by Ernest Cline, 2011
It’s 2044 and the only respite from the bleakness of daily life is logging into the virtual utopia that is the OASIS. When the OASIS’s creator James Halliday dies, a video is released offering riches and wealth to the player who finds the Easter egg Halliday has hidden inside his game. Wade Watts – your everyday geeky, gamer teenager – takes up the quest to be the first to find the egg. This is his story. (Minor spoilers below.)
In many ways Ready Player One is a typical story. You get together a band of ragtag underdogs, give them a mission, and see how they work together to accomplish it while learning about trust and friendship along the way. It’s basically the plot of every single John Hughes movie. Ernest Cline does not stray from the scripts he clearly loves and there’s little new to be found here. So closely does he mimic these tales of unlikely friendship that it was entirely obvious which direction the story was going to take and there were no surprises at the end. If you’ve seen a teenage 80s movie, you know exactly how things are going to go here.
This love of the 80s may be the book’s greatest attribute and biggest downfall. As a child of the 80s, I wholly appreciated seeing the names of cartoons and cereals and movies and games that populated my youth. Even if I wasn’t obsessed with video games myself, I enjoyed the trip down cultural memory lane. However, I less enjoyed the fact that Cline focused so much of his energy on imbuing every page with 80s nostalgia that he failed to create a compelling storyline. I rolled my eyes in particular at the presence of a love story in the middle of what is otherwise an adventure quest. For the majority of the book there is only one female character and, of course, Wade immediately falls in love with her. Now, you might say that a nerd like Wade falling for the only girl he’s ever met is entirely realistic, and you may be right. What’s it not, however, is interesting.
Moreover, I found Cline’s assertion that prejudice is avoidable in the OASIS to be trite and, frankly, objectionable. If a woman can present her avatar as a man, that does not mean sexism ceases to exist. If a gay person can present their avatar as straight, homophobia is still a threat. If a person of color can present their avatar as white, racism has not ended. When we ignore the problems of our differences by cloaking ourselves as the majority party, we have not dodged discrimination – we have become complicit in it. I understand the idea that Cline is attempting to present is none of that stuff matters when you really get to know to a person, but the way he goes about doing it is poorly handled and the story would have been better had he not included any of it at all.
That said, I didn’t find Ready Player One to be entirely without merit. It was a fairly enjoyable read and I think it offers a distinct sense of sentimental escapism that many of us need nowadays. Everyone likes to root for the underdog and Wade is as worthy a protagonist as any. We can all identify with the desire to shirk our problems and immerse ourselves in a world devoid of reality. Whether the virtual is better than the real is the ultimate question here.