Review of READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline
Crown, August 2011
James Halliday, inventer of OASIS (a sort of Second Life that grew to create a full virtual universe) is dead and his will leaves his quarter-trillion dollar fortune to anyone who can solve the puzzle he leaves behind. Half of the world tries, but after five years, nobody has found even the first key. Most people return to their ordinary lives. A few, known as "gunters" continue to search, many devoting their entire lives to the hunt. One of these is high school student, Wade Watts. Wade, known as Parzival in the virtual universe of OASIS, becomes the first to find a clue and sets off a second stampede. Now, though, the gunters are organized. Many belong to guilds. Others have sold their souls to IOI, a company which intends to win control of OASIS and transform it into a more profit-friendly environment with increased advertisments, a minimum monthly membership fee, and far more control over who does what. Wade/Parzival hates everything IOI stands for, but that company has hundreds of top gunters working for it, and can throw resources far beyond what a high school kid can dream of. Does he really have a chance to win?
Parzival's hunt takes him deep into the 1980s--the formative decade in Halliday's life and the supposed inspiration behind the riddles. To be a top gunter means knowing the music, films, books, and especially computer games of the 1980s. Fortunately, all of these are available on OASIS for free... but it takes countless hours to learn to beat PacMan, to dominate AdventureLand, to truly know every line of such movie classics as War Games. That is what Parzival had dedicated himself to, but doing so means his social life is highly limited. A fellow gunter who just might be a sexy young woman (at least her avatar is) proves distracting and might cost Parzival far more than the game. IOI doesn't plan to lose and is quick to note that nothing in Halliday's will forbids cheating.
Author Ernest Cline creates a dark and horific dystopic near-future, but one that is believable as peak energy, global warming, and unemployment with more and more people retreating into virtual reality. In READY PLAYER ONE, OASIS encompasses multi-player games (e.g., World of Warcraft), virtual education, politics and an economy larger than the physical economy of the "real world." The homage to 1980s culture will appeal to readers who lived through this period and may also interest younger readers. Cultural references, such as Cory Doctorow's role as co-President of the OASIS government, serve as amusing rewards for SF fans.
Most of the story takes place within the virtual world of OASIS. There Parzival goes from a level 3 newbie (after more than five years of existance on OASIS because visiting worlds where points can be accrued costs cash-money of which he has none) to a powerful mage and owner of Tie fighters, powerful armor and weapons, and huge fame as the gunter who found the first clue to Halliday's fortune. For me, the portions of Cline's story where Wade returned to the real world were more interesting--mobile homes stacked on top of one another to create high-rise slums, Mad-Max-style wilderness between cities, and quasi-slavery within the cities. Being poor in OASIS is definitely better than being poor in the real world.
Although I have a hard time believing that a high school-aged student would be able to memorize the complete dialogue from hundreds of movies, game detail from hundreds of decade-old games, air-guitar skills, not to mention the thousands of pages of semi-coherent ramblings of an insane game developer, Wade/Parzival made for an intriguing character as he gradually evolved into something approaching a social life, discovered love (virtual style), lost love, and chased after a dream. READY PLAYER ONE is an engaging and sometimes powerful story. I'll definitely look for more books by first-time novelist Ernest Cline.
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