Wade Watts is eighteen years old, socially awkward, a little overweight, and a whole lot geeky. Like most of humanity, he spends his time logged into the OASIS, a massive virtual world that has practically replaced reality. And why shouldn’t it? It’s the year 2044, and the Earth has gone to seed. After the deaths of his parents, Wade (alliteratively named by his father for the superhero connotations) is forced to live with his aunt, who only uses him for the additional food vouchers he can buy her, and her rotating string of boyfriends. They reside in the stacks, trailer park lots where stacks of mobile homes and RVs are piled onto each another in mountains of rickety steel in order to maximize space in prime locations near cities. Food is scarce and an energy crisis is threatening. No wonder everyone escapes to the OASIS, a land where individuals become avatars and can transform into anyone and anything they could possibly imagine being. A land composed of thousands of planets utilizing details from any number of fictional fantasy and science-fiction universes: “The Firefly universe was anchored in a sector adjacent to the Star Wars galaxy, with a detailed re-creation of the Star Trek universe in the sector adjacent to that. Users could now teleport back and forth between their favorite fictional worlds. Middle Earth. Vulcan. Pern. Arrakis. Magrathea. Disc-world, Mid-World, Riverworld, Ringworld. Worlds upon worlds” (p. 49).
But the OASIS isn’t just a place to play, battle, find magic items, and attend school (yes, Wade is a senior in the OASIS public school system). It’s also the location for the greatest contest ever imagined, the search for James Halliday’s Easter Egg. When Halliday, the creator of the OASIS, died, he set into motion a massive treasure hunt for three keys and three gates. The first avatar to successfully locate these items will win an unimaginable fortune and ultimate control over the OASIS. This contest, composed of riddles based upon Halliday’s obsession with 80’s pop culture and the history of videogames, comes to consume the life of these egg hunters, who eventually come to be known as “gunters.” The 80’s are back, and exhaustive knowledge of that decade will pay off big for someone.
When Parzival (the name of Wade’s avatar), discovers the location of the first key, he shoots to the top of the virtual scoreboard, instantly becoming an instant celebrity and the object of media attention, death threats, and adulation. He must carefully navigate the web of clues he is faced with, evade the attention of Innovative Online Industries, a corrupt corporation looking to purchase and take control of the OASIS, and figure out how to manage his virtual relationships with the other gunters in contention for the top prize: his best friend Aech, the brotherly team of Daito and Shoto, and Art3mis, the female avatar he is slowly falling in love with. All this while keeping his gaming and pop-culture skills honed to perfection.
Ready Player One was a rollicking, fast-paced, absolutely engrossing read. I was born in 1982, so I probably fall at the early end of this book’s target audience. Regardless, I picked up on most of the pop culture references in the novel and was fascinated by the reverence with which Parzival, Halliday, and by extension the author, feel for this decade. Mastering videogames, movie references, and song lyrics is a way of life for the people of Ready Player One, and, in fact, this way of life mirrors the way many obsessive fans feel for the objects of their obsessions nowadays. Who hasn’t encountered someone who has scoured every screencap of Lost for hidden clues? Or who watches and rewatches the entire series of Doctor Who, new and old? Or who spends hours updating a spreadsheet of weapons and their capabilities for their favorite video game? We know them all, and they are brought to vivid and extreme life in Ready Player One. However, here, this is their entire world. Glory and fortune depend upon this knowledge, and the stakes are high.
Although the dystopian aspects aren’t dwelled upon in Ready Player One, the novel is clearly rooted in a society gone wrong. Wade’s home environment is proof enough of that, along with the unemployment rate that has multiplied over the years. If she wins, Art3mis want to use the prize money to feed the world, while Parzival just wants to pack up, buy a spaceship and flee Earth forever. But these horrific aspects aren’t pounded into the reader’s head. They’re just background noise for the OASIS, the great escape, where humans transform into avatars, able to escape their bleak lives. And that’s the creepy part. All of this is way too familiar. The unemployment, the overcrowding of cities, the energy crisis. The alienation and the obsession with technology to the neglect of everything else. The world of the OASIS seems so foreign to us on the surface. Who could imagine spending every waking moment inside a virtual world? But then we remember that this is possible. This could happen, and is closer and more real than many of the post-apocalyptic novels that haunt us.
The pace of this book was absolutely perfect, and it rarely dragged. Even when Parzival was in the middle of a quest, Cline made sure not to dwell on each and every action his avatar took, something that could have made the key scenes laborious. Many people might find joy in reading about every sword thrust or feint, but I am not one of them. The action moved, and things happened. One quibble I did have with this book (after having this pointed out to me by a friend), was how long it took for the first key to be found. In this world of crowd-sourced knowledge and with the amount of obsession over Halliday’s interests, it seems a bit of a stretch that solving the first riddle would take years. I’ve participated in the MIT Mystery Hunt and know how quickly an obscure puzzle can be solved when there are ten heads crowded over the laptop. However, this complaint of mine could be explained by the highly secretive nature of the contest. When a prize that big is on the line, who wants to share knowledge? Also, some of the major scenes, along with the ending, seemed to be wrapped up a bit too neatly. I almost expected more twists and turns at some points.
However, as a whole, Ready Player One was fantastic. Fun, informative, geeky, and utterly compelling, appealing to young adults as well as adults, its intended audience. The effort and passion author Ernest Cline put into his debut novel shows on every page. I fully expect to see this show up on YALSA’s Alex Awards list this coming year.