REVIEW: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Dear Mr. Cline,
2003 2011 novel, Ready Player One, was aptly described by USA Today as “Willy Wonka meets The Matrix.” Much like Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Ready Player One begins with an impoverished boy obsessed with a worldwide contest.
Wade Watts loves the OASIS, a virtual reality universe in which players can teleport or travel by spaceship to different VR planets, each with a different, fun world on its surface.
Now OASIS creator James Halliday has crafted a hunt for an “Easter egg” (or rather, something akin to a video game Easter egg) involving three keys (copper, jade, and crystal) to three gates. Finding each key and entering each gate requires an encyclopedic knowledge of the 1980s pop culture Halliday loved.
I say loved, because Halliday, a multi-billionaire, is dead, and has left his vast fortune and his shares in Gregarious Simulation Systems, the company that owns the OASIS, to the person who obtains all three keys, enters the three gates, and ultimately beats his or her competitors to the Easter egg.
While some contestants try to game the game by forming “clans” that ally together to seek the clues and split the winnings, others are individual egg hunters, or “gunters.” A corporation named IOI is also after the prize.
Wade Watts is a gunter, as well as an eighteen-year-old kid living in a trailer stack (trailers are stacked atop one another). The trailer where Wade and fourteen others sleep is owned by his abusive aunt, but Wade spends most of his time in his hideaway, where he logs on to the OASIS and uses it to go to school, as well as to research the egg hunt.
Earth is a bleak place and Wade is far from the only person to use the OASIS to escape it—indeed, most of the population is addicted to the OASIS. But unlike his peers, Wade is mostly stuck on one planet within the OASIS—Ludus, the world on which his school is located. Travel within the OASIS costs money, and Wade has only the limited funds he obtains from repairing old computers. So even within the OASIS, the odds are against Wade’s success.
And yet, as Wade’s first person, past tense narration tells us very early on, Wade is the first person to, five years after the egg hunt and the first clue were announced, obtain the copper key, and along with it, the second of the several clues which will ultimately lead one lucky person to Halliday’s Easter egg and the winnings.
As the story begins, Wade, aka Parzival (that is the name of his avatar), has just one friend, whom he knows only by the avatar Aech. Aech and Wade are both dedicated gunters and they play eighties videogames together and polish their other gunting skills on each other, though neither knows the other’s real name.
Wade crushes on Art3mis, the avatar of a blogger he really likes. When Wade, as Parzival, works out the clue to the location of the copper key, he discovers that Art3mis has already beaten him there; she just hasn’t worked out how to pass the challenge and obtain the key.
Wade gets to that step ahead of her, but she’s right behind—as are Aech and two Japanese players known to Wade only by their avatars, Daito and Shoto. Breathing down the five contestants’ necks is Innovative Online Industries, a corporation so ruthless it will stop at nothing to obtain the key.
IOI gives the clues to the thousand plus employees in their humorously named (there is a lot of humor in this book) Oology division. When, despite the unfair advantage this gives them, Wade still beats them to the copper key, they offer him a position. He refuses in no uncertain terms; IOI responds with an attempt on his life.
After surviving IOI’s attempt to kill him, Wade acts quickly to warn his fellow competitors and then lies low right in IOI’s backyard. He then begins an online romance with Art3mis, whom he has never met in person. When he falls behind in the game and IOI nears the lead, Wade makes a desperate gamble, and what began as a quest for escape from poverty and abuse becomes a bid for love, and a story of friendship.
Ready Player One is steeped in 1980s popular culture of the geeky variety. Homages to both popular and obscure video games, Dungeons and Dragons manuals, anime, mangas, science fiction and fantasy movies and television shows are all here, as well as, for good measure, some classic rock.
(There is no pop or soul music to speak of, though, so in that regard, the picture of 1980s popular culture comes across as less diverse and even more male-centered than it actually was. Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Whitney Houston, among others, may not have mattered to James Halliday, but they were huge in the eighties.)
There’s also some hand waving of potential obstacles; for example, I did not understand why IOI didn’t use the five gunters’ sponsorship deals to obtain all their real life identities.
During the contest, Wade helps his gunter competitors and I wondered whether that would prove to be a mistake or a good move. I won’t spoil which way it went, as that would take some of the suspense out of the novel—and it is a suspenseful, page-turning read.
Wade’s friendship with his fellow geeks (Aech especially) and his budding romance with Art3mis were particularly compelling. The mystery around Aech went in a direction I did not expect and I thought it made a great point about how online personas can be misleading.
While I was less than thrilled with Art3mis’s reason for refusing to reveal her identity to Wade, I liked her a lot. She was a quick thinker and had her own goals, rather than merely being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I got why Wade fell so hard for her.
The book also has what I think of as a strong gee whiz factor. The wonders of the OASIS are creatively imagined and I can see why this novel slated to become a Steven Spielberg movie—many scenes beg to be brought to life on a big screen.
At the same time, there were a couple of slow chapters in the middle of the book, one of which described almost nothing but the state of the art OASIS system Wade had purchased. Not being that into tech, I zoned out during that chapter.
Reading this 2003 release in 2017 makes it hard to tell how fresh the virtual reality world concept was at the time of its publication. It’s been done before now in YA, but perhaps some of those books were inspired by this one.</p>
Ready Player One is also highly entertaining. I was reminded of every recent SFF novel I had a blast reading, from The Martian to Ilona Andrews’ books, not because there are any other similarities there, because simply so much of this novel was sheer fun.
And for all its flaws, Ready Player One also had an underlying cautionary message—that the real world should matter to us at least as much as our devices, no matter how enjoyable they are. B.