Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready_Player_One ★★☆☆☆
Ready Player One
A Novel by Ernest Cline
2011 / 374 Pages

The Setup: In Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, it’s the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place. Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets. And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune – and remarkable power – to whoever can unlock them.

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday’s riddles are based in the pop culture he loved – that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday’s icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes’s oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.

And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle. Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt – among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life – and love – in the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

At once wildly original and stuffed with irresistible nostalgia, Ready Player One is a spectacularly genre-busting, ambitious, and charming debut – part quest novel, part love story, and part virtual space opera set in a universe where spell-slinging mages battle giant Japanese robots, entire planets are inspired by Blade Runner, and flying DeLoreans achieve light speed.  (From the hardcover edition)

The year is 2044 and the Internet and the OASIS have become synonymous with one another. Created by one James Halliday and marketed by his lifelong friend Ogden Morrow, the OASIS is the ultimate massively multiplayer online (MMO) simulation available. It’s used for everything from schooling, to working, to shopping, to adventuring. Thanks to the latest in virtual reality technology and aided by a simple one time setup fee, everyone and their mother can afford to spend the bulk of their time in the OASIS, visiting world after endless world. Luckily for the pair, the population is desperate to escape real life at a time when an energy crisis of epic proportions is sweeping the planet on a scale never before imagined.

Halliday, an introverted geek and lover of 1980s pop culture dies unexpectedly leaving no heirs to his vast fortune. Instead his will spells out the details of a contest which shall take place. He’s hidden the ultimate Easter egg somewhere within the OASIS and the first user that can find the three keys and unlock the three gates, correctly solving all of the puzzles presented to them along the way will win the ultimate prize, his fortune and total control of the entire OASIS enterprise. Oh, and Halliday also left his buddy Ogden Morrow his classic 80’s video game collection. See, it does pay to partner with a genius!

Much like Jerry Sandusky, Ogden Morrow is adept at fitting himself into tight spaces. With unlimited power at his fingertips he spends the bulk of his time hiding in “secure” chat rooms, listening in on young boys as they confide in each other about girls, retro television, and video games. At times he gets so stimulated from their conversations that he inadvertently knocks over stacks of things while stroking his tricked out immersion rig. Yes my friends, there’s a clear reason why James Halliday did not leave his best friend and business partner the keys to the kingdom. Oggy is one creepy, sloppy mess.

Armed only with a guide Halliday penned about his pop culture obsessions titled Anorak’s Almanac, gunters (that’s shortened slang for egg hunters) around the world set off on a mission to crack the mystery and win the prize. Some go solo while others band together in clans to help one another, and there’s also one company that seeks to win control of the OASIS for their own financial gain. Known as Innovative Online Industries (IOI) and led by the evil Sorrento, the company wants users to pay more fees and has big plans for commercializing the software. They’re like the Facebook of 2044. They disregard privacy rules, manipulate user data for their own purposes, and hate anonymity.

Armed with too much free time and a surprising amount of electricity for a world facing an energy crisis, a few brave teenage gunters begin to crack the code, find the keys, and unlock the gates, but IOI of course is right on their tails. What transpires is a story that’s full of delightful pop culture references to everything from Duran Duran to War Games. Some of it feels a bit forced in places, as if the author was being paid by the reference, and the story while interesting is ultimately so poorly written that it makes the work of Dan Brown seem Pulitzer Prize worthy. Still, the novel is mildly addictive.

Part of the reason for this is that it starts off so strongly and shows so much early potential that sadly it cannot manage to capitalize on. Instead the novel takes a sharp turn towards cheesiness; putting its characters in ridiculous situation after ridiculous situation and making them spout some of the stupidest dialog ever put to paper. Take for example this line pulled directly from the book’s ultimate battle:

“Looks like you’ll be wiping with your left hand now, Sorrento!” Shoto shouted triumphantly.

Woohoo! Right on! Wipe it with the left! Ugh. Dialog and writing aside, the other major problem with Ready Player One is that there is simply zero tension between any of the characters. Where’s the manipulation? The betrayal? The backstabbing? There’s a gazillion dollars at stake, do you seriously expect me to believe that all these people who have never met for even a second in the real world actually care about their competition to the point that they’d risk losing out on the greatest payday in the history of the world? C’mon.

The story ultimately devolves even further as it shifts gears and becomes a teenage romance between two of the biggest cyber losers in the entire OASIS. In the early chapters of the novel it is oh so fun to read about the protagonist as he solves puzzles and levels up. These moments are replaced later on with sappy drivel about a borderline creepy cyber crush.

Finally, the novel sends mixed messages about power. Ogden Morrow and James Halliday each have it in unlimited quantities and each exercises it how they see fit (Halliday to code Easter egss into the software, Morrow to spy on teenage boys and party like it’s 1989), which everyone seems totally fine with, but IOI wants power to make some changes of their own and suddenly they’re cast in the role of bad guy. Morrow is a freaking creep. Why does he get a pass over those that seek to make a buck? In the end the winner of the contest gets complete control, but who’s to say that they’ll be any better than IOI would be? Don’t get me wrong, IOI resorts to some pretty nasty stuff in order to stay in the game, but I certainly don’t see Halliday and Morrow as being the heroes everyone claims that they are.

Ready Player One is a good idea in the hands of a bad writer that was over hyped by the mainstream media due to its liberal use of pop culture references. I’ve read it and now I’m more than ready for something completely different. Someone point me at the next coin slot please.


About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.