Ready Player One, the debut novel from Ernest Cline, made a bit of a splash after its publication in 2011, ensnaring readers with its high nostalgia factor for the ‘80s and easy readability for a surprisingly wide audience. Does it live up to the hype? The answer, sadly, is no. But Ready Player One is still an absolute joy to read.
At its most basic level, Ready Player One is a dystopian novel, but certainly not a traditional one. The year is 2044, and the world simply isn’t a nice place to live anymore. Nearly everyone chooses to escape the reality of life by immersing themselves into the OASIS, a virtual world—or more accurately, a virtual universe—designed by billionaire James Halliday. The protagonist of Ready Player One is Wade Watts, a teenage boy who spends much of his time in the OASIS under the name Parzival.
The greatest competition of all time
Ready Player One is built upon the premise that upon his death, James Halliday left behind instructions for a massive competition within the OASIS—a hunt for an Easter egg hidden somewhere in the virtual reality; the reward for the first person to find it is Halliday’s entire fortune and control of the OASIS. Wade is one of many OASIS users who took up the search for the Easter egg, becoming someone who is referred to as a “gunter.” Ready Player One opens five years after Halliday’s death, and all but the most devoted of gunters have given up the search for the egg, which has since taken on an almost mythical status. However, Wade soon begins to discover clues that reignite the hunt, placing him in the center of a cutthroat competition where his opponents are willing to take any measure to reach the prize before him.
With so much of its action taking place inside a virtual reality, Ready Player One ran the risk of creating a story without stakes—I’d seen this premise fail in books and movies before, and this was a concern for me when beginning the book. Fortunately, Cline neatly sidesteps this issue in two ways. Firstly, he presents the OASIS as something far closer to a legitimate virtual reality than a simple game; when a user’s avatar is killed, they can’t simply restart the game and jump back in with the powers and skills they had before. Defeat can be very real, and failure can be permanent, even in the OASIS. Secondly, the hunt for Halliday’s Easter egg isn’t contained exclusively with the OASIS. Many of the competitors are willing to hunt down and even kill their opponents in the real world, and it is not always possible for users to keep their identity concealed within a digital realm. These are small but important tools that Cline uses to keep the stakes high, and they aid Ready Player One in deftly avoiding the pitfalls of other stories that have taken place inside virtual realities.
The ‘80s factor
Perhaps the most talked about aspect of Ready Player One is its ‘80s factor. In the novel, James Halliday grew up in the ‘80s, and his love for the era inspired him to design the entire Easter egg contest around all the books, movies, TV shows, video games, and general pop culture from that time period. As a result, Ready Player One is overflowing with references to the ‘80s, as well as more modern ones. Cline packs in everything he possibly can to satisfy his audience: references that span from Star Wars to Back to the Future, from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to Firefly, from J.R.R. Tolkien to Dungeons & Dragons, and everything in between. These references are often wonderful for their fans, but can occasionally grow tedious to those who aren’t familiar with them.
At its heart, Ready Player One is not a complex, subtle, or particularly deep story. It’s like a big budget, special effects heavy summer movie, except distilled into a written format—the kind of story you want to read when you just want to relax and have a good time. I believe this is what Cline intended when he wrote the book, and, frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that. He succeeds. While the first hundred pages or so can be difficult to get through due to slow pacing, once the book picks up it’s a fun ride all the way to the end. It’s cliché and fairly predictable, but I enjoyed every page of it. Keeping the right mindset is the key to enjoying Ready Player One.
On the other hand, Ready Player One’s most prominent flaw is its writing, and there is simply no excuse for its poor quality. “Show, don’t tell,” is one of the most prominent pieces of writing advice in existence, and Cline seems incapable of the former. Much of this book consists of paragraphs of summary, with Wade explaining his actions in retrospect or providing lengthy explanations of material that is only vaguely relevant to the story. This frequently grinds the plot to a halt, and having to push through these dull passages on such a regular basis tainted my overall enjoyment of the book.
Why should you read this book?
Entertainment. When it all comes down to it, Ready Player One’s entertainment factor is the sole reason I recommend it. Don’t expect to be surprised with clever plot twists or marvel at the beauty of the writing, but do expect to have an enjoyable reading experience all the way through. Ready Player One is just sheer fun.