A few weeks ago, I made a decision. I was going to read more. As a boy, I enjoyed reading. But somewhere along the line, the tone of books targeted at me turned. Around the age of 13, I noticed that instead of fantastic adventures and mythical stories, all of the books on our library’s “recommended” section turned to tales of sober pre-teens dealing with everything from neglectful parents to the death of peers. Perhaps I came from a naive, privileged background, but these stories did nothing but bore me at best, and dim my future hopes for humanity at worst. I became disenchanted, stopped reading, and save for picking up a few books here and there along the way, have never been able to pick it back up.
As I’ve been running low on podcasts that capture my interest lately, I decided to try Audible. I’ve got about an hour’s worth of work commute five days a week, the perfect time to broaden my literary horizons. The first audiobook I decided to purchase with my Audible subscription was one that I’ve heard much about from within geek/gaming circles: Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. As a standalone story (not part of some huge epic series), it seemed like the obvious choice on which to whet my audiobook whistle.
The version I bought included narration by Wil Wheaton. While I neither revere nor despise Mr. Wheaton, I was a little hesitant at first. Could I stand hours and hours of Wesley Crusher droning on in my ear holes? As it turns out, Mr. Wheaton did an adequate job with the text and I eventually forgot who it was that was guiding me through the story.
Ready Player One is set in a dystopian future where energy from fossil fuels is at a premium and only the wealthy can afford to travel about. There are few jobs to be had, and many meth labs set up in “the stacks”, piles of decrepit mobile homes, with scaffolding for both support and access to the upper levels. The stacks is where our main character, Wade Owen Watts, resides. While the real world has fallen into disarray, a virtual world (the Oasis, or as I like to think of it, Second Life on steroids) created by game dev genius James Halliday , is where a vast portion of humanity spends it’s time escaping from the harshness that surrounds them. Accessing to the Oasis requires a special type of virtual reality hardware that immerses the senses of the wearer to varying degrees depending on the capabilities available within the gear. Entry to the Oasis is free, but travel within the Oasis is expensive, which is why our protagonist Wade has been stuck as a low-level avatar, limited to attending virtual school and hanging out in private chat rooms.
But school isn’t the only thing Wade does to pass the time. When Halliday, the creator of the Oasis, died, he left behind a video that set in motion a worldwide treasure hunt. Hidden somewhere within the Oasis was an Easter egg that, when found, would bestow Halliday’s entire fortune, along with control of the Oasis, to the finder. Wade (Parzival, as he’s known within the Oasis) is one of the egg hunters, or “gunters” in the parlance of his day. With the stakes of the game being what they are, entire organizations in the form of both gunter clans and corporations, have sprung up with the sole purpose of finding the promised fortune. It is in one such evil corporation, Innovative Online Industries (IOI), that we find our major antagonist, Nolan Sorrento.
Wade comes to Sorrento’s attention after he becomes the first gunter to find a key and solve a puzzle that puts him on the path to the famous Eater egg. Sorrento first tries to recruit Wade with promises of a high-paying egg hunting job, but soon resorts to attempting to kill Wade (in real life) after his offer is refused, effectively solidifying him as the personification of the evils of capitalism.
The story includes a series of puzzles and games, mostly from the 1980’s (Halliday’s favorite era and the timeframe in which he grew up), and culminates in a race between Wade, other gunters, and IOI en route to a final, epic showdown between independent gunter clans and Sorrento’s paid IOI minions. Along the way, us Gen Xer’s are treated to such nostalgic set pieces as Pac Man, Joust, Zork, War Games, Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail, Tempest, Dungeons and Dragons, and Rush. It’s a veritable feast of nuggets from both my and Ernest Cline’s (who was born a few years before me) childhood. I admit to catching myself in a half-grin more than once when one of the 80’s references triggered an old memory of a bygone time.
Ready Player One is a fun journey through some familiar terrain. Dystopian futures are all the rage on the big screen nowadays, thanks to the popularity of films like The Hunger Games, Mad Max, and Logan. The book spends some time in the early chapters establishing Wade’s predicament and the sorry state of the world at large, but it is mostly forgotten or ignored over the course of the rest of the story. So much so that Wade’s best friend Aech, a displaced teen with only a van to call home, is able to travel from place to place at will, energy crisis or no. I understand that the van is solar powered – which leads to even greater questions about why fossil fuels have caused a worldwide depression when solar power is a viable alternative. But, in retrospect, this is only one of several nits I could pick.
For one, as a protagonist I didn’t find Wade very likable. He hardly bats an eye when IOI sees fit to destroy the stacks where all of this friends and relatives live. He turns his back on his friends at his first taste of money and success. And for all of his implied cleverness, he practically provokes Sorrento into a physical attack with his curt and unsubtle insults during their first meeting. While Wade does eventually admit the need for friendship and trust towards the end of the novel, it takes him quite a while to finally come to that realization.
Something that many probably gloss over, but that stood out to me, was a completely unnecessary trashing of traditional religious beliefs. I’m not exactly sure why Cline saw fit to include it, unless he was attempting to endear Wade’s character to a geek culture that more often than not does reject this type of worldview. It does nothing to further the story, and seems only to serve as a soapbox for the author’s personal beliefs. As perhaps a proverbial bone tossed to those of us who think differently, the only character described as “religious” in the book is an elderly neighbor who is depicted favorably, even fondly, if perhaps a bit naive.
Cline’s writing style is straightforward, modern and simple. Contrasting it with the Patrick Rothfuss fantasy book I’m currently reading. it’s almost childlike in it’s simplicity, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m not sure there’s enough meat to the story to prolong it with fancy metaphors and descriptive text. Taken at face value, Ready Player One is a fun ride through a playground of nostalgia. Peering a bit further unearths some larger themes that could be explored, such as the effects (both beneficial and detrimental) of technology on a society that prefers not to face reality, our dependence on natural resources, and of course the ever-present evils of big business that is so eagerly embraced by recent generations. But don’t dig too deeply, as I don’t think this story was intended to make any major statements.
Overall, I enjoyed Ready Player One. I felt like it accomplished it’s mission of entertaining me for a few weeks. I could relate to many of the references used throughout the story, and the characters were believable enough, in a comic-book sort of way. While Ready Player One is not the latest Brave New World or 1984, it was certainly worth spending an Audible credit on. It allows for some imagination stretching, and by the end you’re left with a feeling that everything is going to be ok. Relatively speaking, of course.