Sure, I like the 80s. I wasn’t very old when they ended, so I don’t have much in terms of nostalgia for them: memories of arcades with pixelated games and tinny music aren’t in my past. I was more of a “remember back when my older brother was playing Pong on our ancient (well, in today’s terms) desktop that seemed like it was literally only capable of that one game” type. And, of course, older brothers being as they are, I was rarely allowed to play any of his video games as technology evolved.
Today, I’m still not big on video games. I certainly see the value they hold for many people, and I appreciate the graphics and storylines which skilled men and women work to bring to life, work to make people invest themselves in. I’ve cared enough to watch people play a game or two (or at least the cut scenes). And, I guess, I’m knowledgeable to know some things like the term “cut scenes.” But I have little practical personal use for most video games (unless they’re at a bar. In which case, it’s on.). So a lot of the specific videogame references/scenes in Ready Player One aren’t ones with which I personally relate/can follow on a high level.
Oh yeah, I’m talking about Ready Player One today. It’s older. Like 2011. So really, not that old. I missed it then, but I’ve been hearing an increasing number of people talking about it lately, particularly as the movie is slated to come out in a bit over a year. It’s been a few since I’ve read an epic video game/space opera/virtual reality book. Wait…I’ve maybe never quite read one of those.
This book lays most of it out on the table straight away. The world’s gone to shit. An energy crisis has changed the world’s physical landscape and climate as well as plunging people across the globe into extreme poverty and near starvation, such that slums erected throughout the United States and across the globe are an increasingly common place to live. The only escape? A virtual reality system called OASIS. When the multibillionaire creator of OASIS dies without heirs, he sends out a video blast declaring that he leaves his entire fortune, which includes controlling shares of OASIS, to the person who can successfully complete an Easter Egg-style quest.
For those who don’t know, an Easter Egg is something hidden in a game or movie, left by the creators as a sort of special surprise/gift for fans. Years pass, and no one has even found out how to begin the quest, until a kid named Wade, from a slum in Oklahoma, finds the key to the first of three gates a player needs to enter to inherit the fortune. Thanks to an automated public scoreboard, everyone knows.
This is what we know before the action begins. The book itself is from 18-year-old Wade’s point of view. He’s been a “gunter” (an egg-hunter) ever since the quest began; he imagines winning his way through the gates and gaining fortune enough to leave the planet, which he gives up as hopeless.
I’ll have a spoiler section at the bottom, because there are some things I’d like to discuss in detail. But without spoiling anything for the moment, I’ll say this is a fun read, if rather predictable. It’s fast-paced and relatively action-filled. The narration is split between the real world where Wade lives and OASIS, where Wade’s character Parzival attends virtual-reality high school and wanders around the school planet, where he’s mostly stuck, having no money to go off-world for quests.
Oh, I guess I should explain some more about the world.
The novel is so incredibly explanatory at the beginning (and periodically throughout) as it builds the Earth-world and the galaxies contained within OASIS. Other than the whole post-apocalyptic dystopia aspect, the world itself is pretty similar to our current one, with the exception of fully-immersive virtual reality. Within OASIS, however, you get everything you’ve ever imagined from science fiction books and movies, fantasy books and movies, and all video games ever. Plus the mundane; a number of corporations employ people to do their jobs in OASIS, where most people spend all day, every day.
Yet OASIS itself is pretty similar to our real world: bullies and rich kids mock the poor awkward kids, the more money you have, the more access you have, celebrities exist within OASIS (and they do fun things like sponsorship), goods can be bought and sold, your clothes say a lot about who you are.
I digress. Generally, it makes sense that there’s some narrative explanation to this novel. But there’s a lot. Too much. It would be great if Ernest Cline didn’t believe the lowest common denominator of us readers and trusted us to infer at least a little. (Is it ironic that the last book I wrote about expected too much inference and this expects too little? No, not ironic. Just of course.)
But given the layout of the novel and its obsessions, almost any time there isn’t explanation, there’s a lot of action. It’s a quest, after all, with three parts which are each split up into two (or more) further portions, and then there’s the whole 80s obsession which the creator of OASIS had (and subsequently Wade has), so the 80s make a major comeback in the book—which is also reflected in Wade’s own story; it’s fairly reminiscent of the plotline of an 80s movie. Plus a video game. Plus there’s a heist-type scene, some going on the run, an evil corporation (employees are called the Sixers. Which, I thought, was kind of odd—did anyone see Terra Nova? The evil guys were the Sixers there too. But then, the realization: numerically speaking, you don’t want to call them the Oneers, Twoers, Threeers, etc.), reenactment of some classic 80s movies, underground/planet-based lairs, video game theory, and so on and so on. There’s a lot. Really, a lot.
For all that, it’s fairly fast, pretty engrossing, and a lot of fun. If you aren’t hardcore into science fiction, no worries; this one is approachable as long as you just accept that there will be a lot of uber-nerd references that you might not care about at all. The writing can be a bit laborious at times, so don’t try to do any close reading, but overall I recommend you read it, it’s hokey but fun.
And now, spoilers:
It’s so predictable, right?
The minute Parzival gets the coin from the perfect game of Pacman (wait, didn’t he say it wasn’t even perfect? Ah, whatever, willful suspension of disbelief, I guess) it was so obvious that the single quarter would be the determining factor whether he won or not. And that he’d probably be the winner was pretty much a given early on. After all, since the book doesn’t exactly end shortly after the first key, it’s clear there’s a lot left to happen.
As to Aech’s identity, no surprises there. I had a hint of it pretty quickly, and that just got stronger as it went on. I didn’t expect her to be black, necessarily, but that she’d be a girl instead of a guy was clear soon after the novel began. After all, that’s the ultimate surprise, right?
When Wade gets arrested, it’s immediately obvious he wanted this. It takes him a minute or two to admit it, sure, but there was no question in my mind that it was part of his plan.
Things not going well with the meeting with IOI? Duh. Art3mis leaving him? Given. The first key being on the school planet? HOW DID NO ONE EVER GET THAT???! IT LITERALLY SAYS THERE’S A LOT TO LEARN!!! Oh man. This book is making me overuse punctuation.
So, yeah, there’s a lot to just get over in terms of plot holes/overly convenient solutions/things that are supposed to be surprising or difficult but aren’t. As I said, the writing isn’t always great, and there’s a lot of niche knowledge to wade through. The two morals of the story seem to be that real life is better than virtual (oh, thanks, glad I spent so much time reading a book that wasn’t about real life. Plus there’s the inherent contradiction, should I not have read the book because it’s not real and reality is the only good thing?) and that looks—which include identities such as gender and race—don’t matter (oh, good, because Wade is a disgusting hairless slug-man who’s never seen the sun).
Plus, the miserable contradiction:
- Wade meets Aech as a white man. Wade feels comfortable with Aech because of how similar they are. They become BFFs.
- Wade meets Aech in real life. Wade is momentarily shocked when he realizes his white man friend is a black woman.
- Wade gets over it immediately and they’re happy. He says he doesn’t care. It’s great and progressive; Wade doesn’t judge someone based on skin color or gender but on who they are as a person.
Step 4 is missing from the novel. The step acknowledges that, hey, Wade did good: he wasn’t racist or sexist. Wait, actually, he was. The only reason he became friends with Aech seems to be their similarities, both physically and socially. He wouldn’t have talked to Aech about some of the things he did if he’d realized she was a she. And would he ever have had that initial acceptance?
I’m not sure. Wade seems to think it’s all good. The novel seems to portray this as very progressive. But Aech feels the need to hide her sex and race in the game because people are prejudiced against her. So there are clearly problems in the world, and on top of that, I again question whether he would have been friends with her in the first place, given that his social ineptitude made it so he was only comfortable around Aech because of the feeling that they were similar. I’m glad he made the realization that race and gender didn’t matter in the long run. It just seems to have a problematic foundation.
Likewise with Art3mis, who he says he’s pretty attracted to as an avatar—but really, he doesn’t care what she looks like—but she looks different from the two standard body types and he likes that. And he likes her birthmark. He claims not to care about her appearance, but clearly he does; he thinks she’s attractive as is. Good for him, not caring that it doesn’t look the same as her avatar. But he thinks her birthmark is cute and he’s attracted to her being short and curvy. So…looks are important to him, he just doesn’t like the tall, stick-thin model-type.
And can we please acknowledge the fact that he keeps declaring his love for Art3mis based on never even having kissed her? Grow up, dude.