“Ready Player One” was released in 2011, but with the teaser trailer of the upcoming film adaptation, directed by none other than Steven Spielberg, now released, and the book seeing the customary revival these adaptations tend to cause, it was thought to be a good idea to review it. The reviewer, despite his comparative ignorance of ’80s pop culture, was happily treated to 350+ pages of music, film, video game, comic, toy, and television lore, all having its origin in the 1980s, and only occasionally was he required to take a break, the blitz of homages, lists of influences, and bins of trivia doo-dads being occasionally too much.
With “Ready Player One,” author Ernest Cline has achieved the writing of what is topically an immersive fun puzzle, and in subtext, an exploration of the study of pop culture as a legitimate field, the dangers of losing your life in the cyber world, and the possibility of forming meaningful relationships online, and sometimes, across continents.
In the novel, the debut of Mr. Cline, protagonist Wade Watts, or “Parzival,” as his online avatar reads, is on a quest to find an Easter egg in a video game called the “OASIS,” or the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation, a massively multiplayer online role playing game, which, when found, grants its finder with billions of dollars (real dollars) and control of the company of game founder James Halliday, who, upon his death, laid out the rules and premise of the Easter egg challenge in his video will. The first person to find it, upon the death of Halliday, gets his fortune and his company.
The game itself (the reviewer hopes he won’t lose a less video game inclined audience with even these references) plays like a combination between World of Warcraft, Blizzard Entertainment’s insanely popular MMORPG, and the Sims series. Players can shop, go to the movies, go to nightclubs, and even go to school in the OASIS, as both the game and its online environment are called. A major reason for its popularity has to do, of course, with the bleak reality its partakers seek to escape. Although little is said about it, the world has run out of fossil fuels and finds itself in a state of perpetual crisis. Nukes are dropped without populaces blinking an eye, as war is a constant. People live in stacks of trailer homes piled on top of each other, several stories high. Oh, by the way, the story takes place in the year 2044. But since Halliday, one of the world’s biggest celebrities was obsessed with ’80s paraphernalia, the rest of the gaming world remains stuck in that decade as well. These are stressful ideas, (especially about being stuck in the eighties), but so are books made for, and Cline doesn’t hold back in setting up the dystopian backdrop for his novel.
Besides a long diatribe against organized religion within the first few passages of the book, social commentary is present, but sparse, seeming to only exist as the author feels its necessity in the book, that is, to avoid being accused of carelessness or unimportance. The book as a whole, however, does bring up important questions about important themes, such as the necessity of escapism in a chaotic world, the necessity of an alternate reality where sublimation is not only possible and encouraged, but a new kind of reality.
So Parzival and his best friend and fellow gamer Aech continue in this quest all the while trying to disrupt and avoid what, or rather who, must have been the worst part of this book, the evil corporate stock characters. Spielberg’s teaser portrays the employees of IOI as relentless army drones, set on finding the Easter egg before anyone else does so their employer, the worst kind of evil tech company can gain control of the OASIS for themselves. Battles are fought and abounding mini-games are won, but the dull, lifeless, and static characters that make up the IOI remain and aren’t even worth mentioning. Even the IOI’s only speaking character, some executive named Sorrento admits in an attempt at humor, “we’re ruthless corporate drones with no honor and no respect.”
Along with the often humorous tributes to ’80s pop culture, as mentioned, are the brief passages from a kind of memoir/journal/autobiography billionaire Halliday wrote as his game alter-ego, the wizard, Anorak. They deposit the occasional geek wisdom and aside; my attention recalls passages on the necessity and innocence of masturbation as well as the unnecessity of going outside. But real pearls are few and far between. Not much of the poet, and more of the storyteller, informer, and just all-out geek, Cline unfortunately steers away from much of what makes a book great. One must eventually question the supposed worth of all these bins of pop culture knowledge and it’s not long before the mind cries out for something a bit more fulfilling.
Another positive of the book comes from the romantic relationship, that of Parzival and a slightly older gamer-girl who goes by the name of Art3mis. They seem to fall in love slowly through the game until Parzival goes too far with a declaration of love and she rebuffs him. “You don’t live in the real world, Z,” she says. “I don’t think you ever have. You’re like me. You live inside this illusion. You can’t possibly know what real love is.” Yet they seem to bond due to their obsession with the Easter egg and Halliday.
As the loosely organized team makes their way to the final showdown with Sorrento’s corporate drones, they become slightly more self-revealing and themes come out more in the character’s dialogue, such as when, after the final showdown, Halliday’s ghost in the machine warns Parzival against the perils of wasting your life in the OASIS, where, “the world hides from its problems while civilization slowly collapses.”
Overall, “Ready Player One” is the absolute go-to book for those wishing to be re-immersed in Back to the Future and John Hughes movies, coin-op video arcade games and ’80s cartoons, but for the more determined reader, there are better books to be found on similar themes. While some readers will revel in and empathize with their geeky connection to Wade Watts AKA “Parzival” others will soon become sick of its tons of pop culture schlep. For readers not obsessed with the ’80s, arcade games, or geekdom in general, I would recommend waiting for the film adaptation to be released March 30, 2018.
By Matthew C. Brock