Books: Ready Player One

In Brief: Ernest Cline’s first novel is a dystopian cyber quest story set in the year 2044.  It’s also a love story with some serious geek 1980’s chops.

Pros: For someone of my generation, the 80’s nostalgia is pretty much irresistible.  It permeates the story and protagonist Wade Watts’ worldview.  Wade is an appealing sort of misfit hero in the classic John Hughes/Robert Zemeckis/Cameron Crowe mold.  Cline’s pacing and descriptions are solid, adding just enough detail without going overboard.  And as I’ve mentioned before, I love quest stories…

Cons:  For someone outside my generation, the 80’s stuff may be too much.  If you’re not a borderline geek on movies, music, video games, comics, and other media, you probably won’t get it…  There’s also a bit of convenient coincidence syndrome in the final act – in the best tradition of the 80’s action flick or teen comedy.

Review: I heard an interview with Ernest Cline on one of NPR’s weekend shows (To the Best of Our Knowledge, I believe); the theme was nostalgia.  Cline was talking about the importance of media culture for my generation – people who grew up in the 80’s – and how many of us are pretty geeked out about the movies, games, TV shows, video games, and music of our youth.  More so, the interviewer implied, than previous generations.  More so than was necessarily healthy.  At one point the interviewer asked for a value judgement on my generation being so nostalgic for media when previous group were tied to more vital stuff – you know World Wars, protesting the ‘Nam, etc.  The question, asked in a classic NPR haughty self-congratulatory manner made me want to HULK-SMASH through the radio.  But Cline played it cool, talking about how our peeps were the first to grow up with this much variety of media (advent of video games, widespread cable and satellite TV, VCRs for movie rentals, etc.), also discussing how we grew up being told we were only minutes away from nuclear oblivion.

He talked about the Cold War and the early 80’s TV movie, The Day After, which scared the hell out of him when he was nine or ten (and me, and a lot of my classmates; nightmares for weeks with that one).  So when he finally got around to plugging his book – steeped in 80’s pop culture and media – it immediately went on my list.

Ready Player One begins in a bleak 2044.  The Great Recession in which we’re currently steeped never quite ended, and with the end of cheap fossil fuel and climate change, America has seen a drastic decline.  Protagonist Wade Watts lives in Oklahoma City, in the stacks: towers of interlocked mobile homes.  He’s an orphan barely tolerated by his aunt because of the government subsidy he represents.  Wade is nearing the end  of high school, and he survives by escaping to his mini-van hideout buried within the stacks and logging into the OASIS like billions of others.

The OASIS is a proto-Matrix-like virtual reality system combining elements of the Internet with online gaming communities.  You put on your optic visor which paints the scenes on your retinas, you don your haptic gloves and boots which simuluate the movements, and off you go.

Wade has an alter ego on the OASIS: Parzival.  And like the name implies, he has a quest.  Because the heart of the story involves a very eccentric genius computer programmer, Jim Halliday, the man who engineered and created the OASIS.

Halliday was born in 1972, a child of the 80’s.  In 2040, when he died, he released a virtual film letting everyone know that somewhere hidden within the OASIS were three gates (aka Easter Eggs for us geeks).  The first person who finds and makes it through those three gates will inherit Halliday’s vast personal fortune and the rights to his stake in the company that controls the OASIS.

Of course this contest causes a sensation.  Of course Wade/Parzival is obsessed with the quest, like millions of others.  And the nature of Halliday’s announcement film causes a renaissance for 80’s pop culture.  Because this film contains numerous references to John Huges films, classic coin-op video games, and 80’s cartoons.  Because Halliday was a well-known recluse, believed to be borderline crazy, who was obsessed with the media of his formative years; you guessed it – the 1980’s.

By 2044 the revival of the 80’s has sort of faded as no one has been able to find the first of Halliday’s gates.  Some have stated it was all a big hoax.  But Wade/Parzival and many, many others are still on the trail.  There are ‘clans’ of people working together to find clues.  There’s International Simulation Systems (ISS, or the Sixers) an evil empire-type company bent on finding the gates and assuming control of the OASIS.  And there are guys like Wade, ‘gunters’, who quest by themselves, only sharing little bits of knowledge and shared love and obsession for 80’s stuff on the way.

Now Ernest Cline has the equivalent of a PhD in 80’s geek culture.  And as he writes the story and moves us along this relatively simple plot, he injects elements of this knowledge in to flesh out the story.  Wade/Parzival is obsessed with knowing everything he can about the decade and how it may have affected Halliday and his placement of the clues.  That means watching all the old cartoons (including the commercials), and sitcoms like Family Ties and Growing Pains, and not just watching but memorizing movies like the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies, Back to the Future,  teen comedies in the Hughes vein, and all the original MTV music videos (from, you know, back when MTV played videos).

That means games and gaming.  RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons and Heroes; coin-up classic video games, the old Atari and Intellivision.  Comic book, japanimation…  You get the idea.

But Cline doesn’t just rely on his impressive detailed 80’s-ology; he creates a very sympathetic and likable character in Wade/Parzival.  Yes, Wade is only a stone’s throw from every misunderstood/misfit lead in a number of 80’s teen films – but that’s part of the fun.  Wade also has moments of true bravery and personal insight, or grace and stupidity.  And of course he falls for a rival gunter girl as the story progresses.

As you might expect, the story moves forward quickly when Wade/Parzival solves the riddle of the first gate.  His name jumps to the top of the scoreboard, and global attention refocuses on Halliday’s Easter Eggs.  Then the rival gunters arrive, and the corporate sixers arrive, and Wade starts to see this whole thing is more than a game.

Cline also excels at providing a glimpse of the world outside the OASIS and how such an immersive escapist piece of technology could damage society.  The picture can be bleak and grainy, like an old black-and-white TV with a bad antenna.  But mostly this book is about the quest and it’s effects on Wade and his worldview, and how we come to grips with our humanity.  And through the lens of the 80’s, it’s great, great fun.

Bottom Line:  For people from my generation, this book is a must-read.  You will enjoy it, even if you don’t get all the references (I’ll admit I couldn’t keep up with some of the anime stuff).  Ernest Cline is a fine storyteller and I look forward to his next project.

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