Published in 2011, Ready Player One was the debut novel of Ernest Cline. Despite seeing high praise for this work in numerous book listings, it wasn’t until I made my preparations for this post that I found out it was apparently a big thing; the original print versions contained clues to win a DeLorean, the audiobook version was narrated by geek-culture icon, and occasional Stone Brewing collaborator, Wil Wheaton, and none other than Steven Spielberg is currently directing the movie adaptation. Let’s take a look at what I’d been missing out on.
The story is set in the year 2044, and life is looking pretty bleak. Years of warfare over Earth’s dwindling resources have left the world on the brink of political and ecological collapse. To mitigate the struggles of everyday life, a significant portion of the population has immersed themselves in a virtual reality program called OASIS; a free-to-access environment offering a fusion of communication, commerce, education, entertainment, and MMORPG gaming. When the eccentric founder of OASIS dies, control of both the program and his immense fortune up are put for grabs by means of an in-game Easter egg hunt. The clues leading to the prize are hidden within a series of cryptic riddles referencing the deceased founder’s obsession: 1980’s geek and pop-culture. Almost overnight a subculture of OASIS users emerges, committing to memory and analyzing every movie line, song lyric, and video game no matter how obscure to win both the prize and bragging rights. The story of this hunt is told from the point of view Wade Owen Watts, typically through the guise of his OASIS avatar Parzival. As the first person to solve the hunt’s initial clue, he finds himself in a race against newfound friends and enemies in his effort to win a fortune and protect the virtual world he loves so much.
This book was amazingly fun to read. It had excellent pacing with plenty of entertaining moments throughout. The key component to the story was its wealth of geek/pop-cultural references that dominated the lives of the characters. While the focus was the 1980s, pretty much anything and everything from the last 30 years or so was likely to pop up in one way or another; movies, video games, television, and anime were all heavily drawn upon for inspiration. Being of an age to fondly recall and having an inclination to be interested in these things really made the book stand out for me. I didn’t get all the references down to the last detail, but I was at least passingly familiar with the majority of them (with a special thank you due to the Angry Video Game Nerd, without whom many of the copious Atari 2600 references would not have been appreciated nearly as much).
Underneath all this, the book did raise a few more serious points about OASIS and the role of technology in people’s lives. On the positive side, the author explored through the treasure hunt issues of what is gained by having free access to information, particularly to those economically and socially marginalized in society and the possibilities for uniting people of common interest. On the negative, he also looked at what is lost by those who go too far in using the program as a replacement for real life and the personal and societal consequences of when this option is the preferred choice of the masses. This leads me to the one thing I would have liked to have seen more of in the story: what the real world of the novel looked like. We’re given a few glimpses, but the great majority of the action takes place online. In terms of the nature of the story I think this worked out for the best, but this is an area in which I was left wanting more.
My guess is that there is definitely a target demographic for this book that will absolutely love it: geeks in their early-30s to mid-40s that are into modern technology while still maintaining some sense of nostalgia for the relics of their childhood. Being unabashedly in the book’s target demographic and one who took delight in witty references to things like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Godzilla, Pacman, Zork, Firefly, Highlander, video game arcades, Dungeons and Dragons, etc. it often felt the author was writing for me specifically. Outside of that demographic, the reaction might not be as strongly positive, which makes me very curious to see how the film adaptation fares. With that caveat, I highly recommend this book.