Before I start off today’s review, I guess I should preface it by saying no, I don’t have any insider information and am not a world-famous writer or film critic or anything like that. I don’t have access to any things you most of you do, either. So when I say I’m doing my review this week on Ready Player One, I’m not talking about the upcoming blockbuster movie: I’m talking about the book, by Ernest Cline, that the movie is based on. Did you know it was based on a book? Neither did I until I saw it on the bookstore shelf in an airport this past weekend. And the fact that I’ve already gotten through it since then is just a testament to how thoroughly awesome I found it.
For those of you who aren’t familiar, Ready Player One tells of a time in the not-so-distant future where the majority of humanity spends at least part of its collective time–or for some people, all of their time–jacked into a virtual reality world called the OASIS. It’s basically a computer-simulated universe, with planets, galaxies, and everything under the sun you could possibly imagine, from education to leisure activities. It’s so popular and immersive that the OASIS has pretty much become inseparable from most daily life.
The story begins when James Halliday, the reclusive creator of the OASIS, dies, and in true Willy Wonka fashion, sets in motion a contest to choose his heir among everyone in the world. Through puzzles, games, and other challenges, Halliday hides a series of keys and gates within the virtual world, and whomever gains access to all of them first inherits total control of the OASIS and his vast personal fortune. Wade Watts, the 18-year-old protagonist, is one of millions of “gunters” who spend their time in the OASIS trying to solve the mystery Halliday left behind. What follows, after Wade stumbles upon the first clue, is a mix of action in reality and fantasy as he struggles to outwit his opponents in the OASIS and dodge the threats against him beginning to mount in real life. The result is a fast-paced read and rollicking adventure that will delight dedicated geeks everywhere.
There’s a lot of reasons why I really, really liked Ready Player One. It just really works on so many different levels. First, with discussions about the role of VR technology in our world ongoing right now, Cline’s story is incredibly timely and its subject matter, from its in-depth descriptions of how the OASIS works to his depiction of this possible future Earth–bleak, barren, over industrialized, and falling apart–speaks to all of our fears about how things could all go to hell. Given the current state of world affairs, seeing this fictional situation as possible in real life really isn’t that much of a stretch, since it’s depicted so realistically here.
While its main purpose as a story is showing the amazing things that are possible in a virtual space like the OASIS, which erases traditional boundaries like education level, race, gender, social class, etc., Ready Player One also isn’t shy about asking tough questions about these same issues, and even what role virtual reality can and should play in our lives. While most of the characters spend all of their time jacked in, it’s quite clear that their real lives tend to suffer as a result, and a whole new set of problems come into focus. What does it mean to be in a relationship if you only know someone online? How do you balance the advantages of the OASIS with your duty to reality? Do we necessarily have to forsake the real world and risk making things even worse than they are by trying to escape into fantasy? The book doesn’t necessarily answer these questions in an up-front fashion, but I think attempts to walk the line in an admirable and grounded “there’s a need for balance in anything” stance. Even Halliday himself, who spent most of his life buried in video games, comics, and films, says at the end that true happiness can only really be found in real life.
And trust me, this book can get pretty dark at times, whether it’s in the OASIS or real life. The villains are the kind of obligatory corporate evildoers, a trope that I admit is sort of tired and played out, but still works here for the most part. Their plans to monetize the mostly free OASIS world should they win are eerily similar to our current net neutrality debates, so again, points to the author for realism and timeliness. And trust me, these guys (fictional internet giant IOI) aren’t afraid to kill in the real world to gain control of a fake one. It’s a tale of violence, conspiracy, and corruption that kind of lends a corporate thriller angle to the book as well, although I wish a bit more attention was paid to their motives rather than just “we’re a company looking to make more money”. Although I guess that’s pretty much all the reason a company would need to take drastic measures like these.
Ready Player One also tackles many issues of gender and sexuality, with one of the biggest reveals of the story being that Wade’s longtime online friend, Aech (who is only ever referred to as a man), turns out to be a woman. While this revelation isn’t exactly groundbreaking or story-critical, I thought it was one of the most effective plot twists in the story because I totally didn’t see it coming and never thought twice about it afterward. It makes complete sense. After all, how can you ever tell who anyone really is online? And does it really matter as long as you know them and can call them a friend? I’m somewhat less of a fan of Wade’s romantic journey will fellow gunter Art3mis. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, but in a book that I think broke a lot of ground in a lot of other areas, the same old will-they-or-won’t-they, break up and get back together, guy-meets-girl drama seems like something that could have been handled a little better. There had to be some way to spice that whole thing up.
And don’t get me wrong, I’m fine with happy endings in stories, for the most part. But the ending of Ready Player One was just the teensiest, tiniest bit of a let-down for me. Sure, there was an epic battle scene in the OASIS coupled with some feats of daring in the real world, but the final fight for control of the world seemed a little anticlimactic. There was no doubt in my mind from the beginning that the bad guys weren’t going to win, but it would have been nice to see a little bit more trickery and fight from them just to up the stakes.
But seriously, these are very, very small nitpicky problems. Otherwise, Ready Player One is a total blast to read, and is a ton of fun as well. The whole book is basically a tribute to the video game-obsessed, fantastical and outlandish pop culture of the 1980s, with everything from Pac-Man and Dungeons and Dragons to Blade Runner, Star Wars, and Back to the Future making an appearance. Man, the 80s really were a great time to be alive. The heavy dose of nostalgia is incredibly welcome amid all the newfangled concepts and worlds the book throws at you, and most are admirably explained by the author in lengthy asides by Wade’s narrator voice. Still, if you’re not at least somewhat familiar with geek culture, you might be a bit lost. Otherwise, if you’re a true-blue fanboy like myself, you’ll be in absolute heaven. I knew I was going to like the book when on the first page, a favorite Ghostbusters quote of mine made me snort with laughter. Wade’s narration is also all kinds of cynical, snarky, and hilarious as well, which definitely ups the entertainment factor. When you have Buckaroo Banzai and Heathers referenced in the same book, I think you can pretty much say Ernest Cline won fiction.
My Rating: 9/10
Let me put it this way: if the movie version of Ready Player One is half as good as the original source material is, I can’t wait to see it on the big screen. This book tackles some big ideas and current issues and combines them with a lot of high-stakes action, both real and virtual, along with a sense of fun, nostalgia, and adventure that’s a really rare find. It’s like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Harry Potter, and The Matrix had a baby. That’s pretty freaking cool. While it may at times lean toward some tried and true fictional tropes for support, Ready Player One is for the most part a trailblazing sci-fi epic that makes me want to beg for a sequel right away.
Oh, that reminds me…can we have a sequel? Please?
Check out Kyle Robertson’s new novel, Camp Ferguson, available online now at Amazon.com and via Kindle devices!