It seems only fitting that at 11:30 on a Friday night while my few best friends (they being a youthful lot with time, energy and money to spend) are at Galloping Ghost, I should be at home, digesting a few thousand calories of meatloaf and mashed potatoes, wearing sweat pants, drinking a couple fingers of Evan Williams, listening to Philip Glass. In other words…I am ready to give you my thoughts of Ernest Cline’s first novel, Ready Player One.
2044, it seems, will not be a good time for America. The bleak vision of the future includes a dire energy crisis, homelessness, food shortages, wars, corporations running the country, etc etc. The main difference being that, in the future Cline puts forth, people can escape the horrors of reality from the comfort of their own home by logging in to OASIS, a virtual reality simulation that was launched as an MMO video game but over time morphed into a thriving online metropolis that expanded beyond just a video game but includes real world businesses and even a public school system. The creator of this utopia was a video game programming savant named James Halliday, and – spoiler – the book begins with his death. Halliday was a recluse and had no heir to will his company or his billions and billions of dollars to. Instead, he has set up a game within his game. An easter egg hunt. Quite simply, whomever discovers what he has hidden inherits sole ownership of the game, his company, his fortune.
Halliday was a child of the 80’s, and the story from front-to-back is dense with direct references to all sorts of bits and pieces of the decade. The early portion of the book is so wrought with 80s references that it almost comes off as name-dropping. At times Cline seems to just be mentioning things for the sake of mentioning them, but as the story progresses the referential nature sorts itself out and becomes not only more tactful, but more important to the main character, Wade Watts. Wade lives a rough life sleeping in the luandry room of his Aunt’s double wide in an Oklahoma trailer park tenement. Wade attends high school in the OASIS, and then spends as much of his spare time in the OASIS as he can as well, as I probably would if I lived in the laundry room of a double wide in a trailer park tenement. Let’s be honest. If I lived in Oklahoma at all I would probably escape to any non-Oklahoman virtual reality as much as possible, too. Wade has studied Halliday’s well-documented life backwards and forwards, retaining as much minutiae as his brain can withstand in the hopes that it will help him to one day win the contest.
As I said, Halliday was a child of the 1980’s. He, in truth, turns out to be a bit obsessive about it. An 80’s fetishist, if you will. Particularly when it pertains to video games and movies. Baring in mind that the year is 2044, and the main character is separated from the that decade by generations, Wade is studying not only Halliday, but the 80s, and so, for those of us that grew up in the 80s, there are times when he is explaining things from our own childhood. While this is not without it’s occasional charm, it also can be grating and sometimes just bordering on silly. Some references are not going to hit home, too. Even if, like me, you haven’t seen Pretty In Pink…you know enough of it that an allusion to it isn’t lost on you. If, like me, you too just read Ian Bogost’s Racing The Beam like last fucking month, a reference to Adventure programmer Warren Robinett will not be lost on you, either. Even a person who really enjoys playing video games, though, may need to run to google to look up like a name like Richard Garriot, though. (note – I knew who Richard Garriot was without having to google it).
While someone who isn’t an avid video gamer can enjoy this book, it’s target demo is definitely a focused group of people probably between 30 and 40 year olds. People who know Joust and Tempest, but also know Everquest, War Games and L.A. Style’s “James Brown Is Dead.” That is where the fun lies. In getting the subtle references. In knowing what the box art of an Atari 2600 game looks like before the author describes it. In being able to comprehend and visualize the image of a hard luck teenager hunkered down in a trailer slum in the year 2044 wearing virtual reality headgear and gloves and then entering a virtual arcade to play a virtual version of Pac-Man.
(the author of this blog would like to take a brief moment to inform the reader that he is currently snacking on dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets right now and listening to this)
Ready Player One hit a nice spot for me. Resting in between two much heavier reads, I burned through this in two days (granted, they were both slow days at work that offered me ample reading time). It is light and reads real quick, particularly when the contest picks up and the antagonist emerges. In typical video game format, it is an underdog story in three parts with a dark middle chapter. I will, of course, let you read to find out how it ends, but you know…video game book. Super niche-y, not for everyone, but a thoroughly enjoyable read for anybody with a fairly deep knowledge or interest in video games and their history. This is the first novel from Ernest Cline, whose other prior work is a writing credit on the 2009 film Fanboys. It’s clever and well-told. Also, in his picture on the back jacket of the book he is standing against a Delorean, so there’s that.
tl;dr – Hey I heard you like video games and 80s movies you should read this book.