Three hidden keys open three secret gates
Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits
And those with the skill to survive these straits
Will reach The End where the prize awaits
From its opening chapters, Ready Player One promises a lot; if I were to attempt to categorize it, I’d say that it’s a somewhat dystopian adventure novel (somehow managing to have an almost utopian element) that provides social commentary via a fun underdog story chock-full of camaraderie and references to 1980s pop culture.
Also, a large portion of it is set in a video game.
If that’s a little much to follow without context, here’s a quick overview (no spoilers beyond what’s covered in the summary on the back cover): Ready Player One follows the story of Wade Watts, our eighteen-year-old protagonist and narrator in the year 2045.1 In Cline’s portrayal, the real world of the future is a less than ideal place: catastrophic climate change, rampant wealth inequality and dangerous living conditions are several aspects of reality that influence Wade to spend as much time away from the physical world as possible. Luckily for him, the denizens of the future have an escape from the real world that doesn’t (yet?) exist in 2016: the OASIS.
Described as part MMORPG and part virtual society, the OASIS is a digital universe comprised of thousands of different worlds and accessed via a virtual reality rig comprised of a headset and haptic gloves—think of the entire thing as a futuristic fusion of an Oculus Rift with Second Life and, well, the entirety of the Internet.
When he’s plugged into the OASIS, Wade gets to leave his overweight and poverty-stricken physical self behind and take control of his personal avatar, Parzival: his under-leveled and poverty-stricken digital self that rarely has the resources required to leave his school.
Fortunately for Wade, there’s something other than school in the OASIS to entice him: Halliday’s Easter egg. Just like those found in many games, movies and websites that exist in 2016—see here for just a few examples—this Easter egg is a hidden element that can only be accessed by fulfilling a set of less than obvious criteria. In this case, the first person that’s able to find the egg will be awarded the vast fortune of the OASIS’s creator, James Halliday, and untold power over the future of the OASIS itself.
In a world where the OASIS is an even bigger cultural phenomenon than the modern Internet, the stakes couldn’t be higher, and the competition couldn’t be more fierce. Unfortunately, anyone who hopes to have a chance of winning the prize will have to unravel the meaning behind the cryptic clues left behind by Halliday; due to Halliday’s eccentric nature and obsession with the 1980s, this will require a vast knowledge of relatively obscure pop culture from decades past.
Few works of fiction have captivated me quite as quickly as Ready Player One. The writing is easy to follow but not jejune, and Cline does a great job of pacing himself while providing background to his world; I never felt like I was bogged down by historical minutiae nor did I ever feel that I lacked context.
Cline also did a fantastic job of providing variety within the book’s setting. At first, I worried that the continual ’80s references would get tiresome quickly, as I can’t claim to be particularly knowledgeable about the pop culture of the decade prior to my birth. In practice, though, many references were either well-explained (the setting of Zork) or extremely well-known (how to play Pacman). Cline also did a great job of throwing in references to elements of more modern geek culture, like Firefly, World of Warcraft or Wil Wheaton.2 Further, he managed to take his references from varying types of media including games, movies and television, which helped to prevent references to any one form from feeling stale.
Due to Wade’s independent nature and the book’s first-person perspective, I felt that I didn’t get to spend much time with the supporting characters. Somehow, though, each of the other main characters—or my perspectives of them, at least—managed to grow as the book progressed. I will admit that I was initially surprised by Cline’s decision to transform Wade from physically overweight to physically fit. At first, it seemed to make him somewhat more generic as a protagonist, though I later learned that his physical transformation would serve a plot point later in the story.
While the more fun and fantastic elements of Cline’s universe were just that, the less happy elements of the story felt quite underdeveloped. While it’s very clear that the condition of the world in which Wade lives is extremely poor from the first few chapters, I felt like much of these details became irrelevant and forgotten as the story progressed, serving only to explain the existence of the story’s antagonistic evil corporation, IOI.
Speaking of which, the book’s “big bad” was a very generic blemish on a work that was otherwise largely fun and creative. From their motivation that can basically be summed up as “We want money and power so that we can be rich and powerful!” to the fact that it’s made perfectly clear that literally everyone in the world knows that IOI is entirely and irredeemably evil, they’re almost impossible to take seriously. Even though they have the evil resources within the scope of the book’s universe to be entirely successful in their evil endeavors, it’s utterly unbelievable that such a one-dimensional (and evil—did I mention they’re evil yet?) villain could have any modicum of success within a popular work of fiction.
I will say, though, that I’ve yet to read Lacero,3 which provides some additional backstory to the primary antagonist of Ready Player One and is now published within newer editions of the book. It’s quite possible that this would provide me with additional context that would impact my opinions.
Overall, Ready Player One is a fantastically fun work of fiction. Cline does a remarkable job of blending the familiar (to me, at least) world of geeky pop culture with a brand new world of his own creation. Excluding his almost comedically undeveloped villains, I found few noteworthy flaws and a great deal that I truly enjoyed. Overall, I give Ready Player One four out of five stars.