Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (read by Wil Wheaton)
Well, that was fun! I can’t think of anyone more apt than Wil Wheaton to have read this and he does an excellent job of capturing the character and the drama, even dealing with the odd situation of referencing himself in the narrative.
The story itself has me in two minds: is it too geeky or is it a comment on geekery?
It’s not wondrous literature in writing style and there are moments where the writing jars with its awkwardness; there are also some plot moments that make little sense – e.g. everything is thumb prints and retina scans until an escape is required, whereupon security is managed by scanning an ID card; our hero is worried that passwords he has acquired on the black market might leave him trapped in indentured servitude forever, if they don’t work – but a chapter later he has to change his plans because the automatic transfer of funds that will free him is going happen later than needed (so not trapped, then!).
There are plenty of other examples but that’s not really the point here: this story is about 80s nostalgia and, above all, REFERENCES!
I’ve never really been a gamer, so the central theme of old video games and consoles is not one I can relate to well. I played Pac-Man, Space Invaders and Defender on a BBC Micro, when school needed someone to help code and data entry a basic database, so leant me the machine over summer. But that’s about it. Ernest Cline manages, however, to keep all the references whizzing above my head from being too dull (except when he’s getting carried away with lists) and even manages to make a Pac-Man game almost sound dramatic. That’s no mean feat for describing a video game in prose.
I would say, though, that if you are not interested in either video games, anime, dungeons and dragons, 80s music or 80s films, then steer clear. There is no way interest will be held without some equating of values with these media; the tale depends upon them. If neither John Hughes movies, Neo-Genesis Evangelion, World of Greyhawk nor a Commodore 64 elicit a smile or ping of nostalgia, then it’s probably best to step away now.
Fortunately for me, D&D, films, a little anime, and some of the music (notably an actually 70s album by Rush) are part of my background and loves, so there was plenty to take joy in spotting (the double reference of the password “reindeer flotilla setec astronomy” from Tron and Sneakers, respectively, a particular highpoint that even had me editing the Ready Player One wikipedia entry: bonus geek points!).
To some degree, this was a surprise as I will happily describe the 80s, generally, as the worst decade in history. But that’s mainly the fashions, crap music and, above all, the politics and subsequent decline of civilisation into a subservient muscle to the all-powerful gods of Capitalism and Greed above the value of humanity and social justice that has led, in a direct line, to the situation the world now finds itself in…[/rant]
Er, where was I?
The plot: in a dystopian future, with fossil fuels exhausted and the planet in deep, continual recession, the creator of a vast virtual reality, the Oasis, has died and left his entire fortune to be found in the form of a game. Hidden in the Oasis are three “Easter Eggs” – keys that will lead to the vast fortune. Wade Watts is a Gunter (easter egg hunter) who, like so many others, spends most of his time in the Oasis and it’s his story as he searches for the keys, pitted against the mega-corporation that wants it for themslelves so they can, *shudder*, monetise it (even though, actually, it already is)…
The real world is only lightly realised but it’s enough to make the reader understand the preference for the online world, even if it feels light and, frankly, a bit silly (it’s too near-future, so that the 80s references work in the timeframe, to be convincing). The Oasis itself is more fleshed out with all sorts of worlds described and the rules and interactions given more substance than the real world. There is a point in the final third of the story that is the only lengthy tract taking place in the real world; it’s more tech-thriller than scifi/fantasy at this point but the set-up is horribly simplistic.
And there’s the problem. Everything in the Oasis reads as a “then I did this, then I did this, then I did this and it was brilliant!!” wish fulfilment. The bad guys – a corporation of Unstoppable Evil – are far too clichéd and obvious, resting the entirety of their Evil upon one focussed bad guy who does everything but laugh maniacally. It’s geeks versus corporate. The savvy, courageous hacker versus Microsoft.
The thing I can’t decide, therefore, is whether this is Cline indulging his loves in a naive narrative where he gets to describe and have his character play with all the best toys – swords, blasters, spaceships, giant Japanese robots, virtualised versions of dungeons and so on – kick the corporation’s ass and get the girl. Or whether he’s commenting on the sort of people who would want to do this.
In the end, the message is, surprisingly, possibly, that real life is better because that’s the only place that love lives. But it’s not that clear. The love in question is based upon two people getting to know each other’s minds, rather than any sexual attraction, because they meet as avatars (which can look however the player wishes) in the Oasis. Most of the readers, I think, would prefer the Oasis and I tend to feel that this IRL aspect is a comment – or warning – on the growth of social media and the sorts of people who live by it, rather than a specifically relevant plot point.
I suppose a resolution of my dilemma matters little – in the end, it boils down to whether this is Cline’s style and capability or whether he’s writing like this purposefully because of the subject matter, neither of which affects the quality of the experience, just the academic merit. The most relevant bit is, given the caveat of caring about at least some of the trivia, that this is a fun ride. Even if the D&D reference in one of the riddles was too obvious (surely?*) to anyone who’s played D&D, the main character is simply too gifted and too lucky (the coin too obvious), the bad guys too evil and stoopid, the real world too one-dimensional and the demographic of the High Five painfully PC.
Because none of that matters. After all, what’s not to like about Mechagodzilla vs Ultraman; a spacecraft called Vonnegut; a virtual world where the Discworld exists (sadly untravelled); where you can use magic or tech or both; where Gygax is also a world and Benatar an asteroid; where the Great and Powerful Og uses the finest forked-lightning spell ever; where you can world hop by spaceship, teleportation or stargates; where Monty Python’s the Holy Grail (fittingly) is crucial to a quest and where Temples of Syrinx is important I ask?
I’ll probably listen to it again, with reference detectors turned up to 11, and see what I missed…
One mild annoyance, given my love of the medium: other than Wade’s alliterative name, there is barely any comic reference, even though the notion of them is mentioned often and heaps of them – unnamed – abound. A hole in Cline’s knowledge, perhaps?
And one last thing: did I miss a detail, because a demilich doesn’t have a body..? [/nerdoff]
From the Any Excuse Department:
*Don’t call me Shirley.