Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Ready Player One is included in the Young Adult section on Amazon.com. In many ways this is an appropriate categorization. Most of the book takes place inside a video game, and the main characters are teenagers with dialog that reflects that fact. However, like the Harry Potter books, there is plenty here for adults to get excited over, especially for those of us who came of age during the 1980s, an era most young people would have little familiarity with. The themes implied in the story including the dangers that arise in an information culture, globalism, corporate power, and an exploration of the “real,” vs the “virtual.” None of these are exclusively the concerns of the young.
The story centers on Wade Owen Watts, who in the real world of 2044 America, lives with his alcoholic aunt, and her abusive boyfriend. They live in Oklahoma City in a trailer home, part of the “stacks,” literally stacks of trailers and mobile home welded together into multi story structures. Like most of humanity however, Wade spends the vast majority of his time in the “OASIS,” or “Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation”, a massive, immersive virtual space that doubles as both an MMORPG (Massive Multiple Player Online Role Playing Game) and a virtual society in which people live, work and even go to school. Wade attends High School from within the OASIS. Currency traded in the OASIS is the most stable and valuable, and while in the “real” world society still functions, it is sliding into a corporate run dystopia.
Within the OASIS people are identified by their avatars, alternate identities which each person creates to reflect how they would like to be seen by others. Wade Watts is known Parzival, and his best friend as Aetch. Along the way we are introduced to Art3mis, Daito and Shaito, and several others. These identities may or may not track closely with their real world personalities.
The story surrounds the death of one of the inventors of OASIS, James Donovan Halliday. In many ways modeled on Howard Hughes, Halliday and his partner Ogden Morrow (avatar Og), invented OASIS and formed the company that operates it, “Gregarious Simulation Systems.” After his death, rather than leave his wealth and company to a specific person, it is revealed he immersed within OASIS a game, a quest to find an Easter Egg, the finder of which would inherit Morrow’s riches, thus becoming one of the most powerful people in the world. Those who took up the challenge became known as Gunters (short for Egg Hunters). Besides the individual players, and groups known as clans that formed to find the egg, another corporation, IOI (Innoative Online Industries) also joins the hunt. IOI is one of those classically evil corporations, using its vast resources to try and rule the world; in this case, by inheriting the riches of their main rival. Along the way they have no compunction about using bribery, coercion, kidnapping and murder to achieve their ends.
I won’t go further as I do not want to give away any important plot elements. The book is being made into a movie by Steven Spielberg.
For folks like me, mid fifties with a nostalgia for the 1980s, Ready Player One is a feast. It is infused with the pop culture of that decade. References to classic video games (Pac Man, Tempest, Joust etc), music, movies (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, War Games etc),and literature, form the clues and the simulated tasks Gunters must follow to find the egg. Like Steam Punk, it is an interesting and unique way to fuse past and future. For those younger folks unfamiliar with the origin of video games it is a fun way to connect that continuum – Pong to OASIS.
Besides being an fun and entertaining story, it also forces one to ponder the possible effects of increased reliance on virtual reality. Are they really the same as some assert, merely being different ways to stimulate the same areas of the brain? Or, does it represent a real threat as people become more isolated from each other? Or, does it bring people closer together as people virtually interact with others they never would have met in the real world. What are its implications as a few large corporations take over the industry, and become in many ways, more powerful than the government we elect to lead us? The author doesn’t really answer these questions, though the ending implies which way he is leaning.
This book was really a lot of fun. It was well written. The author has a gift for teenage dialogue, as I can attest being the father of a recent teenager myself. He does a great job keeping the story going and infusing suspense at just the right times. He has successfully fused a very entertaining and accessible story with larger questions about the future of human interaction within a virtual world. I am anxious to see what Steven Spielberg does with the film version.
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