Once upon a time, I had a subscription to Loot Crate. One of the many goodies I got over the course of that time happened to be a copy of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. I did what any effective, smart writer would do with a book written in a genre I hope to one day have published books in, which is to say that I put it on a bookshelf and failed to read it. I continued failing to read Ready Player One for a few years, methodically boxing it up and unboxing it over the course of several moves. It’s a little beaten up because of that.
The movie adaptation was approaching, and I had decided I needed to make it a priority to rad the book if I intend to see the movie. The reviews I had seen weren’t exactly favorable, but I’m big on forming my own opinion (which, sometimes thanks to the magic of the internet, I occasionally share).
There may be some spoilers ahead (because this is something of an on-the-spot, post-reading collection of thoughts).
Ready Player One offers readers yet another take on the dystopian future. The fuel shortage and economic collapse have driven many Americans to live in Stacks–towering structures comprised of trailers, RVs, and similar vehicles. Much of the world finds escape in a virtual reality paradise known as OASIS. OASIS is a lifelike simulation and the crowning achievement of James Halliday, who crammed his creation with as many references to 80s pop culture as possible. Wade Watts, the main character and point-of-view for the narrative, is a seventeen-year-old on the verge of graduating from high school. He’s a gunter as well–the term used to describe the many people who are searching to Halliday’s Easter Egg.
Wade, known as Parzival in the OASIS, is not the easiest character to cheer on. His goal of discovering Halliday’s Easter Egg is largely motivated by his desire to not let it fall into the hands of the nefarious Innovative Online Industries (which, throughout the novel, proves to be appropriately evil by futuristic super-company standards). He gets along well with his sole avatar friend Aech, a well-known entrant in PvP tournaments who is also on the Hunt. He’s also a fan of the well-known gunter/blogger Art3mis, with his fandom rapidly becoming an unhealthy infatuation over the course of the novel. I’ll get back to that.
The obvious ending occurs in that Wade/Parzival finds Halliday’s Easter Egg, earning him Halliday’s vast fortune and control of the OASIS. Nolan Sorrento and I.O.I. are thwarted. The winnings are shared between Parzival, Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto (another gunter who, over time, became Parzival’s friend).
My chief complaints are as follows, though they are nothing terribly new with regards to the book.
The world-building feels a little sluggish, trudging through the backstory of how the Hunt for Halliday’s Egg began and Wade’s less-than-favorable life with his aunt and her boyfriend. Wade’s narration makes him difficult to sympathize with at time to the point where it’s easy to sympathize with Sorrento for failing to off him. His behavior towards Art3mis, beginning with his obsession brought on by her blog posts and the version of her he builds up in his mind and ending with advances that can kindly be referred to as stalker-like behavior acts as a stomach-souring validation of an all-too-common exchange between self-proclaimed nice guys and women. Wade responds to rejection by only redoubling his efforts, resorting to the tactics pop culture has lead far too many people to believe are romantic gestures instead of, well, just plain creepy. (Seriously, squash that shit, don’t encourage it.) There are times when Wade comes across as the Standard Entitled White Dude, and those are times that made it very easy to take a break from reading.
The toxic nature of gamers and their interactions feels elevated as well, with plenty of profanity-laden exchanges and a strong lean towards what can generously be described as toxic masculinity on parade. Unfortunately, life imitates art (or art imitates life, really) in this particular case, as most gamers I know (and I can speak from personal experience as well) have been on the receiving end of people who take their virtual endeavors a little too seriously.
Wade is also improbably smart. His ability to rattle off a ridiculous volume of 80s trivia is one thing. His plotting to evade I.O.I. by gaining entry into the government’s registry of all citizens to change his identity stretches disbelief, but hey–it’s a dystopian sci-fi future so it could happen. I guess. Then he deliberately tanks his alias’s credit so he becomes indentured by I.O.I. so he can hack into their systems, steal critical data, and then escape all before changing back to his true identity as Wade Watts. As far as being relatable goes, Wade starts off as a mirror image of some of us nerdy kids before equipping a +10 Armor Set of Deus Ex Machina that comes with a +5 armor set bonus of Conveniently Knowing Everything. Because of all of this, it can be easy at times to want Wade to fail.
The near-religious approach to 80s pop culture, especially when presented in long-form word vomit (whether by way of Wade’s narration or another character boasting their knowledge) is a bit much to handle at times, and it’s easy to grow bored during those passages. The appeal of nostalgia is universal, but like anything there is too much of a good thing. No shade of rose-colored glasses is potent enough to take away the unfortunate, near-radioactive glow of a dozen too many nods to the 80s, and at times it seems as though Cline delights in strolling up to the reader, decked out in a Space Invaders t-shirt, and clubbing them over the head with Anorak’s Almanac in all of its remembrance-of-the-good-ol-days glory. Yes, having encyclopedic knowledge of the 80s was essential for anyone who hoped to have even a fraction of a chance at obtaining Halliday’s Easter Egg, but Cline turns it up to eleven so often that I could go the rest of my life without seeing another arcade game and feel perfectly content.
Halliday is nearly impossible to sympathize with or relate to, being such a severe caricature of the stereotypical nerd that it borders onto painful, although that could arguably be because I was once that awkward, gawky, socially inept kid. That’s a cold, hard look at my past I’m not quite willing to take for the sake of a book review, folks.
Much of the story seems to surround the idea that Wade had to win because he is so similar to Halliday, which is all right but ends up leaving some of the other characters feeling like set pieces instead of active players in the scene.
The pros? Overall, the plot was enjoyable. Once the events of the Hunt are in full swing, Ready Player One frequently leaps in intensity. The Sixers and Sorrento are an omni-present threat and the fact they are willing to kill to get to the Egg lends well to wanting them to fail miserably. Wade’s character developments, though they start with baby steps, make for a satisfying ending when he determines that perhaps there’s more to reality than living in a fantasy world. The themes of finding balance between reality and virtual reality, being able to unplug from technology, and the need for real connections beyond the want of artificial ones are universal and lend themselves well to Cline’s story. Aech’s story within the overall novel (one I will not spoil) is one I was particularly happy with because it illuminates a very real set of modern problems.
Overall, I think Ready Player One is easy-reading and provides an enjoyable bit of fictional escapism while still reminding readers to not let themselves give in too much to said escapism. It has plenty of flaws–though, really, who am I to be judging when I have yet to succeed as an author–and enough strong points to make it worth recommending. Once the story gets rolling after Parzival clears the first gate, it’s easy to lose sizable chunks of time reading. The ending may be predictable enough, though its finer details aren’t all as in-your-face, but the journey to get their proves to be enjoyable enough despite Wade’s narration often leaving a bad taste in the reader’s mouth.
If it were to ever see a sequel or prequel, my hope would be that Cline builds off of the existing work he has put out and spends less time belaboring the obsessive nature of this iteration of the world. Ultimately, Ready Player One is enough to make readers think about exactly how they are spending their time and just how much living they are really doing (and, I hope, it also acts as a reminder that some behaviors aren’t romantic, just really creepy).
I’m barely curious enough to see the film adaptation, but to those of you who do I hope it’s enjoyable. Despite its flaws (let’s all take a moment to remember the paragraph-long manifesto glorifying masturbation), I did enjoy this book. It’s not the pillar of pop culture its made out to be except in the sense that it is propped up by so many references that Ernest Cline could be accused of traveling back in time and stealing an entire decade worth of stuff. All things considered, Ready Player One is worth a read.