This is a book review for Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, available here:
4.5 stars – the ultimate gamers’ fiction
I’ve spent the last hour or so wavering between giving this book 4* or 5*. It’s a difficult one to judge. It’s been a long time since I’ve read any science fiction, but my housemate persuaded me to give this one a go and I’m glad she did.
It follows the story of Wade Watt, a teenage gamer in a world where virtual reality is more real than reality itself. Set in a semi-post-apocalyptic America, real life is pretty grim. The world is in its third decade of recession. Fuel is almost entirely depleted and the majority of the population exists in a state of abject poverty, living in slums known as The Stacks, which are trailer parks of caravans stacked up to thirty high in rusting frameworks.
Almost everyone spends their time hooked up to OASIS, which is a virtual reality world that anyone can access with a visor and a pair of special haptic gloves. It’s started to replace the functions of the real world. Kids attend school there, business is conducted there and the currency is more valuable and stable than any currency in the real world.
When the creator of OASIS dies, he leaves his vast multibillion dollar fortune to whoever can solve a series of riddles, obtaining keys that allow them through “gates” where they have to complete a challenge to obtain the riddle for the location of the next key. It also happens that the creator of OASIS was obsessed with 80’s sub and pop culture.
Into this walks Wade, our (anti)hero. He’s a nerdy, slightly overweight, acne spotted eighteen year old who knows just about everything there is to know about the 80s and is obsessed with finding Halliday’s easter egg, which will give him the creator’s fortune and control over the company that owns and runs OASIS. It’s been five years since Halliday died and when Wade finally figures out the location of the copper key, everyone goes nuts.
Cue a thrilling ride through virtual reality, retro gaming and culture, battles with The Man (IOI – aka the ‘sixers’) and a sweet coming of age and romance story.
It took me a long time to really get into the story, to be honest. I had a weirdly sheltered upbringing – science fiction was a total no-no in our house. I’ve still never seen the original Star Wars movies all the way through, I’ve never been into gaming and even most of the television culture is unknown to me. I didn’t even discover Firefly until a couple of years ago. For that reason alone, most of the references went way over my head. I was also only born in the 80s so much of it meant absolutely nothing to me. That said, the ones I did know and love made me smile whenever I came across them. It also meant that I was a little at a loss to understand the rules of OASIS. I’ve never been any kind of VR gamer or into D&D, so I was lacking some of the framework for how it all worked. I did pick it up the deeper I got into the story and I’m not taking off any star rating because of my own ignorance. I just wish I’d been able to pick up on more of the references.
The other reason it took me a while to get into it is that Cline has created a uniquely rich world. From the grim reality to the awe-inspiring virtual reality of OASIS, he’s given it rich texture, presence and history. The characters are fascinating. That kind of world building requires the reader to have a vast amount of information and the majority of it is imparted in the first several chapters. To give Cline credit, he does it in a graceful enough way to avoid that awkward “info-dump” feeling. It’s all worked into the story, but it’s a lot to wade through to get into the actual shape of the story.
When you do though, you get so absorbed in it that sometimes you forget the characters are in virtual reality. It’s a weird experience but thoroughly enjoyable.
There were so many aspects of this story that I connected with and, sometimes, that was in an uncomfortable way. At one point Wade realises that OASIS has become his life because it’s everything he can never have in the real world. Coming back gets harder and harder every time. I know that feeling so well. When I’m writing, I get absorbed in the worlds I create. Coming back to reality from being someone who has no limits is a crushing, hollow and depressing feeling. It resonated in ways I can’t describe.
There’s a lot of discussion about the nature of online relationships and how people choose to either hide their reality completely or are more real online than they ever could be in person. Again, that was something that connected with me on a base level. I’ve met some of my best friends online. Most of them I’ve met in person, but it’s too easy to forget that there are a lot of people online that aren’t who they claim to be. If you’ve ever been burned by something like that, you’ll know exactly where the character’s emotions are coming from.
The moral aspect of the story is also kind of interesting. Wade and his fellow egg hunters (known as Gunters) spend a lot of time clashing with IOI, a huge multinational corporation that is determined to find the egg first so that they gain control of OASIS and make money from it. With unlimited funds and staff to throw at it, Wade and friends are very much the underdog in a classic David vs Goliath story.
I can’t help but think that the book would make a brilliant film, but the CGI would have to be astonishing to do it any kind of justice and I could imagine that the copyrights would bog a studio down in paperwork for decades to come.
From all my praise, you’re probably wondering why I knocked off half a star. The truth is that I knocked off a whole star for various plot holes. There were a couple of occasions in the book when things just conveniently all came together that didn’t quite ring ‘true’. There were also a couple of occasions, most notably towards the end when Wade sets up his indenture, that everything happens and you suddenly get an explanation of the last three weeks leading up to it. It’s almost like Cline wrote the book in an entirely linear fashion and when he realised something had to happen that he hadn’t plotted for, he just dropped in the backstory there and then, Blue Peter style, to get everyone in the right place.
I then awarded an extra half star for kudos alone. This is a debut novel. A debut novel people, one that is richer and deeper than an awful lot of the scifi that’s out there and being written by established authors. If you love gaming, scifi or the 80s (or any combination of the above) this book will blow you away. Buy it.