Ernest Cline. Ready Player One. New York: Crown Publishers, 2012. 384 pages.
This is a hard novel to review. I’ve got to confess that I came very close to not making it more than a twenty pages into this book. It’s set in a dystopian future, with a disillusioned teenager as the protagonist. And that’s where the book hit a huge speedbump, for me at least, with the crapsack world just a little too…crappy and the whiny know-it-all teenager just a little too…whiny. I actually put the book down for a few months, not wanting to slog through anymore of the dismal dystopia and not wanting to listen to protagonist Wade Watts complain about how crappy everything was. (Though, to be fair, he had a point in-universe.)
I picked it up again a few months later, determined to give it another shot. I’m very glad I did. With the crapsack world of Ready Player One being so crappy, going online in the super-immersive OASIS system is a big pastime. And once Wade “stepped” into OASIS and became Parzival (his avatar’s name), things really picked up. Call it a case of the author doing his job too well, but reading about life outside of OASIS was a grind, while reading about the virtual reality/game environment was actually fun.
To sum up the plot, Wade is a gunter, an online “egg hunter” searching for the Easter egg hidden in Oasis by James Halliday, the tech genius who created the system. To find the egg, gunters need to know everything about everything geek, game, and pop-culture-related from the 1980s (though there’s stuff from the 1970s through the 2000s referenced). As someone born within a few years of the ficitional Halliday, and who grew up enjoying a lot of that game and geek culture, this book was tailor-made for me. Kind of. Nostlagia really is the cheapest kind of cheap pop, where the writer doesn’t have to work to give the reader an emotional connection, he just alludes to stuff that’s been rattling around in your brain for two or three decades. And you know what? It usually works.
Also, besides the nostalgia factor, there’s some great world-building (literally) inside OASIS. By the time Parzival had gotten really started on his quest (no spoilers here), I was hooked. By the time he was getting close to the midpoint, I was saying, “If Cline references Moon Patrol or Rastan, he gets a five-star review.” By the time I was finished, I said, “Aw hell, he’s earned his five stars anyway.”
What I ended up liking about Ready Player One was that it actually did something fun with all that nostalgia, and through Parzival showed the real joy that Halliday (and Cline) found in all of those games and TV shows. And, like Star Trek TNG: “Hollow Pursuits,” it’s look into how seductive virtual realities can be–the kicker is that, unlike the crapsack dystopia of Ready Player One, Star Trek is set in as pure a utopia as can be imagined (and TNG is the most utopian of all the treks). So be careful reading this book–you might not be able to put it down.