Reading Week #1: ‘Ready Player One’ by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One US edition

Ernest Cline‘s Ready Player One is a celebration of the nerd/geek pop culture of the late 70s and 80s, wrapping a classic quest story in the elements of that era’s videogame, movie and television highlights.  The basic storyline should be instantly familiar to everyone – an inventor has hidden away all of his secrets, and to obtain them you must solve ingenius riddles while battling incredibly powerful foes.  Win through to the end, and you’ll be rewarded with all the money, power, and cool toys that you could ever hope to gain.  Toss into the mix a love story and a cinderella story, and you’ve got the basic outline of Ready Player One.

Ready Player One takes place in the near future – a future where the real world is a mess, but most people spend all of their time in a virtual world, OASIS, where they can be and do anything they want.  Wade is a young man finishing high school in OASIS while trying to work out the ultimate puzzle – where in OASIS did its creator hide his fortune and the keys to OASIS before his death?  Solving that puzzle requires an exhaustive knowledge of late 20th century pop culture, and will lead Wade on a twisting journey through OASIS and the real world.

In structure the novel mirrors the plotlines of the videogames that it reveres, while the characters are familiar to anyone with a love of 80s cult movies such as WarGames, Real Genius, and their ilk.  However, Cline elevates his novel above a simple homage, by providing characters and a plotline that are engaging, witty, and above all, intelligent.  Too often books (or movies) that attempt to mine the elements of 20th century pop culture merely skim the surface, without truly understanding the elements that are so attractive, and thereby fail to capture the essence of the source material.  Ready Player One doesn’t make that mistake – it is a smart book with continually surprising depth.  While you hope the end is going to be the one that you want it to be, and the journey to that end follows the obvious route, the actual path to get there has many unexpected twists and turns that are delightful for the deep thinking that their presence required.

I knew that I was hooked, and that Ready Player One was hitting me on all levels, when I found myself closing the book abruptly about a quarter of the way through.  I’d reached the point in the novel where Wade was about to meet with the representatives of the evil corporation IOI for the first time.  I stopped reading because I empathized so much with the character that I momentarily couldn’t bear the possibility that Wade was going to be played for a sucker, was going to do something stupid, or (worst of all) the author was going to have Wade do something stupid.  Thankfully my fears were unfounded, and the plot twisted in an intriguing and intelligent way.  But, it was clear that I was fully invested in the characters, their worlds, and their ongoing story.  When I finished the book, I immediately went back and re-read three passages, just for the sheer joy of experiencing the scenes again.  To me, that’s the mark of a great story, no matter what form it takes.

In addition to being a great story, Ready Player One is also a pure teenage wish-fulfillment dream, and my inner 14-year-old recognized and responded to it instantly.  It is a world where not only can you spend your life playing all of your favorite games, listening to your favorite bands, and watching your favorite movies and television series, but you are expected to do so, and expected to master all of them.  Further, everyone around you shares your likes and is eager to play those games against you, or have hours-long discussions and arguments about subtle elements of those TV shows and movies. Finally, as a capstone, all of this knowledge, rather than being useless trivia of no value, is the key that could utimately allow you to become the most powerful person in the world.  As I said before, Cline knows his early nerd/geek culture inside and out, but in addition he also knows his target audience, and his whole novel is devoted to their hopes, wishes and desires.  Ready Player One is an incredibly well-engineered novel; it works on so many different levels that it will continually reward those who re-read passages with new insights, links, and easter eggs.

If you have any fondness for 80s pop culture, do yourself a favor, and pick up Ready Player One.  And then have an argument with a fellow reader over which homages in the book were the best.  Personally, I’m sticking with Ultraman.  I don’t want to hear from anyone who argues for Rush’s 2112….

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