Ready Player One

Inspired by The Books That Time Forgot, I’m reposting some earlier materials.  Specifically, these are reviews I did for Amazon. Since Amazon occasionally screws up their formatting or just decides to lop the ends off with their cyber-cleaver, I’m going to start reposting them here with the original review date noted.

First up is Ernest Cline’s masterpiece, his novel for the ages, Ready Player One.

As you can see, I was less than enamored with it.

The universe (and Steven Speilberg) disagreed with me.

From September 27, 2011 …

Review: Ready Player One, Ernest Cline, 2011.Ready Player One

It’s the year 2045. The Four Horsemen have been let out of the corral and joined by climate change and a severe shortage of petrol. And, as a final sign that things have went to hell, some of the planet’s best and brightest spend time obsessing over old John Hughes movies.

And not just John Hughes movies but the entire melange of popular geek culture of, roughly, the 1980s. It’s all in a good cause. Well, several billion dollars worth of a good cause – the entire fortune of the reclusive, unchilded, unmarried, and now dead billionaire James Halliday. As creator of OASIS — a massive multiple player online game whose role as escape and hidey hole from the horrors of the outside world is underlined by its strained acronym: Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation, he’s created the ultimate treasure hunt. Find three keys in his virtual world and use them to clear three gates, and his fortune is yours.

Our hero and narrator, 18 year old Wade Watts from the “stacks” – metal scaffolding which allows the vertical piling up of trailer homes in urban real estate suddenly made pricey by fuel costs – is a “gunter”, a solo competitor for the Halliday fortune as opposed to the teams of competitors known as clans and the evil IOI, a corporate behemoth who threatens to wreck the OASIS once it gets its soulless hands on it and all that money. Watts is the typical young protagonist of these kind of stories, a somewhat improbable autodidact who knows his computer tech and the obsessions of James Halliday – and sharing those obsessions is the key to victory.

Things kick into high gear when Wade finds the first key and IOI shows to just what lengths – in the real world – it’s prepared to go. Hint: think of Luke Skywalker’s homecoming after hanging out for the first time with a Jedi.) And things aren’t real easy in OASIS either with so much of it a potential combat zone for giant robots, spaceships, magic spells, and super powerful magical artifacts.

There’s a reason this book isn’t being marketed as science fiction but a “genre-busting” work – because, despite its futuristic setting, Cline really isn’t interested in saying anything new or serious about how a society might be organized around computer games the way Sam Landstrom’s MetaGame did. Besides the stacks, his most original idea is “flicksyncs”, a game based on virtually mimicking the performance of an actor in a famous film role.

And it’s not all clear how this trashed out world still manages to provide unvirtual products when so many of its inhabitants work in trafficking symbolic services and goods. But then, to be fair to Cline, Wade and his friends don’t spend a lot of time in the real world. They don’t exactly spend time in OASIS either. Their avatars do, though. The slow unveiling of avatar identities and negotiating the tricky crossings, nay virtual transgressions, and intersections between online and real identities is a major part of the plot. Why, at one point, the unmasking of just one avatar gets Cline massive Literary Sensitivity Points for exorcising the Triple Headed Demon of Racism/Sexism/Homphobia. Massive bonus score for addressing “body issues” too!

While IOI’s opening salvo against Wade gets things moving, IOI proves conveniently and improbably slow and inept, given its vast resources, at a crucial plot point. And Wade yaks way too much about the mechanics and gear of OASIS for a man addressing his contemporaries who presumably know most of this stuff already.

The idea that maybe spending a lot of time in a virtual world may not be an unalloyed good is hardly new either given that the theme runs from modern science fiction stories about man “going into the box” of a lotus eating virtual existence to James Gunn’s The Joy Makers to E. M. Forester’s “When the Machine Stops”. In fairness, though, Cline handles the theme fairly lightly even though I was unconvinced by the emotional place Wade ends up in.

And yet … and yet …

Cline drenches the reader in a torrent of popular geek culture: manga, role-playing games, comics, movies, music, arcade games, computer games, video games, and books. Another sign that this is not primarily aimed at a science fiction audience is that, while Halliday was obsessed with science fiction and fantasy literature, none of his puzzles center on them. That’s his real interest – a fast moving, nostalgia powered narrative – and he pulls it off. You keep reading to see what allusion he’s going to throw out next. I suspect I’m at the outer edge of his intended demographic, but I was young in the ’80s, so I smiled when I saw mentions of The Road Warrior and Alan Parsons and Blade Runner and Tempest and Battle Zone. You’ll probably find a different blend that works just as well for you.


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