Title: Ready Player One
Author: Ernest Cline
Genre: Science Fiction, Gaming
Publisher: Crown (US)/Century (UK)
Publication date: August 16 2011
Hardcover/Paperback: 384 pages
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.
Are you ready?
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did we get this book: Thea got her copy autographed at BEA, Ana received her review copy from the UK publisher
Why did we read this book: The premise of the book sounded just like the sort of geek-fest that we both love. How could we say no to this?
Ana: I was super excited about reading Ready Player One because of its promising premise. And it is indeed chock filled with awesome stuff and so much 80s nostalgia to make any geek happy. It is fun and entertaining in a really cheesy way. Unfortunately, as we all know, “fun” does not necessarily mean “good”.
Thea: Oh, I disagree. I absolutely loved this book in all its geeky, cheesy, nostalgic abandon. Essentially a quest game brought to life, I found Ready Player One to be an immensely entertaining, well written, and nicely conceived novel. Heck, it’s probably going to end up on my longlist of notable books of the year.
On the Plot:
It is mid 21st Century and the world is in a really bad shape with an ongoing energy crisis, catastrophic climate change, several wars worldwide and widespread famine and poverty. The vast majority of the world’s population spends their time connected to OASIS, a multiplayer, multiuniverse online game that evolved into a global phenomenon of virtual reality: for all intents and purposes Oasis IS the real world. And it is free and readily available to everybody.
The creator of this virtual utopia was one James Halliday, an ’80s obsessed geek who prior to his death hid inside the OASIS source code clues and puzzles that would give his entire considerable fortune, as well as the control over OASIS, to one lucky winner: the one who successfully solves the puzzle.
Enter Wade Watts, a teenager who just like the rest of the world has been obsessed with solving the riddles left by Halliday, spending the majority of his days learning everything he can about the 80s since the riddles seem to be based in that pop culture of that decade.
And then Wade stumbles into the first puzzle and unlocks the first gate – and all of a sudden shit gets real.
My reading experience of Ready Player One happened in two stages: stage one, the most basic level, started as soon as I heard about the book and got super excited about it. It continued throughout the majority of my reading and it can be simply summarised as: I had fun. I mean, I am a child of the eighties and this is a book that is basically a love letter to that decade. From arguing as to whether the soundtrack of Ladyhawke is awesome or crap (I vote awesome, by the way) to talking about songs, movies and video games that made the decade. It also has a pretty decent plot and the discovery of each clue leading to even more puzzles appealed to the geek in me (although I am not really a gamer, I really love riddles and puzzles). There is a bit of romance on the side and an intriguing setting in a collapsing world, which one could definitely argue is half way through becoming a dystopian (virtual) reality.
The second stage started as soon as I started reading the book and therefore in parallel to all the fun times I was having, I felt I was sort of battling through a lot of crap to get to the good stuff. For every awesome pop reference, there was the huge amount of exposition; for every cool mystery, there was the pedestrian writing; for every plot twist, a Deus Ex Machina; until eventually the fun times were completely eclipsed by the realisation that this book might be fun but it is most certainly not good. Not in the opinion of this reader anyway.
Starting with the ridiculous amount of info-dump and exposition. Yes, some of it was interesting: it was cool to know how the world became such a horrible place; it was cool to learn about the Oasis and how it works. But it was done in a really clunky and clumsy way. Not to mention that it was completely illogical to have so much information dumped about the world and the Oasis. Because you see, in principle, this book is being narrated by Wade Watts to the population at large in an attempt to tell the truth about him finding that first clue – therefore he is telling this story to other people who should already know all these things and how Oasis works because according to our own narrator Oasis was something that “most of humanity now used on a daily basis”.
I could also continue and nitpick for example that the premise of the book – that Oasis creator is an 80s maniac and the 80s are the most important thing to break the puzzle – is never really upheld. There are references to many things outside that decade and one pivotal scene in the novel is a play by play of Monty Python and The Holy Grail –a 1975 movie. Geeky? Hell yes. Awesome? FOR SURE. But outside the very premise of the novel. How does that make any sense?
There is also one small sequence that I think encapsulates my biggest problem with the novel.
**SPOILERS FOLLOW** (highlight to read)
In this one scene, Wade finds out that his best virtual friend had been lying to him for years. When they finally meet in person, instead of a White heterosexual, male (as per his avatar) the best friend turns out to be an African American Gay Female. In about one paragraph following this revelation, Wade goes through a life-changing realisation that it doesn’t matter, that he still loves her as his best friend because they connect and I quote:
“[…]on a purely mental level. I understood her, trusted her, and loved her as a dear friend. None of that changed, or could be changed by anything as inconsequential as her gender, or skin color, or sexual orientation.”
I truly do believe that this was intended as a beautiful message of acceptance. Which is you know, nice. Except that I don’t think there is anything even remotely inconsequential about gender, skin colour or sexual orientation and to say so like this, in a hand-wavey way left me feeling slightly uncomfortable. The mere fact that this “beautiful” realisation by the white/male/heterosexual main character happens immediately after the girl explains that she HAD to pretend to be a white male so she could have a better life proves this. The mere fact her mother threw her out of the house because she was gay proves this.
And this is my main problem with this novel, that it brings up really important and complicated issues then brushes them aside simplistically. You can include there not only the gender and race issues but also the stuff happening in the real world: the poverty, the wars, the energy crisis, the murders. There is nothing wrong about having fun and being entertained by geeky stuff but these things are part of the book as well so why not truly develop them?
Thea: And here is where I thoroughly disagree with Ana.
I think there is a fundamental difference between Ana and I that makes this book meh/not good for her, but fascinating for me – and that, dear readers, is the writing style. Like many works of geek-lit, Ready Player One is unabashedly exposition-laden. It details the origins of OASIS and its creator Halliday, it explains and describes in depth immersion suits, player inventories, pop culture references, and other assorted awesome geekish potpourri. For some people, this will be very, very boring (and there’s nothing wrong with that – that’s a reader’s preference and prerogative). For me, who finds this sort of prolonged descent into explanation and detail fascinating, it was brilliant. If I had to grade Mr. Cline’s exposition-saturation in this book, I’d place it somewhere between Mira Grant’s Newsflesh books (impeccable detail, TONS of exposition but about such awesomely fascinating subjects and in such a convincing voice that it just *works*) and Cory Doctorow (more unrestrained than Grant, with characters that tend to sound exactly the same – i.e. like Cory Doctorow). Like Ms. Grant, Ernest Cline does a bang-up job of explaining Wade/Parzival’s world to readers, and I loved every second of it.
As to the offense that much of the geekish references throughout the book are from periods outside of the 1980s, to this I say, so what? The ’80s are central to Halliday’s easter egg hunt and to the core pillars of the game and OASIS itself, but I don’t think it need be contained to a single decade. There are plenty of other miniverses within OASIS – Star Wars, the Whedonverse, Monty Python, Rivindell, you name it. I took the ’80s fixation as a locus of geek knowledge, but not an exclusive one. Personally, I loved the often fleeting mentions of different memorabilia and trivia from different realms of geek culture. My only big complaint was that for all that Halliday is a supposed SciFi/Fantasy geek, which extends to novels, there was a decided lack of literary allusions throughout the game, and even those few literary references would pull from the movie versions of those books. For example, there is a pivotal part of the game that is derived from Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – except that the derivation is not from the book, but rather the movie (that is to say, Blade Runner).
The other complaint I had regarding Halliday and his canon, and the other references made by Wade to some of the great works of SF/F literature and geekdom at large was the mysterious absence of almost all female creators. There was ONE mention of Pern (Anne McCaffery), but that was basically it. No Ursula Le Guin, no Octavia Butler, no Norton, no Rowling, no Pierce, or Bujold. That’s frustrating. At the same time, though, just because they aren’t mentioned by this character narrator doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. I just wish they were a bigger part of the overall universe (which, in the tradition of gamer geeks, seems to be largely white and male).
**SPOILERS FOLLOW** (highlight to read)
As to the last objection Ana raises regarding the reveal that Aech is not a white heterosexual male but in actuality a black, gay female – I actually take no offense to Wade’s phrasing at all. When he calls gender, race, and sexual orientation as “inconsequential” I read him as being intentionally glib – because OF COURSE these things matter to everyone in the world, virtual or not. But because their friendship is so strong, he wouldn’t let anything ruin it. Of course, it’s easy for Wade to say this as a white heterosexual male himself and I understand how it can be read as dismissive or indicative of a larger problem. I personally didn’t find it offensive or malicious, even on a subtextual level.
On a nitpicky note, Aech doesn’t actually pick her avatar or choose to be a white male in OASIS. It’s something that her mother made her do as a child (this is the same mother that threw Aech out after she came out of the closet), and something that Aech continued as she grew older, even after getting thrown out of her mother’s home.
As to the mechanics of the plot and universe, I have to admit that I am very tired of Virtual Reality as the replacement for all things in the future (this is SOOOOO ’80s/early ’90s), but in the context of this novel, it works. The more dystopian aspects of the world also worked for me, as I can easily imagine a future where cities are crumbling and megacorporations like IOI basically rule the world. The tension between the Sixers (those GSS employees hellbent on discovering Halliday’s egg and winning absolute control of OASIS) and gunters (true believers that hunt for the egg to uphold the ideals of opensource geekdom, man) is beautifully rendered and fraught with serious tension. Should the Sixers win the prize, OASIS – the world’s most vital, and only expanding infrastructure – would begin to cost a nominal fee. Something beautiful and organic would become corporate, twisted and ruined – just like the rest of the Real World that Wade and his friends inhabit.
And, while I still find virtual reality a bit silly and dated, I loved the juxtaposition of this ideal environment in contrast to the devastated real world. Is the OASIS actually a utopia? Even if the simulation isn’t controlled by GSS, there are many disturbing things about the people so happily plugged in and utterly cut off from tactile reality. Mr. Cline addresses these issues in the book without being heavy-handed or delivering Big Messages about the state of the world, and I respect that.
On the Characters:
Ana: I am already feeling like a party-pooper but here goes the truth: to be honest, I don’t really have a lot to add on this character part as they were for the most part stock, forgettable geeky characters. Wades’ arc is basically told instead of shown and that really does not float my boat at all.
Thea: I agree that the characters are basic archetypes and do not go through any dramatic arcs – but then again, this is a purely plot driven novel. Wade is your typical, everyday gamer (actually, he’s of course a lot more BRILLIANT than the typical gamer, since he’s able to pop out a perfect game of pacman in a few scant hours and conquer all types of ridiculously difficult, nigh impossible arcade feats on the first try). He’s totally dedicated to the gunter cause, he’s read and watched and mastered ALL of the games, films, comics, books, music, etc mentioned by Halliday. There isn’t a lot of introspection, but I don’t really mind that as Ready Player One isn’t that kind of book.
Furthermore, I loved that for all that Wade is your typical white male gamer, the rest of the core cast is varied in terms of gender and race. Art3mis, Wade’s cybercrush – who turns out to be a top gunter in her own right – is my favorite character in the book. Brutally smart, just as dedicated as Wade and as knowledgeable, Artemis is a badass that won’t sacrifice her dreams for anything. That’s awesome.
But perhaps what I loved most is how these characters had to truly collaborate and work together to win the prize at the end. Is this a tad idealistic? Yes. With so much at stake, you’d expect more backstabbing and nastiness, but the High Five (the first five gunters to get on the scoreboard) proceed with honor and dignity.
As to the villains, well, they are a simple as they come. Motivated by greed and power, the Sixers are mostly anonymous except for one Big Bad Baddy (it’s all very Agent Smith and his ilk). There’s no deeper meaning or gravitas here – but for this novel, I didn’t really miss it.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana: In keeping with the 80s motto, it is as though the author was torn between being inspired by Blade Runner or a John Hughes movie but not managing to get either completely right. I have to say that it was fun for the most part, but totally forgettable.
Thea: I wholeheartedly disagree. A mashup of films, music, games, and all other things geeky, I loved Ready Player One. One of my notable reads of the year, and absolutely recommended for the nerd in all of us.
Ana: 4 – Bad but not without some merit
Thea: 8 – Excellent
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