that Ernest Cline shares writing credits on Fanboys, perhaps one the best examinations on Star Wars fandom ever) leaving me excited to see what Ernest Cline has lined up next.