– Review by Paul Ewbank-
It took me a while to remember this book when I was searching the cobwebbed recesses of my brain for something post-apocalyptic that wasn’t written decades before I was born (don’t worry though, there’ll be PLENTY more of those). Though Ready Player One does indeed feature a poverty stricken dystopia as bleak and smog-filled as the best of them, it’s difficult to recall this fact when the vast majority of the book doesn’t take place in the real world.
The year is 2044 and the world is a lousy place to live due to… wars and stuff. It’s never given much attention in the book exactly HOW we came to be in a ruined civilization, it just takes for granted that its readers are welled versed in post-apocalyptic tropes by now and gets on with the story. Most of humanity hides from their ruined world by spending all their time in the OASIS- a virtual reality created by the legendary James Halliday and his long-suffering partner Ogden Morrow (a fairly blatant mirror of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak) to be an escape from reality. In the OASIS one can live one’s entire life- you can built your own house and fill it with whatever you like, there’s money, schools, business, and enough dungeons to raid and kobolds to slay to keep even the biggest World of Warcraft fanatic happy.
Our protagonists is one such loser- Wade Watts AKA Parzival, a hardcore game nerd who spends every waking minute in the OASIS to escape the harsh poverty of his real life. Wade, like an awful lot of people, has but one dream and aspiration in life: to solve the mystery of the hidden easter egg. When Halliday died heirless and alone he left his fortune and control of the OASIS to the first person able to solve a series of puzzles he left within the OASIS itself. Cryptic clues were left as his will and for years the virtual world was turned upside down in the hunt for the ultimate prize, but to no avail. Years later, only hardcore hunters like Wade are still interested, but just as clueless. All they know is that Halliday was obsessed with the nerd culture of the 80’s, and so his clues are likely linked to some obscure piece of geek lore.
It’s an admittedly clever setup- one that gives a clear structure to the book and gives Cline free reign to turn the cartoons, retro games and comics of his youth into the most celebrated, worthwhile thing in his virtual universe. Here, the ultra-nerds are the coolest people on the planet and they live in a world where they can quite literally fly to work in an X-wing. It’s the ultimate nerd fantasy, and it’s a real thrill to experience even in book form. But what makes Ready Player One more than just a wet-dream for gamers is that it actually tells a pretty decent story. It’s obviously derivative and about as subtle as a Wookie infiltrating an Ewok convention (late in the book Cline tries his hand at social commentary for about half a chapter by revealing that Wade’s virtual best friend is in real life a black homosexual woman, thereby ticking off every minority discrimination category in one go), but its compulsively readable, moves along at a good old pace and sure as hell doesn’t take itself seriously. Although mostly an unashamed celebration of the nostalgia crazed nerd culture championed almost exclusively by 30-something blokes, Cline also addresses the downside of being an obsessive recluse with the bull-headed poetry of a man who knows his subject matter all too well. At one point our hero becomes so obsessed with the easter egg and with winning the affections of a sexy female egg hunter called Art3mis (yeah, numbers for letters is the kind of crap you’re just gonna have to put up with in this book) that he basically shuts himself off from the word, becoming the chubby, unshaven, paranoia ridden maniac that most of us don’t care to admit we have inside us.
Being a 90’s child myself I think a lot of the references went over my head, but not in a way that seriously detracted from the enjoyment. Plenty of people can make an entire lifestyle out of ‘borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered 80s’, and the whole world of coin-op arcades, classic anime and home consoles which took up a whole room is to me as fascinating and mythic as 18th century literature and historic football matches probably are to normal people. There was plenty of stuff I did get though, and the rest I took as a history lesson. I would still say that the amount of enjoyment you’ll get from Ready Player One will be directly proportional to the amount you identify with the protagonist. So basically, if you’re reading this blog you’re gonna love it. Yes, I did just indirectly call you a chubby, unshaven, paranoia ridden maniac. You gonna prove me wrong?
Before I convince you that this book is ‘this generations Neuromancer’, as one quote on the back cover claimed (which is absolute rubbish, by the way, but it did prompt me to read Neuromancer and thus redefine what I think of a good book, so I can’t complain), I should make it clear that Ready Player One is far from perfect. It takes an interesting, topical concept and runs it well past its logical conclusion in a way that’s fun and engaging. Nothing more. It’s nothing profound, original or even particularly well written, but as a rush of nerd empowerment fantasy and shout outs to a world so many of us hold so dear, Ready Player One delivers.