Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, famine in Ethiopia, Live Aid, Lockerbie… if those aren’t enough reasons to forget about the 1980s, then what about the start of the global AIDS pandemic, Chernobyl, synthesizers, drum machines and big hair? And yet, this is the era that fascinates Ernest Cline and which features profusely in his 2011 breakout novel Ready Player One. Not wanting to bring a doomsday message, though, Cline is more fascinated by everything that made the 1980s entertaining and fun, from the rise of electronics in general (like the Commodore 64) and the evolution of video games (Tron, Tempest, Joust, Black Tiger and the inevitable PacMan, they all play a role in the book), over the John Hughes Brat Pack movies to popular TV shows like Airwolf or Family Ties…
In the year 2044, the world is not a happy place: energy depletion, global warming, poverty and famine,… The whole shebang has caused the world to be one gigantic place of suck, where people live in trailer stacks, rather than in trailer parks. Luckily there was one man whose Steve Jobbs’ type of vision has saved generations, through the invention of the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation): a virtual reality where everything is possible. No longer constricted by the things (slow connections, for instance) that made previous VR-games look like the work of amateurs, the OASIS – basically an almost infinite multiple player online game – has even managed to replace the Internet. Or rather, the OASIS now is the Internet, and rather than accessing it from behind your PC, laptop, tablet or whatever, once you put on your visor and haptic suit, you are in the OASIS, through your own personal (though completely anonymous) avatar. Needless to say that in the urban wasteland that is 2044, almost everyone basically retreats to the OASIS, a place that still manages to fulfill everyone’s wishes about the society they want (e.g. the protagonist says that of course his avatar will vote in the OASIS, but Wade himself doesn’t see the point in voting in the ‘real world’).
Ready Player One, however, rather than showing us the differences between real and virtual world in 2044, focuses on the gaming aspect of the OASIS. When James Halliday, the inventor of the OASIS died, he left the World with one final ultimate game: the search for Halliday’s Easter Egg within the OASIS. The person to find the Egg would inherit his entire fortune. This last will and testimony of the 1980s nut Halliday gave rise to a new generation of OASIS gamers, the ‘gunters’ whose sole mission in life is to find the Egg. Wade Watts, an orphan forced to live with an uncaring aunt, has devoted his entire life to learning about Halliday’s obsessions and finding this OASIS holy grail. To do this, ‘gunters’ have to find 3 Keys, which will unlock 3 Gates which, once proven your worth, will finally lead to the Egg… if all of this reads like a video game, then you’re right, because Ready Player One is basically the book version of playing a video game: going on a quest for the ultimate prize, proving your worth, fighting opponents, picking up prizes, forging alliances… it’s like a videogame Dungeons and Dragons but then with multibillions at stake.
Ernest Cline shows his background in screenwriting too in Ready Player One, though, because the same thing that makes this book so much fun and nerdertastic, is also its biggest weakness. After Cline is done explaining the lay of the lands in OASIS (setting the scene), the book speeds off like there’s no tomorrow, and the pacing is as insane as the most addictive of video games (I’m no gamer, so I wouldn’t know which game that would be). And despite the fact that Cline doesn’t leave a 1980s reference untouched, there’s very little room for actual societal reflection (what do people actually do for a living? What about the IOI (big corporation that wants to take over the OASIS)? )or character development. For all its ‘realness’, avatars in the OASIS and characters in the book, are fairly archetypal and one-dimensional. For instance, <spoiler ahead> when Wade finds out that his best OASIS friend Aech (‘H’) is actually an African American teenage lesbian, rather than the white heterosexual teen male his avatar became friends with, this is merely glossed over (being a white male would give her better chances…how, why?), and in no way does Cline go into the feelings or thoughts of Aech. Also, the fact that Cline chose to focus on his beloved 1980s, will undoubtedly satisfy anyone who grew up on Back to the Future, Family Ties and Donkey Kong, but at the same time it’s highly unlikely that a non-Gen-X’er will get all these references or will be willing to actively seek them out. With Ready Player One, the cat felt like all the ingredients were really there for one amazing and unforgettable ride, it just needed that extra little bit of spice.
That said, Ready Player One is just one big bundle of escapist fun, addictive too and – needless to say – it is a prime example of the Geek Novel, one that once you’re willing to overlook some of its shortcomings, will entertain you from Ready Player One to Game Over.