inSide Books: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Last year in Wired Magazine, Patton Oswalt warned of The Geek Apocalypse. A singularity he termed The Etewaf (Everything That Ever Was Available Forever), in which nerd culture would rise up and subsume regular culture before destroying itself in a self-cannibalizing blaze. His words take on the eerie ring of prophecy in Ready Player One.
It is impossible to know whether author Ernest Cline was thinking of Oswalt’s essay when he wrote Ready Player One. But he certainly came to similar conclusions, and in the meantime, crafted what is one of the most compulsively readable books I’ve encountered this year. Think a combination of William Gibson and Terry Pratchett.
In the near future, a wildly popular MMORPG called OASIS has subsumed the internet. Billions of people around the world shop, go to school, and spend as much of their time as humanly possible in OASIS, which thanks to high tech immersion gear becomes more of an alternate reality. OASIS isn’t so much a game as it is all games. It contains worlds based on Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Firefly, basically anything that pop culture has produced that anyone has ever loved, or even slightly liked (Ladyhawke is featured prominently). You name it, it’s here. Inside OASIS is a candy-colored never-ending Pop Culture extravaganza. Outside of OASIS, the rest of world has gone to crap, thanks to various energy crises and wars. It’s a grim Gilliamesque duct-covered world of extreme poverty and starvation that our hero is born into. It can’t even be called a proper dystopia as it’s more the result of entropy and neglect than actual malevolence. Did I mention this book is also really really funny?
In a twist, Holliday, the eccentric genius who created OASIS, encoded into it, a game within a game—a giant “Easter egg” hunt that is activated upon his death. Somewhere in the infinite digital space three challenges are hidden. The key to finding and beating them being knowledge of Holliday’s beloved 80s pop culture. The winner inherits Holliday’s personal fortune and shares in the company and basically takes control of the largest economy on Earth. Competition in the “game” is, as you might guess, beyond fierce, as corporations are more than willing to commit murder to gain control of OASIS. But over a decade has passed since the start of the contest and nobody has found even the first of the eggs. Until our protagonist, Wade Watts a high schooler too poor to even participate in most of the game, does and sets off a global frenzy.
The idea of an all encompassing digital reality and the consequences there of, has been done before, notably in the recent film Summer Wars—the Wackowski Brother’s elephant in the room—and Neil Stephenson’s landmark Snow Crash (to which for all its ingenuity, Ready Player One still owes an awful lot to). What Cline brings to the table is a sense of playful anarchy, documenting the headlong rush of The Etewaf—a world where you can become a purple unicorn, buy a flying Delorean, use it to go to the planet in Final Fantasy VII and fight an X-Wing which is piloted by Jason Voorhes, before the both of you are destroyed by a Gundam. Yet his humor showcases a real wit to it, never devolving into Seth MacFarlane school of nudging your ribs while going “Hey, hey, do you remember that thing?” Has anyone a heart so cold that he cannot love a book where the fate of the world rests on the lead’s ability to recite Monty Python And The Holy Grail?
Cline’s other masterstroke is spending as much attention to the world outside OASIS, as the world within it. He builds a threatening, believable antagonist in the form of IOI, a malevolent corporate entity who is trying to use the contest as a way to gain backdoor control of OASIS. IOI’s ruthless machinations in the real and virtual worlds bring a level of tension that is frankly improbable to what is basically a book about a video game competition.
Cline does a fairly good job of tying the reality of OASIS into a current reflection of web-based culture. The pun-based, meme-spawning, pop culture obsessed web culture is a believable permutation of our own. It’s in the subtle details, like the IOI requiring all their mercenaries to use the same generic avatar amid a world of such intense personalization, that give the universe weight. It’s both an ominous detail, and a believable outgrowth of current corporate web think.
A likable cast, a fast paced narrative, a believable, troubling world, and a keen sense of humor, Ready Player One is everything you could ask for in a work of speculative fiction.
A book that simultaneously exists as a paean to the pleasures of nostalgia, and a warning of its dangers.
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Elsewhere on inReads: Fantasy heroes we’ve loved and lost too soon.