Ready Player One

This was lent to me by a friend.  It was written by Ernest Cline, who was, before its publication, most famous for writing and performing pretty clever spoken word poetry.

RP1 (as it might be called by someone who likes their acronyms) is set in a fairly basically sketched out not-too-distant future, where energy scarcity, environmental damage, and overpopulation has led to things being pretty rubbish for the vast majority of the population.  Rather than dealing with this, people choose to spend most of their time plugged into OASIS, a vast immersive virtual reality that evolved out of on-line games such as World of Warcraft.  OASIS has a lot of good things going for it.  It’s free to use, though there are many perks (such as being able to travel to exotic locations and getting good gear) that cost credits.  Credits can be earned in various ways, including those that one would typically associate with on-line games (i.e., killing monsters).  OASIS credits, we learn, are the most stable currency in the world — more valuable than yen, pounds, euro, and dollars.  You can also get a wonderful education via OASIS for free.  Our protagonist attends one such virtual school — a gigantic, marble-clad temple to learning (digital raw materials and real estate are pretty cheap).

OASIS was set up by a philanthropist genius geek, obsessed with pop culture from the 80s, 90s, and 00s (but especially the 80s).  After his death, it is revealed that anyone who can solve a series of riddles and challenges hidden throughout the system will inherit his billions and his controlling share in the company.  All of these challenges are based on games, films, and books that he loved as a teenager.  The main character, Parzival, is one of many independent gamers who spend their lives immersing themselves in 80s pop culture and boning up on 80s trivia in an attempt to win the prize.  Also pursuing this goal is an evil corporation that wants to gain control of OASIS and monetise it more aggressively.  Parzival, and the friends he makes over the course of the book, must race against the corporation’s army of ruthless gamer drones to prevent this from happening.

The plot is extremely straightforward.  Three keys must be found, and three gates opened, each of which requires detailed knowledge of some ancient computer game (Joust, Adventure, Pac Man) or film (Monty Python, Blade Runner, Ferris Bueler).  This bite-sized goal-directed structure reminds me of the advice given to procrastinators about how to tackle work. It makes the book as easy to consume as a big mac — the reader is constantly given positive reinforcement for finishing chapters as the protagonist achieves one milestone after another.  The prose is as straightforward as the plot, the interpersonal drama is anchored firmly at a pubescent level, and the emotion depth is…shallow.

Nonetheless, the book was a pleasure to read for me.  I grokked most of the cultural references Cline made (though someone born five years before me and in America would have done even better), and there were many such references to spot.  It seemed as though nearly every paragraph involved some obscure aspect of late 20th century geekery (in this respect there was some similarity to the feeling of nostalgia I experienced when reading Microserfs).  Amongst other things, I share Parzival’s (and, presumably, Cline’s) slightly embarrassing regard for Ladyhawke (How can it not be awesome? It stars both Roy Batty and Ferris Bueler!) and Legend.  It is this shared fondness for cultural artefacts from my childhood that is at the root of my liking for the book.

So, it’s not very well written.  Further, it’s an entirely self-indulgent exercise in nostalgia for the author (the entire plot hinges on a ludicrous conceit that allows Cline to write a sci-fi novel in which he gets to name-check everything he remembers loving as a child and teenager).  This isn’t necessarily a problem — there’s a huge audience out there (including me, I guess) of 30-something geeks who would thrill to read something that resonates with them in this way.  Ultimately, it is the combination of these two things that ruin the book for me.  The sub-par young-adult style plotting and prose, which seems most suitable for 13 year olds, sits very awkardly beside the innumerable references to geek culture aimed at people in their 3os.

So that’s it.  If you’ve watched and enjoyed the cannonical geek texts, if you’ve played your fair share of computer games, and if you’ve got a soft-spot in your heart for Ladyhawke and Legend, you might get a bit of a kick out of Ready Player 1.  Otherwise, avoid if possible.

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