'Ready Player One' by Ernest Cline
Reading Ready Player One is not a trial. Weighing in at a manageable 372 pages, Ernest Cline’s debut novel zips us right along through an entertaining story, and his affection for geek culture, the 1980s, and a good old fashioned adventure tale is readily apparent. However, Cline’s book ultimately disappoints. It’s not a bad effort, but Ready Player One is unsatisfying in a way that is much more of a letdown than out and out trash like The Da Vinci Code or a Zack Snyder film could ever be. Somewhere around the middle of the narrative, it becomes painfully clear that every interesting question raised (intentionally or not) by Cline will be ignored for the sake of moving along a solidly built, but undeniably typical story.
From the word go, the reader is thrust into a world of unabashed geekery. The book’s opening chapter is devoted to setting up the conflict: in the not-so-distant future, the richest man in the world has passed away, and hidden the keys to his fortune somewhere in the massive, sprawling virtual reality universe he created (the OASIS), which is populated by nearly every person on the planet. The late James Halliday, technological visionary and a true child of the '80s, has invited all OASIS users to join the hunt, leaving every member with a video will that contains the first of many clues that will lead one lucky person through a series of gates, that ultimately lead to “the egg” (the key to Halliday's fortune, and the first of many nods to gaming culture). Once the video ends, the hunt is on. However, as we are informed by Wade Watts, our 18-year-old protagonist, no one has made any progress in the contest in the years that have elapsed since Halliday’s death… until now (insert dramatic horn stabs here).
Wade is part of a subculture known as gunters (egg+hunters) who dedicate the majority of their lives to searching for the egg. They train obsessively in classic games from Halliday’s decade of choice, and pour over other bits of television shows, movies, and music known to be amongst the man’s favorites, until they are walking encyclopedias of everything ‘80s. Ready Player One reads like a nerd’s wet dream for many reasons, not the least of which is its presentation of a situation in which obsessively cataloging and pontificating over forgotten pop culture serves a practical purpose. The geek-love feels genuine though, and when it’s used sparingly, the astute reader may be delighted when they catch one of the many references to ‘80s geek culture that are peppered throughout the story. More often than not, however, the conceit is ladled on thick as molasses and then painstakingly explained. In its weakest moments, it’s hard to imagine just who Ready Player One is written for: any '80s devotee worth their salt would recognize a Rush reference here or a nod to Wargames there, and anybody who needed an explanation probably wouldn’t care in the first place.
What’s more disconcerting is Cline’s refusal to take a definitive stance on whether or not the idea of existing almost entirely within a completely fabricated universe is preferential to existing in even the most depressing reality (at this point in time, the world is ravaged by famine, poverty, war, pollution, et cetera). This can be partly forgiven due to the fact that Cline’s mouthpiece is an 18-year-old kid who has known no other life, but it still feels like a cop-out. If we’re giving Cline the benefit of the doubt, the themes and messages of Ready Player One are muddy, at best. The goals and actions of characters are sometimes presented as misguided, but any opportunity for a character to reflect or grow is almost always ditched in favor of moving the “life is a game” plot along. In one instance, Wade describes living for months on end inside a barren room with no human contact whatsoever: “No outside light penetrated my apartment. The single window had once provided a view of the Columbus skyline, but I’d spray-painted it completely black a few days after I moved in.” Later, in the same passage, we’re given a glimpse into some larger subtext; Wade describes his isolation as so extreme, he has programmed his computer rig to answer the door when the pizza man arrives. “Capitalism would inch forward, without my actually having to interact face-to-face with another human being. Which was exactly how I preferred it, thank you.” This is as much insight into Wade’s character as we are ever given. Again and again, we’re teased with moments that make us think Cline might be getting a little deeper, but sentences later he returns to waxing poetic about Atari and John Hughes.
It’s difficult to determine how we should feel about the characters in Ready Player One when they remain so static for the duration of the story. A cynical reader might suspect that Cline, once he neared the end of his manuscript, suddenly remembered that he was writing a book about human beings and hastily threw in a few perfunctory character arcs to keep the audience interested in the ho-hum plot. As his quest progresses, Wade (Parzival in the OASIS) and his friends Aech, Art3mis, and the laughably stereotypical Japanese brothers Daito and Shoto face the most predictable obstacles and twists imaginable. Wade falls in love with one of two female characters. A jealous associate betrays Aech and Wade after they clear the first gate, and then drops out of the story altogether. There’s even an obligatory evil corporation (hell-bent on winning the contest and gaining executive control of the OASIS) that murders players indiscriminately. In the end, some sort of moral lesson about priorities and what’s actually worth fighting for is offered to the reader, but it’s completely at odds with the way the rest of the book is written, and is delivered through the use of a deus ex machina. Yipes.
It should be noted that Cline’s talent shines through when he’s working in his comfort zone. The author has a sincere love for every game and movie he squishes into the pages of Ready Player One, and the quest for Halliday’s egg is at times clever and thrilling. However, by the end of the novel, we’re left with an experience as hollow and manufactured as the virtual world of the OASIS. If Cline can properly harness his passions into something more insightful and try to think a little beyond his own experience (it’s not completely ridiculous to suppose there’s a bit of Cline in Wade and his geek compatriots), his follow-up effort may be a force to be reckoned with, but Ready Player One could have used quite a bit more time at the drawing board.
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