Ready Player One surprised me wonderfully. I started it after accidentally coming across its many high-starred reviews, not really knowing what to expect, and ended up spending every spare minute with it for a couple of days. This novel is such great entertainment in so many respects that, even though hardly more than guilty pleasure, it easily snatches a top place among my personal favorites for the year so far.
The year is 2044. The world has turned into a nasty place where resources are not enough for the feeding of the populace, citizen security is under constant threat and most people barely survive on state relief. Wade is an eighteen-year-old boy who lives with his addict aunt and about a dozen other tenants packed in a trailer that is just one of the hundreds stacked in giant columns outside of Oklahoma City. Wade is overweight, socially inept in the real world, his parents are long-gone, his future is a dead end. The only thing that makes Wade’s life bearable is OASIS – the Internet of the future, a 3D utopia where everything is possible. Access to OASIS is free for everybody who can get the visor and haptic gloves needed to interface with it. This virtual multiverse offers unlimited opportunities for escaping reality. Its myriad sectors are populated with tens of thousands of planets; on their surfaces operate simulations of a cornucopia of worlds. Many use OASIS for work, education, to spend time with their friends or pursue romantic interests. For millions though, OASIS is also one humongous MMORPG. It offers countless quests that can up your avatar’s level, magic and technological weapons, gladiator arenas – in OASIS even a complete outsider like Wade can reinvent himself into a new and exciting personality that can provide sojourn from life.
In OASIS Wade calls himself Parzival and just like the knight of the Round table has devoted his life to completing a quest that can earn him world-wide glory. About five years ago the creator of OASIS – the genius game-designer James Halliday – has posthumously, through his will, stirred up the greatest contest in humanity’s history. Halliday hid, somewhere in OASIS, an Easter egg of sorts, whose discoverer will receive control over the billionaire’s company. However, the prize is hidden behind a fiendishly complicated quest – three keys and three gates stand between it and the millions of gunters (the fictional neologism is a blended version of “egg hunter”), one of whom is Wade. The quests that will clear those gates are tightly-bound with Halliday’s life-long obsession – 1980s pop-culture. Precisely because of that, Wade spends countless hours, just as any self-respecting gunter, studying Halliday’s favorite movies, TV shows, music, books and video games. His hope and greatest dream is of stumbling upon a clue to the first key. When that happens, Parzival becomes an instant celebrity, which also earns him a fair share of enemies, some of which have access to practically unlimited resources and won’t think twice before murdering Wade in real life in order to get Halliday’s shares. He quickly realizes that his only option now is to win the contest.
The synopsis above doesn’t stand out as particularly original against the backdrop of other cyberspace novels. Ready Player One excels thanks to something else. The contest for Halliday’s Egg is by itself one giant quest filled with numerous riddles and obstacles to be overcome, and in this the story resembles in a way a classic fantasy. With a significant twist. In this one the separate stages of the quest take Parzival to places and situations so wildly disparate that they can never coexist in any SF or fantasy novel. At the same time the constant references to 80s video games, movies and music are very entertaining and their role in making this a riveting read is huge. These two things allow the reader to witness some hilarious scenes. Picture an ancient and powerful lich commanding a hidden dungeon who challenges the protagonist to a duel. But instead with swords and sorcery the two of them duke it out in a video game where one has to use his lance to throw the other off his ride (ostrich or stork, depending on the choice of controllers). We’re talking coin-operated video game machine in an underground AD&D dungeon. Now really picture that in detail and you can start to imagine what I mean by “hilarious”.
You wish you could roam in space inside a modified version of a Firefly class vessel? Race the DeLorean from Back to the Future, park it and compress it with magic so it can fit in your pocket, then dance a bit in a zero-gravity club? Build your own mansion on a private asteroid or command one of the Voltron lions?
All that is possible in the world of Ready Player One. The glue that holds everything in the narrative together and gives it cohesion is its protagonist. The novel is told from the first person and this works perfectly because Wade’s point of view is arrestingly addictive. The text itself is far from any stylistic heights, in fact it is rather too even and unimpressive in this respect. This, however, is offset by the fact that the narrator is namely Wade – a kid that is a social invalid who has spent a great deal of his life trying to find an escape from it. It is not too difficult to picture through his eyes and geek-speak the marvels of OASIS, and experience the thrill of the endless questing, as well as the excitement and fear that go along with the ruthless race with time. Herein lies one of the novel’s potentially weak points (depending on how you read it). Even though it is interesting, Wade’s point of view essentially turns Ready Player One into a Young Adult novel, rather into serious SF. OASIS resembles much more a huge playground than a serious take on the future of VR, and the geek fest probably steals the limelight a tad too often. Here and there the author gropes around some important techno-social themes, but they are never seriously elaborated upon, unlike the quests, riddles and the rather simplistic interactions between the characters. The dialogue is likewise somewhat stilted, but maybe this aspect is actually in tune with that fictional dys/u-topian future obsessed with virtual life.
Bearing in mind these reservations, Ready Player One is a very solid read that flows scarily fast and, even though it is not conceptually dazzling, delivers spectacularly thanks to a captivating narrator. In addition to that, the book is a wonderful window into so many works from the 1980s. Not being familiar with those can’t hurt your reading experience because Wade is a careful and fun guide in the world of geek culture. This eclectic mix of a novel is indeed a resilient amalgam and really reads like an epic adventure in the best of traditions. It even made me want to start again the Otherland books by Tad William. In short, Ready Player One absolutely deserves to be one of the SF hits this year.