On Ready Player One

Image retrieved from wikipedia.org

When a member of my book club first suggested Ready Player One as our read for the month of March, I didn’t have high hopes. The key words that I took from her brief description of the novel were “video games,” “science fiction,” and “fantasy.” I didn’t realize it until completing the book, but it’s author Ernest Cline was also the writer of the 2009 film Fanboys – a fact that would probably have further turned me off from this selection had I known it sooner. But I forced myself to give Ready Player One a shot since everyone else in my modest book club was so excited by the title. Meanwhile I worried that maybe I was in the wrong group of readers.

But from the first page, I was absolutely smitten with this book. Cline’s novel marked my first foray into sci-fi and, while I doubt many other science fiction novels are quite as enthralling and well-written as Ready Player One, this novel certainly challenged my preconceived notions of the genre.

Ready Player One launches from the death of James Halliday, creator of the virtual reality game OASIS which is as eponymous in the year 2044 as Google, Facebook, and Twitter are to internet users today. A bachelor billionaire at the time of his demise, Halliday erected an ironclad will which bestows his entire estate upon whichever OASIS-user wins the race to uncover Halliday’s “Easter egg” – videogame speak for a hidden key within a video game. The race to find Halliday’s egg, however, is more of a marathon than a sprint;  despite the number of so-called “gunters” who make it their life’s purpose to locate the Easter egg, five years pass from the time of Halldiay’s death until someone discovers the first of three keys that must be collected in order to retrieve the egg.

And that lucky someone is our protagonist, orphaned 18-year-old Wade. Wade’s success in the hunt for the Easter egg is revealed in the prologue, and Cline’s decision to share the outcome of the quest so early in the novel actually proved to be a wise choice in my humble opinion. The ensuing story is a heart-stopping, anxiety-inducing, nail-bitting adventure. The knowledge that Wade succeeds in the end calmed my nerves while reading, but certainly didn’t reduce my sense of excitement while following his progress.

As Halliday was a child of the 1980’s, many of the quests relate to pop culture of the decade, a subject which devotees of the late tech genius study religiously. Wade’s deep knowledge of ancient gaming systems, obscure 80’s films like WarGames, rock music of the time from the likes of bands such as Rush, and Halliday’s personal life aid in his ultimate success as solving each puzzle requires expertise on these topics. Though my knowledge of the 80’s pop culture was much stronger than that of video game history, Cline’s story is highly readable to people of all familiarity levels because at it’s core, Ready Player One is an adventure, an underdog story, a quest involving the battle between good and evil.

And Wade is certainly not without a few evil foes. The initial five OASIS users to locate the first key are regular gunters, competitors who pose threats to one another in their search for the egg, but lack much power over one another outside their virtual reality quest. Soon after, countless employees of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), an internet service provider and communications firm, start racking up points on the scoreboard. Known as “Sixers” because of the six digits common to each of their avatar’s names, these corporate egg hunters are obligated to hand over Halliday’s estate, should they locate the egg and win the prize. In exchange, IOI pays them competitive salaries and takes care of their every need during the quest. The average gunter despises the Sixers – after all, they’re sell outs undermining the integrity of the whole contest. And if a Sixer wins the prize, many fear that IOI will commodify the currently-free OASIS, charging exorbitant fees and denying many users the essential opportunity to escape their real lives provided by the OASIS. Wade soon learns that the gunters are right to fear IOI, a conscienceless corporation willing to employ any measure necessary to win control of the OASIS.

The world of Ready Player One is futuristic, dystopian, and alarming enough to give anyone pause about how we let technology rule our lives with little care for the real world around us. Many of the themes explored in the novel raise questions regarding our reliance on the internet, virtual reality, and social media. The OASIS serves as a necessary refuge for many unfortunate people who seek an escape from the poverty, destruction, and hunger of the real world. It also serves highly practical functions, for instance as the site of virtual public schools. For those who are lonely and misunderstood, creating an OASIS avatar instills real world outcasts with a means of finding a place to belong. But fear of the catfish runs rampant – since OASIS users can design their avatars however they please, there is no reason to believe that the appearance, actions, or behavior of an avatar matches that of their real life person. Wade (whose avatar goes by the name Perzival) has a best friend in the virtual world, a fellow Halliday-devotee and gunter whose avatar is named Aech. Though competing in the search for Halliday’s egg does stress their friendship at times, Wade still considers Aech his best friend, despite never meeting nor knowing any personal real life details about him. Cline touches on this distinction between our virtual representations of self and our true selves as well as the danger in having only virtual, rather than real, connections with others.

This might sound like a complex and confusing novel, but Cline’s storytelling skills shine in Ready Player One. He sets the stage of this virtual reality-reliant society some thirty years in the future with ease and introduces elements of Wade’s world in such a way as to not overwhelm the reader. Even someone with zero tech knowledge, no background in science fiction, and little preexisting interest in the subject found Cline’s debut novel engrossing, completely unique, and remarkably easy to grasp.

I was telling my mother, also an avid reader, about the book, about how surprised I was to find myself enjoying it, about how widely appealing and palatable it could be. I guess I really sold her on it, because then she suggested reading Ready Player One with her own book club. While I don’t think many of middle-aged, suburban, ex-soccer moms who complain about reading books more than 250 pages long (and this one clocks in at 372) would take to this novel, I’m sure more than a few of them would be surprised to find that they rather enjoyed Ready Player One if they were willing to just give it a shot – I certainly did!