Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
Published: 5 April 2012
Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is set in a near future standing on the brink of ruin. With fossil fuels depleted, the world is a desperate place, where the poor live in giant trailer park stacks, thieves prowl the streets and cities are scaled back or abandoned altogether. Humanity is, rather understandably, in retreat, and where it runs to is the OASIS, a virtual reality that has replaced the internet and offers fame, fortune and a Willy Wonka-style contest that has gripped the world.
Wade Watts, AKA Parzival, is an overweight, pale teenager who has grown up in the OASIS. After his mother’s death and his life is made worse by an abusive aunt, Watts decides to become a gunter whose sole purpose is to win the contest: the search for OASIS creator James Halliday’s Easter Egg, and with it sole control of the virtual reality he created and his vast wealth.
The OASIS is a veritable wonderland in which Cline’s imagination runs rampant. World upon world is available to explore, via either costly teleport or ship, if the user can afford either, and each serves a different purpose or need. Some are museums to retro games, while others house schools, shopping malls or war zones. In the OASIS, a person can do or be anything he or she wishes, as long as they have the money to pay for it, of course. This is a striking point that Cline makes throughout his first novel. No matter how technologically advanced the world has become, it is still ruled by money, and it is the pursuit of wealth that drives thousands in search of Halliday’s Easter Egg.
Watts and a few other gunters make the first breakthroughs in Halliday’s contest, but they are closely pursued by IOI, a faceless corporation that has amassed an army of avatars to secure the prize and take control of the OASIS, so that it can charge a monthly fee for access and turn the virtual reality into a retreat for the wealthy. This good versus evil dynamic drives the story on following a slow but sure start, and the novel catches fire as thousands of competitors follow Watts’s lead.
Ready Player One is particularly enjoyable for its obsession with the 1980s. As the decade in which Halliday grew up, videogames, movies, TV shows and music pervade the novel to such an extent that it helps to have a search engine handy to look up references if you’re not as big a nerd as the novel’s main protagonists. The gunters are obsessed with 80s culture in the hope that it will help them to find Halliday’s Easter Egg. Watch out for references to Silence of the Lambs, Dungeons and Dragons and every early videogame ever created.
Ready Player One keeps the reader on tenterhooks inside the OASIS and with every page spent outside, the reader is itching to return. The novel’s best trick is its ability to addict the reader to the OASIS, with its promises of reality-wide battles and celebrity parties to which Watts arrives in a pimped-out DeLorean. But this illusion isn’t really an illusion at all, because it serves Cline’s main point: the world has become addicted to the illusion and refuses to return to reality, where only the real prizes can be won. This is Halliday’s message for the eventual contest winner, not before giant robots do battle on a field where thousands of gunters take on the villainous IOI. Enjoy it in moderation, then, lest you become a slave to the machine.