Book Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Wade Watts is a gunter. That’s short for “Easter egg hunter,” which has nothing to do with the holiday. Born into grinding poverty as the child of refugees in the energy-starved dystopian future, Wade was orphaned at an early age and put into the hands of a neglectful aunt living in a skyscraper trailer park/junk heap. Gifted at repairing discarded and broken hardware, Wade’s one chance at getting out of this hardscrabble life is winning a contest.
It seems that the billionaire creator of OASIS, the virtual reality that nearly everyone in the world uses for games, business and school, set up a game before his death. James Donovan Halliday (Anorak on the internet) had a massive obsession with the pop culture of the 1980s, the decade he’d been a teen in. The first person to solve a series of puzzles and complete tasks based on Eighties trivia, movies, games and music will inherit Halliday’s company and all its wealth.
Thus it is that Wade and his fellow gunters have also developed an obsession with the Eighties, as they scramble to be the first to find the Easter egg that will make its owner incredibly rich. However, in five years no one has managed to pass the first gate. Until, of course, Wade stumbles across an obvious in retrospect clue.
In a bit of a surprise twist, he’s not the first to do so, but manages to be the first to accomplish the associated challenge. The game shifts into overdrive as Wade (or rather his OASIS codename Parzival) becomes an overnight celebrity and target. To win the contest he’s going to need more than a command of Monty Python jokes! He may even need to go…outside.
This book reads like a young adult cyberpunk novel…written for geeky forty-somethings. I’m a bit older than that, but still managed to get most of the references due to having been very geeky during the 1980s. One of the notes that makes it obvious this is a book for grownups is that our protagonist gets a day job to pay his bills so he can devote time to being a gunter.
The main villains of the story are the IOI corporation and its Oology Division. IOI wants the cash cow that is OASIS, and to make it “pay to play”, shutting out poor people like Wade and the others who live in the Stacks. (They’ve already managed to get laws passed to legalize indentured servitude.) IOI is fully willing to use its monetary and manpower resources to gain unfair advantage over ordinary gunters, and Wade soon discovers just how far the corporation will go to have its way.
Wade starts the story already gifted in the skills and knowledge he’ll need to accomplish his goal…except interpersonal relationship skills. His background has made Parzival a paranoid solo operator, and over the course of the novel he must learn to build bonds of friendship with the other elite gunters he meets. A common theme is that all of these people only know each other from virtual reality, and their avatars conceal (or reveal) important information about their true selves.
Though we wouldn’t have a story without it, I can’t help feeling that if Mr. Halliday had found some way of getting people to work on solving the “real world” problems of the dystopian future as hard as they were trying to perfectly recreate the 1980s in cyberspace, things wouldn’t be nearly as bad for Wade and others. At least one of the gunters, Art3mis, does intend to use the money to try to fix things.
Apparently future society has stagnated or regressed on certain civil issues, back to the Nineties or so. There’s also references to offpage sex. It should be okay for junior high readers on up, but the heavy emphasis on things that were cool back in their parents’ time might be off-putting.
Recommended primarily to geeky forty-somethings, with some overlap for geeks on either side of “80s kids”.