You may not yet know the name Ernest Cline but chances are some day he may be a big deal. Cline wrote the ill fated and under seen comedy Fanboys and is the very definition of ubergeek. He apparently drives around a DeLorean with the number plate Ecto 1 and counts internet geek heads Harry Knowles and Drew McWeeny amongst his friends. Ready Player One caused something of a stir this time last year when the film rights to the unpublished novel were sold to Warner Bros for some ridiculous amount. The book has previously been championed by the aforementioned geeks and therefore had me intrigued. Ready Player One is a great debut novel from Cline but has a pretty major flaw I couldn’t get past.
The story takes place in the future of our earth in the year 2044, the great recession has trundled on for three decades and the planet’s natural resources are all depleted. Record numbers are homeless and starving with most people living on the outskirts of major cities in ‘the stacks’: trailer parks where the trailers are stacked on top of one another to form makeshift skyscrapers. The population problem is so bad that quite often two or three families will live in each trailer. People escape this misery by logging into the OASIS, a huge global virtual reality network where people can go to school, socialise, work as well as do all the usual things regular gamers do. There is no reason to ever leave your home when connected to the Oasis. One day the founder of the Oasis, a billionaire by the name of James Halliday, dies and in his will he leaves a little video. The video shows Halliday in several scenes inspired by 1980’s pop culture and music and reveals that, somewhere in the Oasis, Halliday has left an ‘easter egg’ similar to the one found in Atari 2600 video game ‘Adventure’, somewhere in the Oasis you will have to travel through three gates and obtain three keys to find it, which are all also hidden in the Oasis. The person who finds the egg will win Halliday’s entire fortune and ultimate power within the Oasis. Due to this video the world changes forever, people become obsessed with 1980’s pop culture all over again, obsessing over the films and music of the time desperate to find some clue as to the whereabouts of the keys. The situation brings about two divisions in the subculture, Gunters; People obsessed with the legacy of Halliday and searching every available online biography and 80’s song, sitcom, movie or video game to become a fountain of knowledge and best placed to win the quest. The Gunters rivals are the Sixers, so named due to their six digit employee number given to them by corporation IOI. IOI wants to win the contest so they can assume control of the Oasis and start charging people for its services and turn it into a corporate sponsored nightmare. In the middle of this crazy world we meet Wade Watts, teenager and Gunter extraordinaire who with his Oasis avatar Parzival and best friend Aech are obsessed with all things related to the quest. One day Wade/Parzival manages to win the first key and clear the first gate through a series of challenges. His name appears on a scoreboard which has remained unchanged for five years. This brings him to the attention of the sixers, who he finds will stop at nothing in the real world or the virtual world to win the contest. Wade forms a fragile bond with fellow Gunter and potential romantic interest Art3mis who alternately distracts or re-invests him in the quest. Wade finds that he has to go to extreme measures and form unlikely alliances if he is to remain alive and win the billionaires fortune.
Imagine William Gibson’s Neuromancer with all the techno babble replaced by references to 1980’s pop culture and geek culture in general, that’s Ready Player One. It’s one of the easiest, breeziest reads I’ve had in a long time in relation to a sci-fi fantasy novel. I kept reading and reading in long sittings, not because the plot was particularly gripping but because I was in love with the virtual world that Cline presents us with and desperately wanted to read what obscure 1980’s reference to a song or a cartoon series would be dropped in next. If you were born in the late 70s or early 80s then this book is for you. Its overwhelmingly nostalgic and sweet and will make you pine for the days that you spent shoving ten pence’s into Q Bert or playing your Atari 2600 console endlessly at home. The core love story at the centre is also very well done. As a geek who has met girls online before I could fully understand it and the way its portrayed is both heartfelt and moving. The final page is almost tear jerking in its romantic sweetness.
Ready Player One feels very prescient in terms of its subject matter, it feels like a story about the times we live in now through a very extreme lens. Like it or not, pop culture today represents something that constantly recycles itself ad nauseum. What worked for that key demographic back in decades past will be given a huge budget and modern sheen and presented for the youngsters today who have no clue about the original. This is often the case where original and unique ideas are cast aside because they don’t have the proven track record of a franchise like Transformers which worked with a demographic two decades ago. This is also true of music and fashion, constantly recycled and constantly with old trends long thought dead coming back for a whole new generation. So it’s not outside of the realms of believability that the 1980’s culture could come back in a big big way and become a way of life. Even more probable when you consider that the world presented in the book has the current recession trundling on for three decades and the decade of excess and spending culture that was the 80’s would be the ultimate escape. There is also the side of the story which relates to our world now that has to do with freedom of information. The internet is currently the Wild West in terms of what you can do or put online. Every week it seems I read a story about some government or corporate think tank looking into how they can better control the internet, how it can be sanitized and made profitable for someone somewhere. In the book the founder of the Oasis charges a measly fee for access when it begins and the rest (apart from credits which you earn like you would in the real world for work and can be spent on travel to different planets) is totally free. IOI want to gain access to the Oasis so they can charge for access and use it to generate advertising revenue. The Gunters oppose them en masse because they believe that what was free should remain free and they are protecting their way of life. It’s reminiscent of the whole online piracy argument and is a good discussion worth having.
Ernest Cline has built a really fascinating world here, the way he sketches out the basics with unfussy prose is wonderful. It’s conceivable that this book could become as influential as the work of William Gibson and be followed by retro arcade junkies and kids of the 80s the way that Neuromancer was big with hackers who committed many acts of cyber terrorism in its honour. Any day now as the novel grows in popularity, someone will put a playlist online compiling all the songs referenced in the story. So what is the major flaw? It’s that even though the threat does present itself in the real world, with IOI committing atrocious acts in the pursuit of the Easter egg, nothing in the virtual world feels life threatening. There are massive battle scenes with castles, giant Japanese mechas and swords and wizards etc but none of it is happening in the real world, so as a result the tension evaporates in lieu of catching cool references to things like Mechagodzilla.
Ready Player One is a great debut novel from a promising new talent, it manages to make watching someone else play videogames over their shoulder into a cracking read, which is quite a skill. Read it and then discuss with the rest of us just how the hell they are ever going to make a film out of it.
Ready Player One is out now in the UK