I just finished reading a whiz-bang thrill-ride of a novel: Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.
Wow! What fun!
If you’ve never heard of it, that’s probably because at first, its readership was mostly limited to “gamers” (the community of video game devotees); to “younger” readers (principally GenY, and Millenials, but also GEN Xers like the author); to sci-fi and fantasy readers; and to geeks of every persuasion.
But word got out and since then, Ready Player One has become a smash hit (that Steven Spielberg is adapting to film).
Having enjoyed every single page of it, I can say with conviction that anyone can delight in Cline’s terrific debut novel: anyone, that is, who loves great storytelling; a carefully and beautifully constructed fictional setting ; fully realized characters that the reader can care deeply about and root for like crazy ; taut, sometimes breakneck pacing ; and an underlying message that is thought provoking.
The story begins in the year 2044. In Cline’s imagined future, information technology has continued to develop at an exponential rate while the rest of the world has either stood still or regressed frighteningly.
Yesterday, I saw Ready Player One at Chapters in a display of “Recommended Post-Apocalyptic Novels”. I think that’s misleading, because Cline’s imagined future is closely tied to our present and has experienced no apocalyptic event. Rather, it’s an energy depleted future in which fuel costs have made most transportation and production so expensive that poverty is rampant and inequality extreme. Social unrest is everywhere.
This is the dangerous world that Wade Watts lives in, along with the rest of humanity, and Ready Player One is really his story.
When the novel begins, Wade is struggling to survive. At just 17 years old, he has already lost both of his parents in miserable circumstances, and is “living” in a crummy mobile home which is at the top of a vertical stack of other mobile homes held together by the most basic supports. No one cares about Wade.
It’s a precarious existence, to say the least.
But Wade has some pretty important things going for him: he’s brilliant, he’s highly motivated to escape his present life, he’s extraordinarily self-reliant, and he’s a computer geek. He’s also a really good person.
Fortunately for Wade, it’s still possible to turn toward a better, happier place. In Cline’s middle-America in the year 2044, that place is the OASIS (which stands for Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation).
The OASIS is the brainchild of James Halliday and Ogden Morrow, both born in the 1970’s, and the founders of Gregarious Simulation Systems. While both were brilliant programmers, Morrow (or Og) is the businessman and the surviving partner who cashed in his shares early in order to live a quieter, more reclusive life. It’s Halliday who was the programming genius (Wade describes him as a god among geeks and a nerd über-deity), and also a strange and withdrawn man obsessed with ‘80s pop/geek culture―the culture of his adolescence.
Created by them originally as a massively multiplayer online game, the OASIS has evolved into an extremely sophisticated and complex alternate reality. Thanks to advanced haptic technology, any user entering the OASIS can live any type of virtual life he or she chooses. As Wade explains:
“In the Oasis, you could become whomever and whatever you wanted to be, without ever revealing your true identity, because your anonymity was guaranteed.”
This is possible because entry into the OASIS requires choosing an avatar, or virtual alter ego.
Even more astonishing, Halliday and Morrow set the price for using the OASIS at 25 cents, in effect creating a cheap, legal and safe virtual utopia accessible to everyone.*
(* GSS derives its revenue from the real economic activity taking place inside the OASIS, such as virtual shopping for their avatar, “surreal estate” transactions, and every other type of commerce imaginable)
It’s no surprise, then, that most people spend most of their waking hours in the OASIS, including Wade, who even goes to school there―as do his peers.
The OASIS is Wade’s true home; the place where he finds friendship and a sense of self-worth. Except that Wade isn’t really Wade in the OASIS; he’s brave and noble Parzival, whose best friend is Aech (like the letter H), a charismatic and loyal avatar. He also pines for Art3mis, whom he admires from a distance and follows through her blog.
But, several years back, something happened that could potentially change everything. Upon his death, Halliday left behind a video titled Anorak’s Invitation which revealed his wishes concerning his vast estate, including control of his billions and of the OASIS itself. In the five minute video, Halliday explained that he had hidden several secret clues―known as Easter eggs to gamers―inside the OASIS, and that the first person to solve the puzzles and find the eggs would become his sole heir.
A crazed egg hunt ensued, with thousands upon thousands of egg hunters―referred to as Gunters―scouring the video and the OASIS for clues. But the sharpest Gunters noticed Anorak’s Almanac among the objects in the virtual room in Halliday’s video, which turned out to be a collection of hundreds of Halliday’s undated journal entries (with more than 1000 pages), including stream-of-consciousness observations on various video games, science-fiction and fantasy novels, movies, comic books and ‘80s pop culture.
And so, convinced that the source material for finding Halliday’s hidden eggs was the Almanac, the very best Gunters took up the task of learning every detail possible about every single aspect of its contents.
This is the gargantuan task that has been keeping Wade going for years. I would have given up pretty quickly. But Wade instead spent most of his time studying every scrap of information related to the Almanac, storing it all in his Grail Diary, while continuing to hone his game playing skills.
Then one day, astonishingly, all of Wade’s efforts pay off, and he finds the first egg. As everyone in the OASIS is informed of Wade’s success, what had begun to feel impossible has suddenly become very real.
The Gunter community is invigorated. So much so that not too long after Wade’s feat, Art3mis also finds the egg, followed by Aech, and then Daito and Shoto, two Japanese Gunters working in tandem. Their genuine, shared motivation seems to be to use Halliday’s estate to make the world a better place.
However, they have attracted the malignant attention of IOI (Innovative Online Industries), a global communications conglomerate and the world’s largest Internet provider, determined to beat Wade and the four other top Gunters to the final egg, in order to seize control of the OASIS and commercialize it to the extreme while charging extortionist fees for access to it.
And the people at IOI, led by Nolan Sorrento, a terrifying enemy, are prepared to cheat, intimidate and even kill―in the real world that is―in order to reach their goal.
What follows is a brilliant, suspenseful, multilayered, multilevel treasure-hunt-turned-deadly-chase wrapped in ‘80s geek culture, through the worlds inside worlds and games inside games of the OASIS. And believe it or not, as confusing as it sounds, it’s all fairly straightforward, thanks to Clines’ terrific writing.
In spite of its mischievous and pretty obsessive references to ‘80s culture, Ready Player One is really a salute to geek culture and geeks everywhere: to gamers, to programmers, to sci-fi fanatics and fantasy fiction fans; to Trekkies and comic book readers; to Star Wars devotees and Dungeons and Dragons lovers, and to all those who live by the geek code.
It also left me thinking about the morality of the OASIS, which makes it possible to live anonymously, hidden behind an avatar; and about the strange, deprived state of the real human body which is almost completely separated from the rest of the self while in the OASIS, and about being an imposter in your own life.These thoughts resonate in the here and now as we spend more and more time in front of our screens.
It also got me thinking about knowledge and its value in the novel. What IS worth knowing in Wade’s world? Only that which is useful to the Egg Hunt, and so Wade fills his brilliant mind with esoterica, factoids and trivia from a period that otherwise has no meaning to him at all.
What is the culture of the 2040 world? What are its beliefs? The culture of the OASIS is a recycled, curated version of a decade long gone. No new art is being made; creative thought is being redirected to a single quest.
And finally, does the social mobility possible for everyone (with some gaming skills) in the OASIS lead to greater equality outside in the real world? How do OASIS users reconcile themselves with virtual freedom in the OASIS and servitude in the real world, which is the case for so many of them?
So much is hidden inside this outstanding novel that leaves the reader breathless.
Who eventually wins the Egg Hunt? Find out for yourself! You won’t regret it.
I’ll leave you with this one clue: all’s well that ends well in the REAL world.