Saturday, August 27, 2011

Review: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

Published: August 2011

The lich let out a long, disturbing cackle that echoed off the chamber’s stone walls. “Very well!” he said. “You shall prove your worth by facing me in a joust!”

I’d never heard of an undead lich king challenging someone to a joust. Especially not in a subterranean burial chamber. “All right,” I said uncertainly. “But won’t we be needing horses for that?”

“Not horses,” he replied, stepping away from his throne. “Birds.”

He waved a skeletal hand at his throne. There was a brief flash of light, accompanied by a transformation sound effect (which I was pretty sure had been lifted from the old Super Friends cartoon). The throne melted and morphed into an old coin-operated videogame cabinet. Two joysticks protruded from its control panel, one yellow and one blue. I couldn’t help but grin as I read the name on the game’s backlit marquee: JOUST. Williams Electronics, 1982.


Ready Player One is a blast—a blockbuster with the light heartedness and sense of adventure of the best midsummer matinees, coupled with the extrapolated, just-believable-enough-to-be-plausible future speculation of Michael Crichton in his prime. That being said, Ernest Cline’s debut is also the most audience-specific book I have read this year. To be blunt: if you grew up wanting leg warmers and Molly Ringwald on your arm at the prom; if you sunk entire afternoons in corner convenience stores and ratty-ass pizza joints, pumping quarter after quarter into old-fashioned coin-ops running the gamut from Tempest and Pac Man to Street Fighter 2 and the Neo Geo machines of the early 90s; if you can recite, beginning to end, Airplane!, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the holiest trilogies of trilogies—Star Wars (original saga, naturally), Back to the Future, and Indiana Jones (with a healthy does of The Matrix saga for those just barely out of the book’s intended wheelhouse), this is your book.

No, let me rephrase that: this is your childhood, documented, indexed, and turned into a proto-World of Warcraft-by-way-of-Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade thriller-cum-treasure hunt.

And I fucking loved it.

Through the eccentric James Halliday, Ernest Cline has crafted a love letter to his youth and the passions of so many of us who, since childhood and into adulthood, have fully embraced quote-unquote geek culture. Halliday, a reclusive multi-billionaire, is responsible for the OASIS—a Matrix-like virtual reality simulation that closely resembles today’s massively multiplayer online role-playing games. The OASIS isn’t a simulacrum of our world, as the Matrix was intended to be. Rather it is intended, in the year 2044 in which the novel takes place, to be a release—to provide its users with a liveable, interactive escape from a world that has become horribly impoverished, its resources drained and ravaged beyond usability:

At a time of drastic social and cultural upheaval, when most of the world’s population longed for an escape from reality, the OASIS provided it, in a form that was cheap, legal, safe, and not (medically proven to be) addictive. The ongoing energy crisis contributed greatly to the OASIS’s runaway popularity. The skyrocketing cost of oil made airline and automobile travel too expensive for the average citizen, and the OASIS became the only getaway most people could afford. As the era of cheap, abundant energy drew to a close, poverty and unrest began to spread like a virus. Every day, more and more people had reason to seek solace inside Halliday and Morrow’s virtual utopia.

Upon Halliday’s death, the secret to his fortune was hidden as an Easter Egg within the OASIS, locked behind three keys leading to three challenge gates, all obscured by 1980s pop culture riddles, references, and minutia. Halliday, like Cline, was a child of the 80s—a devotee of Rush, of Spielberg and Zemeckis adventures, of classic videogames from every arcade cabinet and home console ever created. Through his obsessions and cultural impact, Halliday’s life and death spawned an unceasing interest in the man, right down to the common practice of dissecting his life and living one’s own through his interests—meaning memorizing every episode The A-Team, or Silver Spoons, understanding the properties of countless mech-and-giant-monster-based Japanese animes, and knowing that when you hear a pair of coconuts clapped behind you, you’re reliving a Monty Python classic. Obsession over Halliday’s life is even responsible for Oologists—technicians within the dominant competing online corporation who have spent their professional careers in service to learning everything there is, was, and could ever be known about the legend himself, James Halliday. To the victor of Halliday’s Easter Egg hunt not only goes his vast fortune, but control of the OASIS as well. For the IOI corporation, controlling the OASIS means controlling the largest untapped source of potential revenue the world has ever seen. To the book’s protagonist, Wade Watts, victory means escape from poverty, and the opportunity to retain Halliday’s vision and keep the OASIS free to play for everyone around the world. The treasure hunt that follows—complete with a Henry Jones Sr.-esque grail diary—quickly envelops the OASIS, and Halliday’s passions are the clues to stopping a war that threatens every avatar within the game’s numerous worlds.

Ready Player One doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t. This book isn’t going to redefine future speculative fiction by any stretch, and like this year's other much-hyped blockbuster, Daniel Wilson’s Robopocalypse, it doesn’t bring anything terribly new to the table. However, unlike Robopocalypse, Ready Player One has a strong sense of pacing that is bolstered by very likeable characters, snappy dialogue, and more than a few moments of genuine hilarity. Some may be put off by the constant and well-embedded 80s and 90s references to media and pop culture, but they feel at home within the world Cline has crafted.

That’s not to say all is puppy dogs and rainbows within Ready Player One; the odd reference feels forced and there are moments—the prologue included—in which the exposition unimaginatively dumps information into the reader’s lap. Not to mention that the depth of Wade’s apparent hacker/manipulative abilities—inside and outside of the OASIS—never fails to amaze. However convenient or shoehorned a few of these items may feel, their inclusion never upsets the narrative or betrays the characters, and Ready Player One presses on to its conclusion at an impressive, addictive clip.

Clearly, I am this book’s intended audience. I was born in 1981 and lived a great many years of my youth in front of the arcade cabinets at my local Mac’s convenience store, in the arcade at Willowbrook Mall in Langley, BC, and in front of too many Nintendo systems to count; I have spent entire days and weeks marathoning sci-fi and fantasy films, books, and comics from the age of five onward; even now I maintain a strong longing for the items of my youth—for what they meant to me, how they helped develop me into the person I am today, and how they’ve sparked my imagination in innumerable ways. I was sold on this book from premise alone, but premise is not enough if the writing or characters or plot are completely without care. Thankfully, that is not the case with Ready Player One.

This is an excellent summer read. It isn’t great literature; it won’t change your world or ignite any sort of philosophical discussion amongst readers, and the writing sometimes leans too far into the rather clunky realm of telling and not showing. But what it does—what it strikes out to achieve—it does very well, and I was engaged in Wade Watts’ ever-deepening journey into the mind of James Halliday until the very end. But be warned: unless you’ve travelled down to One-Eyed Willy’s lair with an asthmatic Sean Astin and an inhaler at your side, or fist-pumped the air like Judd Nelson at the end of The Breakfast Club, Ready Player One might leave you in the dark.

For the rest of us geeks? Bliss.

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