I am, as I’ve so often and openly declared, a geek. I love fantasy, I love science fiction, and I play way too many video games for my own good. How much of a geek am I? I did my undergrad thesis on Lord of the Rings fan fiction. I suppose that helps? All right, perhaps it might not be enough in some circles, but I like to think putting the entirety of one’s academic knowhow into studying something as geeky as fan fiction carries a certain cachet in its own right.
I do not, however, claim to be superior in my geekdom, even when it comes to fan fiction. I’m friends with people who could out-geek me on a whole number of things: comics, novels, video games – many aspects of geekdom that are either on my horizon but haven’t gotten to yet, or which don’t particularly interest me. This isn’t a bad thing; we each have our own preferences and specializations, and while our interests overlap, there is no such thing as competition. As John Scalzi so eloquently put it, being a geek means “taking delight in sharing a thing,” not scorning those who share it with us – that’s what hipsters do.
That being said, I was drawn to Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One for two reasons: it’s celebration of geekdom, and Hope had already started reading it, and was thinking I ought to give it a shot. I was due to read a science-fiction themed read anyway, after coming off Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, though I did not pick up Ready Player One right away. I was still significantly dazed after coming off Grossman’s book – an indication of just how amazing that novel is, honestly – and though I started Ready Player One, I didn’t really making genuine progress in it until a few days ago, when the daze from The Magician King finally wore off, and I got over the hurdle that was the first chapters of Ready Payer One.
The premise of Ready Player One is grounded in the possibilities of contemporary technology, and inspired by the geek culture of the eighties, but carries both far beyond that. It is set in a post-apocalyptic world, where an energy crisis has caused everything to fall apart. The only escape people have from the depressing nature of their reality is the OASIS, an MMO life simulation game similar to Second Life, but far, far more enormous than that. People can sign into the OASIS and pretty much live their lives in it – all the way from going to school to conducting business. They are not, however, plugged-in ala Matrix, since the OASIS can only be interacted with via special suits, visors and gloves. It is the most popular form of entertainment in a crumbling world, the only stable point in an unstable existence. What makes the OASIS special, though, is that everything that can be imagined can be put in it. There are no limits: as long as one has enough credits, one can recreate anything one wants. This means that every single game, every single novel, every single world, reality, et cetera can and likely does exist in the OASIS, available to anyone with the means to see it and interact with it. It is, in essence, a fanperson’s dream come true.
But the OASIS is not just a life simulation game. For the past several years, a generation of players called gunters have scoured the entirety of the OASIS looking for Halliday’s Egg, a very, very special item hidden in the OASIS by its creator, James Halliday. At the moment of his death a video went out into the world, in which Halliday declared that whoever solved the clues he’d left behind and found the Egg, would gain ownership of his company, and inherit his massive fortune. The key to finding it is in understanding Halliday’s greatest love: the pop culture of the 1980s – or, more specifically, the geek culture of the 1980s. Comprehend that, and finding the Egg shouldn’t be a problem. Except, of course, it is, and an entire generation has emerged that is familiar with Halliday’s Egg, but knows of no one who has so much as found the Copper Key: the first artifact in the quest to finding the Egg.
Until, of course, a name – Parzival – appears on the Scoreboard, indicating that the Copper Key has been found. And Ready Player One is Parzival’s (real name Wade) story, as well as the story of his fellow gunters, and their battle against the evil IOI Corporation, which seeks to gain the Egg in order to gain control of Halliday’s company and fortune so that they may profit and control it.
If this sounds a lot like a summary from a fantasy novel or movie from the 1980s, this should come as no surprise – the entire novel is built upon just such a structure. The references to 1980s geekdom are not only on the surface: they are pretty much built into the story itself.
Take Parzival, for instance. He is a typical geek: awkward in social situations, not entirely healthy physically, and has a powerful obsession with something – in this case, the hunt for the Egg. He has done everything he possibly can to ensure that he has the best possible chance of finding the Egg, except he’s not entirely sure what he’s doing wrong, or what everyone else is doing wrong. And then, as if out of the blue, he finally figures out what it is he needs to do, and then sets in motion a chain of events that leads to his life changing forever. If he sounds a bit familiar, then this should come as no surprise: he’s pretty much similar to almost every male protagonist to appear in a 1980s teen movie.
Like the male protagonist of such teen movies, Parzival has his best friend: Aech, a fellow gunter who has had a bit more success in OASIS than Parzival, despite being a student himself. And then there’s Art3mis (yes, that’s how her name is spelled), a gunter whose blog Parzival has followed for years, and on whom he as a bit (okay, a lot) of a crush on. All three of them, along with a pair of Japanese players named Daito and Shoto, come together (sort of) when the hunt for the Egg kicks into high gear, spurred on by the fact that IOI is now pushing very hard, to get the Egg for themselves.
It might be argued that Aech and Art3mis fit into the mold of The Best Friend and The Crush in 1980s teen movies because Parzival does tend to fit rather neatly into the male protagonist role for such a film, but they don’t, either. Art3mis, especially, is far more reminiscent of the best sort of twenty-first century female character, despite my initial off-the-cuff assessment of her as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (I’m not ashamed to admit was completely wrong). Her focus on the hunt for the Egg is admirable, especially when Parzival himself begins to flake out because he’s focusing far too much on his relationship with her. It’s great to see a female character who is capable of the intense focus on a goal that most other writers would attribute to a male character.
If Parzival’s social interactions resemble the plot of a teen movie, his hunt for the Egg resembles that of a Dungeons and Dragons quest. He has to gather these specific items and work out these clues in order to get to the Gates, and to acquiring these items and overcoming the challenges beyond the Gates involve having a very specific skill set, and having a particularly high level in those skills. Again, this is hardly surprising: any novel that’s a love letter to 1980s geek culture should have at least some grounding in D&D, and Ready Player One goes one step further by having the entire novel follow the typical structure of a quest as it would be played in D&D, with some elements of Japanese RPGs (the giant final boss with matching epic boss battle towards the end of the game).
The greatest appeal of this novel is, I think, its nostalgia factor. It has been described in other reviews as “a love letter to the 80s,” and I will not disagree. The hunt for Halliday’s Egg is, after all, a giant monument to one man’s nostalgia for all the things he loved, and which he turned into a quest which required all of its participants to love the same things he loved – fitting perfectly with Scalzi’s description of what a geek is.
All of these details are, of course, interesting, but don’t spark anything in me. I was born in the 80s, so technically speaking the geek culture of that period isn’t quite where I belong: I’m more a 90s girl, who read Lord of the Rings when she was twelve and got her first video game console (a Playstation 1) at thirteen. All this talk of penny arcades and Pac-Man and 80s movies don’t quite resonate strongly with me. I have seen some of the iconic films of the 80s, of course: Back to the Future is a big one, and I do have a strong memory of some of the giant-mecha Japanese anime like Voltron and Voltes V, (which was not mentioned at any point in the novel, interestingly enough). I also have a strong attachment to Picard-era Star Trek, because I recall catching several episodes of that as a child. But beyond that? A lot of the references don’t have the same power of nostalgia as, say, The Magic School Bus or Hey Arnold. I see them, but they don’t spark any particularly powerful emotional reaction in me. This isn’t a bad thing, though: I’m just very much aware that a lot of this just wasn’t “in my time,” so to speak, so I don’t feel any great attachment to any of it.
Another thing that bothers me about this novel is the way it ended. Again, let me reiterate that I’m not against a happy ending, but I do rather think that the ending was rather too tidy. I suppose it has to be that way, since Cline appears to be following the standard plot of both the average D&D campaign and the 1980s teen movie, but its very obvious, right from the beginning, that there’s something wrong with the world, and much needs to be done in order to solve it. There was a small hint in the ending that Parzival and Art3mis do plan to change the world for the better, but it’s only a small hint, and gets lost in the romantic connection that’s re-established between the two of them. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, but I do find myself wishing that there were more concrete plans to improve the world, one that didn’t necessarily involve the OASIS. Hope has suggested, and I agree, that this ending may emphasize the protagonists’ disconnect from the real world, since they were practically raised by the OASIS, and if seen in that light it casts a sad pall over the happy ending.
One other issue I have is with the antagonists, who struck me as being rather cliche. The Sixers, their leader Sorrento, and IOI itself seem to slot rather neatly into another 1980s trope: that of the evil corporation. Again this make sense, given the nature of the novel, but I did find myself rather wishing they were a bit more fleshed out than simply being labeled an evil corporation. As I type this I’m conversing with Hope, and she says that perhaps the reason why the Sixers and IOI seem cliched is because the reader is seeing them through Parzival’s eyes, and it must be said, Parzival is hardly an unbiased narrator. He and his fellow gunters tend to follow video game logic, and in video games the final boss is merely something that needs to be overcome to win the game, never mind said boss’s motivations. This thinking will definitely color any attempt to characterize the Sixers, but at the same time both Hope and I cannot help but wonder if it was a deliberate choice on Cline’s part to characterize them as such because of that reason, or if it is well and truly cliche and therefore a flaw in Cline’s writing.
Overall, Ready Player One is exactly what other reviews have purported it to be: a love letter to the 1980s, and to geek culture as a whole. In this aspect, it succeeds entirely – particularly if the reader identifies with the era in question, which means they will greatly appreciate the nostalgic feel of the novel. Other readers (such as myself) may find it that it goes a bit over their heads, especially if said readers arrived onto the geek scene a little later. There are some references that they may remember from childhood, or from encountering the source of those references later on in life, but it will not have the same resonance as they would for someone who was into geek culture in the 80s. However, the too-tidy ending and cliched characterizations of the antagonists may be prove to be a deal-breaker for some readers, though there are also some possibly valid reasons for those issues. Regardless, it is a fun story to read, with details that will, without a doubt, tickle readers who love video games about as much as they love to read books.