And by Earth, I mean OASIS, a virtual universe where all the pop culture ever created is readily available and anything is possible. In Ready Player One (Random House 2011), people spend most of their time in OASIS in order to avoid the bleak hellscape that the real world has become due to poverty, pollution, and overpopulation(you know, standard dystopian fare). People shop, go to school, work, and have fun all in this virtual reality. But mostly, they search for the hidden Easter Egg. See five years earlier, OASIS’ genius and anti-social creator James Halliday died leaving behind a trail of clues leading to the egg. Find the three keys that open the three gates to collect the egg, and you will win Halliday’s billion dollar fortune and controlling interest in OASIS itself. The clues all have to do with the pop culture that Halliday was obsessed with during his teenage years in the 1980s, so egg hunters, or gunters for short, start exhaustively studying everything from Pacman to John Hughes movies in hopes of gaining some insight into the search. Years of fruitless searching pass by and people start to lose hope that the egg will ever be found until Wade Watts (aka Parzival), an overweight teen-aged hacker living in a trailer park in Oklahoma, stumbles upon the first key. Now the whole world is watching, including the rival communications company that will do anything in order to control OASIS. And by anything I mean murder, kidnapping, extortion, etc. Because they’re eeeeevil! What follows is an adventure that tests Wade’s courage, intelligence, integrity, and very existence. It’s very exciting.
I’m someone who loves pop culture and stories revolving around pop culture so i was intrigued when I first read the synopsis, but I was also worried that I wasn’t quite geeky enough to get this book. I mean, the author, Ernest Cline, owns his own tricked-out DeLorean that he’s nicknamed Ecto88 for crying out loud. Don’t get me wrong, I have my nerd interests (Buffy the Vampire Slayer!), but I’ve never been into the hardcore stuff. I’m not a big sci-fi fan and the last video game system I owned was the original Nintendo. Plus I knew that Dungeons and Dragons played a big part in the story and everything I know about the RPG comes from episodes of Freaks and Geeks and Community. That’s probably why I picture Fat Neil in my head as Wade.
I shouldn’t have worried though. Although the book is PACKED with references, everything that is integral to the plot is explained in detail. Sometimes in a little too much detail, but your mileage may vary. There are also lots of fun references sprinkled throughout the text that aren’t explained, but that eagle-eyed readers will recognize as lines from Ghostbusters, Silence of the Lambs, and many more. Chances are though there will be something in Ready Player One that tickles your geek fancy. I was particularly excited that Wade had a ship that was a replica of Serenity that he won in a battle fought in the OASIS world called Whedonverse. I may have actually cheered out loud.
Now if Ready Player One was just a collection of fun references, then it would be a fun, if fairly forgettable story. Luckily there’s a lot of heart there to balance out the geek fantasy aspect of the narrative. And yes, the fat nerd who finds solace in a fictional reality, is a bit of a stock character, but Wade is a very appealing protagonist. I felt genuine tension in the gaming/battle scenes even when I wasn’t entirely clear what was going on. I think that’s because Cline made me care so much about Wade, that I was very anxious for him to succeed.
The soulless corporation that will go to any lengths to screw over the little people and win is also expected, but it does make an appropriately evil villain, particularly in today’s economic climate. And the eeeeevil corporation makes sure that there are real stakes, both emotionally and physically. Wade and his friends are fighting to prevent the money-grubbing competitors from ruining OASIS, but quite frankly I wouldn’t be as invested in that if the characters weren’t also in mortal danger.
My one quibble with the book is that despite being a pretty inventive story, Ready Player One kept reminding me of other narratives. The contest to find the person who’ll inherit the eccentric billionaire’s fortune gave me a major Willy Wonka vibe. The whole regular people traveling through fictional worlds reminded me of Jasper Ffordes’s Thursday Next series, although the tone of this story is a lot more grounded. And I even thought of the episode of Chuck where they have to play an old arcade game to the tune of Rush in order to save the world from nuclear war. Seriously, why don’t more people watch that show? It’s so fun! I like all those things, so I didn’t really mind, but it did sometimes distract me from the story. Of course there aren’t really any original stories out there anymore, but when a book is stuffed with as many pop-culture references as this one, it stands out a bit more.
Uber nerds will LOVE this book, but I think there’s a lot here to offer to other readers as well. It’s a rollicking adventure and a lovely coming of age tale. AND there are (virtual) giant robot fights. Ready Player One is not for everyone, but if you have a fondness for 80s culture or underdog heroes, you should check it out.
And now as a bonus, that scene from Chuck. You’re welcome.