Title: Ready Player One
Author: Ernest Cline
First Published: 2011
I’m not sure this should really count as a fully fledged Robo Read but I’m going to include it under the heading anyway. Reasons? Well, the novel does include one scene-stealing giant robot moment, and although artificial intelligence isn’t really its focus, Ready Player One certainly explores our relationship with technology and the potential of on-line / virtual lives. Indeed, in that respect Cline’s book rather put me in mind of John Scalzi’s Lock In, a great novel that was the focus of my very first Robo Reads book review on this blog. Scalzi is actually name-checked in Cline’s work and has himself sung its praises, describing the book as a “nerdgasm.”
It’s a pretty accurate description. While its “Robo Reads” credentials may be debatable, there is no doubt that Ready Player One fully deserves the accolade of “Geek Lit Classic.” It’s not without it flaws but these are more than compensated by an overall ride that manages to combine some all-too-grimly-plausible near future dystopian world building with a gleefully referential nostalgic pop-cultural odyssey that had me grinning from ear. You probably need to be a bit of a gamer and to have some affection for the 80s to get the most out of this novel but if you fit those bills and haven’t read Cline’s debut novel already I highly recommend doing so now, or at least before Stephen Spielberg’s film version of it comes out. So, you’ve got just under a year and half, which shouldn’t be too much of a challenge considering this is the kind of book I struggled to put down and devoured in just a couple of sittings.
The novel is set in 2045, a time of “ongoing energy crisis. Catastrophic Climate Change. Widespread, famine, poverty and disease. Half a dozen wars.” Cline’s teenage protagonist, Wade Watts, lives in “the stacks,” a vertical trailer park in Oklahoma City which is every bit as depressing as it sounds. Gun violence is as pervasive here as food credits are scarce and prospects for escape to a better life are slim. Physical prospects, anyway. But Wade does have a virtual escape hatch, the OASIS. In this free to access immersive online world, Wade can attend school, hang out with online friends, play games and access a vast library of historical human culture. It’s also possible to travel between the OASIS’ vast network of “planets” exploring and gaining loot and experience RPG style. But travel costs credits Wade doesn’t have, so his avatar, Parzival, spends most of his time on the planet where his school is based. Yet on-line life is never boring, since Parzival is a man on a mission. Like fellow “Gunters” (egg-hunters) he spends his time trying to unravel ”Anorak’s Invitation” a quest set by James Halliday, the now deceased inventor of the OASIS. Halliday’s immense fortune, and ownership of his wildly successful virtual realm, are being held in trust to be passed on to the first person who completes the quest. Doing so involves unravelling a series of clues that allude to Halliday’s memories and obsessions from his youth in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. In other words, the chance of future riches and power hinges on developing an encyclopedic knowledge of 1980s pop-culture.
So, yes Ready Player One is basically a geek-themed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But this is no bad thing. Like Dahl, Cline successfully balances wonderful weirdness and gleeful invention with some more troubling undertones and questions about the human condition and this double consciousness is one of the novel’s key strengths: Wade vs Parzival, the constriction and deprivation of the stacks vs the limitless horizons of the OASIS. The other- simpler – strength, of course, comes from the joy of recognition and nostalgia invoked by the novel’s tour de force of geeky references. And oh there are so many references: Pacman, Pitfall, Gary Gygax, Top Gun, Bladerunner, Tron, Pink Floyd, Mechagodzilla, if it’s part of 80s or 90s pop-culture it probably pops up somewhere along Parzival’s path. I loved the (many) scenes that involved retro gaming. Reading this was rather like the literary equivalent of the visit I made to Berlin’s Computerspielemuseum earlier this year: the chance to revisit and remember some classic games that I’d loved or even forgotten I’d loved. I’ll admit I almost squealed with joy when Parzival plays Joust, which is probably the game I remember playing most on my first Atari console.
The references are enjoyable, but what impressed me most is how well the Halliday legacy plot legitimises them. The film and game quotes are not just throwaway one-liners (although Cline chucks in plenty of those too), they are actually fundamental to the plot since the Gunter “currency” is pop-cultural knowledge. When Parzival and his friends are quoting the D&D rulebook to each other it could so easily sound forced, but it doesn’t here because it makes sense that the characters would want to show off their research, trying to outdo each other in the extent of their knowledge. It’s a wonderful conceit that lets readers enjoy the best of both worlds: a trip down 8-bit memory lane and a decently-realised dystopian narrative. The virtual cake here isn’t a lie, Cline lets us have it and eat it.
While Ready Player One is inordinately fun it also raises some big issues about avoidance and escapism, both things at which we as a species we are worryingly good. Wade’s reality is a bleak one and The OASIS is his escape:
Playing old videogames never failed to clear my mind and set me at ease. If I was feeling depressed or frustrated about my lot in life, all I had to do was tap the Player One button, and my worries would instantly slip away as my mind focused itself on the relentless pixelated onslaught on the screen in front of me. There, inside the game’s two-dimensional universe, life was simple.
Gaming is a source of comfort, and the need for comfort is entirely understandable. I know when I’ve had a tough day at work logging in to Steam for some gaming action is always an immersive release. But real world problems are not solved by evasion. As this interesting blog post has noted, there’s a depressing sense that the arrival of the OASIS has actually compounded many of the problems in Wade’s society, since people have just withdrawn to the virtual world rather than fighting to improve the physical one. This notion crops up throughout the action and is part of Wade’s development, his “levelling up” if you will. Parzival’s ambitions offer a sharp contrast with those of the novel’s female protagonist, fellow Gunter, Art3mis. He wants to use Halliday’s fortune to fund space travel and get out, a literal escape from the ravaged Earth; she thinks the money could be used to improve conditions for people everywhere. Both aims offer a sharp relief to those of their competitors, the legion avatars run by employees of the IOI corporation, who are desperate to assume control of the OASIS in order to start charging for its services. As the action progresses there is a sense of Wade learning that the physical world cannot be entirely ignored: at one point he even starts getting fit and working out, recognising that his physical body needs to be strong too as the stakes get higher in the online egg hunt. But this never becomes a preachy moral and whatever Wade’s lessons, I closed the novel pining for more time in the OASIS and in Halliday’s nostalgic world. After all, reading is a form of escapism too.
Cline is not the most poetic of writers. Ready Player One is written in a simple and colloquial tone that suits Wade’s narrative but can occasionally feel a bit flat. It was the action and the setting that carried me forward rather than the language. The novel starts fairly slowly, establishing the dystopian setting, and chronicling the slow unravelling of Halliday’s first clue. But – as in most games – as Parzival levels up the pace quickens and as the action got more intense I did occasionally feel a little bogged down by some of the less plot-integral references. Cline is ambitious in the scope and scale of the allusions he brings to the narrative and while, as I noted above, most are surprisingly well woven into the plot, the few that aren’t can feel jarring, especially when Parzival is acting alone so there is no obvious target for his quotes and jokes aside from us, the readers. There is also one big instance of a deus ex machina type plot intervention that I found a little disappointing. Although in a novel that is so wryly self-aware as this one the use of such an obvious trope perhaps smacks of knowing deliberation rather than narrative desperation; and overall, Parzival’s journey remains an enjoyably satisfying one. I was going to write ”uniquely satisfying” there but I stopped myself since in many ways this novel is the opposite of unique, being essentially a compound of retro references. As in music, the notes have all been heard before, it’s the arrangement that is different, yet the familiar riffs when they come (as they do thick and fast and rocking) are still a blast to hear.
To sum up, Ready Player One is a book that I heartily recommend. It’s been well publicised and has already developed quite a following so there’s a high chance you’ve picked it up already, but if you haven’t, it does live up to the hype. I’ll certainly be continuing to follow news of the Spielberg movie development as it trickles through. Indeed, it’ll be interesting to see where they go with casting choices, and particularly how they deal with the disconnect between the main characters’ OASIS personae and their real world selves. There’s some pretty weighty spoiler potential in announcing roles and actors for a property like this that deals with multiple identities, sometimes in surprising ways. One thing’s for sure, though, Spielberg is going to need a good legal team involved to resolve the licensing minefield of all those references. I remember reading an interview with the team behind Disney’s Wreck-It-Ralph who noted the lengthy negotiation process they endured to bring so many videogame properties to life on the same screen. With not only game allusions but so many film, music and technology references being so integral to the plot here I’d imagine that the Ready Player One film will level up the legal wranglings even further. I am fully expecting to see a full ten minute chunk of the end credits devoted to legal “thanks you”s.
Next time : Is Cline’s next novel a worthy successor to his wonderful debut? R reviews Armada by Ernest Cline.