Set in a near future that could very well be ours, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is prophetic, entertaining and nostalgic.
Briefly, in the year 2044 all our dreams have come true: there are no more fossil fuels, the hole in the ozone layer is no longer a hotly debated myth and despite all those farting cows, there isn’t enough food to go around. Cities are overcrowded and governance is all but corporate. There is an escape, however: The OASIS, a virtual world that offers limitless freedom and possibility.
The creator of The OASIS, James Halliday, is a known eccentric. When he dies, his last will and testament promises the keys to the kingdom (The OASIS and all his vast fortune) to the first person who unravels a series of clues. It’s a game, and it attracts millions of players.
Teenage Wade Watts spends more time in The OASIS than he does the real world, which seems pretty typical when you take into account what his ‘real world’ consists of. Orphaned and broke, he relies on the charity of his Aunt and splits his time between her laundry room and his hideout—the back half of an abandoned van hidden in the shadow of the trailer stacks. He attends school online and hangs out there with his friends. In between, he obsessively absorbs eighties culture; comics, tv, movies, music, books and games. He’s looking for hints to James Halliday’s now famous riddle. It’s been five years since the game began and the first key has yet to be found.
One unremarkable day, wallowing in his ordinariness, Wade finds it.
The race is on and not all the players are socially awkward teenagers. The OASIS’ largest competitor, IOI, has an army of avatars hunting for the prize. Ridiculously well-funded and utterly unscrupulous, the ‘Sixers’ (IOI avatars are unimaginatively named using their corporate IDs, a string of six digits) exploit every loophole and hack possible. Wade quickly falls afoul of their villainous tactics. His loss is also his gain, however, as he is determined not to let them win. Neither are the other independent hunters, who operate either singly or in clans.
Ready Player One is something of an homage to a decade many would rather forget. Eighties fashion (omg, the hair) and music is mostly memorable for its ability to make most people my age cringe. The movies and tv shows seem criminally vapid and naïve when compared to today’s entertainment. There is a lot of hidden depth to the 80s, though, and as Ernest Cline waxes poetic about what is obviously his favourite era, the reader is slowly corrupted. At the end of the book, I found myself wanting to play Asteroids and watch Family Ties.
Aside from the trip down memory lane (or an education in eighties pop culture), Ready Player One also provides a good story. The villains are properly villainous and the good guys are too good, but the characterisations work against the hectic backdrop, which is, essentially a game. Wade is easy to relate to. Even now, gamer or not, just about everyone has an online persona. Whether you simply hang out on Facebook or belong to an MMO Guild, you know that who you are online isn’t always who you are in real life. There is a screen of anonymity (which doesn’t always bring out the best in people, eh?). Cline deftly weaves these elements into the plot. I really enjoyed the friendships Wade develops with his online friends and the revelations when he finally meets them in the real world.
Ready Player One reminded me of Cory Doctorow’s novels Little Brother and Homeland, if only because the main character is a young guy, personable and definitely against ‘The Man’. Also, for all the geek-culture references. The story is a little softer, however, though no less absorbing or relevant.
It’s a great little book, one that definitely captures much of the era in which we live. I’ll be keeping this one on the bookshelf.