Saving the world by playing video games may not be the most original concept, but it’s one I don’t foresee myself growing tired of as long as it’s executed with as much wit, care, and raw enjoyment as it is in Ready Player One.
The book takes place in the years around 2041, when, of course, the world has gone to shit (because the world has always gone to shit), and the only relief most people have is the MMO (massively multiplayer online) universe known as OASIS, created by semi-mad genius James Halliday, whose birth in 1972 and subsequent adolescence in the 80s explains modern culture’s obsession with the trends, films, and music of that period. My birth in 1981 explains my unending delight in the book’s constant references to the entertainments of my youth. Our hero, Wade Watts, is also the narrator, and when he makes a “Ghostbusters” reference on the first page (“…Cats and dogs living together… mass hysteria!”) I knew I was in for the long haul.
Wade is an overweight, pimply teenager who spends his every waking second (outside of attending virtual high school) trying to find James Halliday’s Easter Egg. An Easter Egg, for non-gamers, is a bonus of some kind, usually consisting of a cut scene, or an extra item, or a secret level of some kind, coded into a game and hidden well. It’s not essential to the game’s plot, so uncovering an Easter Egg takes either dumb luck or a dedication to deeply exploring a game’s environment. Halliday’s Easter Egg is the biggest one of all time: his entire fortune, and control of the OASIS, which is currently free to all users. Wade is determined to use his knowledge of 80s culture and Halliday’s life to find the egg before the requisite Evil Corporation can gain control of the OASIS and turn it into Disneyland: ads on every surface, payment required for access, no privacy.
The book is entertaining from the start, though it plods a bit in the exposition, explaining how Wade’s virtual school works, and taking the time to explain just about every reference, which makes not much sense considering that half the fun of an in-joke is the fact that you get it without needing to have it explained to you. After a few chapters of this, though, the book picks up once Wade really gets into the search for the egg and finds he may be a serious contender to win it.
Unlike many other dystopian sci-fi novels, Ready Player One doesn’t spend much time emphasizing exactly how much the world sucks and what a toll it’s taking on the ChildrenWillSomebodyPleaseThinkOfTheChildren. Like Wade himself, RPO is perfectly happy to ignore most of the world’s problems by spending time in the fantasy world of OASIS, which is populated by thousands of planets, some original, some faithful reproductions of well-known fantasy and sci-fi worlds (there’s a Whedonverse complete with a “Firefly” planet). Nor is there a heaping helping of character development. Wade’s parents are dead and he lives with his predictably crappy aunt, but it doesn’t seem to faze him. Even after the world has gone to shit, it seems a teenager’s problems are the same as they’ve ever been: balancing school, fun, and socializing, getting rid of acne, and wondering when you will ever get laid.
Notwithstanding the lack of gravity in the book’s world (pun absolutely intended), Ready Player One is an immersive experience rivaling that of many video games I’ve played, and I shared in Wade’s setbacks and triumphs almost as heartily as I would in those of any of my own game avatars. And anyway, there’s plenty of time for still more shit to hit the fan in Ready Player Two, should Cline choose to go in that direction. He’s left the door wide open.