Author: Ernest Cline
Publisher: Crown Publishers/Random House
Genre: Sci-fi Thriller
Unique Elements: A dystopian future in which a virtual game will make the winner a billionaire
Release Date: June 16, 2011
Number of Page: 372 Pages
MSRP: $24.99 HC
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Reviewed by: JT Hanke
Final Score: 5 Moons (out of 5)
About a year ago, I discovered an oasis away from the real world…a place where my childhood memories came to life and I could forget about all the mundane elements of my modern life. As so often happens, it was my wife (the incomparable Mother Irreverent)–who’s even nerdier and geekier than I am–who found out about it and insisted we go there for a date. GameOn Frozen Yogurt is hidden in a small suburb of the tiny town of Nicholasville, KY…a speakeasy sort of place that being able to find means you’re part of an elite group. An elite group who can be trusted with a place that combines all the fun of the ‘80’s–the nostalgic toys, vintage video game systems (which you can play with a coin op mechanic), and retro video game tournaments–with a frozen yogurt parlor that has 120 toppings (and, yes, Wil Wheaton, Bacon Candy is one of the topping choices). As if that weren’t enough, the store owners even own a Delorian. (If you don’t know what a Delorian is, you should probably stop reading this review right now.)
As such, folks who’ve already read this amazing book should find it unsurprising that a place like GameOn would build a shrine of books for the novel, Ready Player One.
I’d seen the books there since I’d started coming, but the cover was pretty generic and I assumed it was a bio-recap for someone who was a famous coin op winner—a book version of something like King of Kong or Fistful of Quarters. However, recently, I was chatting with the owners, who’d read some of my articles and new how unabashedly nerdy I am (and, in truth, how gloriously nerdy many of our readers are), and they were shocked I hadn’t read the novel. The owner—a former MMA fighter from Germany—
pushed a copy into my hands and said, “You have to read this book, man.” I looked at the page flap of the book and I found myself growing skeptical. It sounded sort of interesting—but it also sounded kind of like a ton of other sci-fi books I’ve read over the years. However, then he said the words that cinched it for me: “Wil Wheaton narrated the audio book.”
That was all I needed to hear to stop reading the flyleaf and dive into the novel with abandon. I was already through the prologue and halfway through the first chapter before I’d left their establishment—being sucked in by Cline’s dystopian future world that was somehow simultaneously a suspense thriller and a love story to all things nerdy and geeky and ‘80’s.
A cross between Charlie & The Chocolate Factory and Neuromancer—with a pretty liberal dash of Jupiter Jones from The Three Investigators for flavor—I almost couldn’t put this book down. (If I didn’t have small children or a full time job, I probably WOULDN’T have put it down until I’d finished it.)
I quickly realized that, while the flyleaf tried to provide a brief summary, it had no hope of showing the heart that this novel possesses—and that’s what separates it from so many other dystopian scifi books and novels.
Here’s my take on the story’s plot:
In the near future, an Asperger’s hacker and super genius named James Halliday will create a new, tactile interface system that will finally permit a functional virtual reality to be created. Called OASIS, it is initially designed as another MMO game, but it quickly will become a world—a universe—in which the people from a dying earth can reinvent themselves in entirely new ways. People begin to spend so much of their lives in this world that designers and stores make more money selling virtual goods than physical ones; where in-game currency is worth more than IRL currency.
To give the young a chance at a better life through better education, failing public schools are abandoned for state-of-the-art ones in the OASIS—and endowments are created to provide the impoverished with the equipment to access them.
Wade is a technically-brilliant outcast who’s too smart for the people around him, especially the highly dysfunctional aunt he often has to crash with. After enduring a lifetime of bullying and abject poverty, the new Oasis school program gives him the chance to escape to a place where his intellect is a benefit and where no one can know how poor he is.
In this new environment, where teachers show the past as though on a holodeck and programming prevents students from causing disruptions or physically bullying each other, Wade learns at an unprecedented level.
Less than a year after Wade starts his new school, however, the reclusive Halliday dies. To the shock of the world, rather than leaving the $240 billion software company that OASIS created to someone who’s character he knows nothing about, he decides to hold a contest. But not just a contest—a quest. A quest for three keys—and three gates—that only those who become as obsessed with the nerd culture of the 1980’s as Halliday can hope to discover—and defeat.
Wade quickly realizes that his entire life would change if he could win this contest and decides to do whatever it takes to win—from learning the secrets to classic video games, to memorizing movies and TV shows from the ‘80s, to listening to all of the music from the era. In the process, he’ll have to decide what world is truly real for him—and who, if anyone, he can trust on his journey!
The story in Ready Player One (“RPO” from now on) has similarities to other sci-fi stories we’ve all read or watched over the years, from The Matrix to Johnny Pneumonic to Blade Runner. It’s the famous archetype known as the “Hero’s Journey.” However, it’s how it all comes together through Cline’s storytelling that makes this book so engaging—and endearing.
Additionally, for a book that demands to be read non-stop, it’s got an appropriately climactic and well-paced ending. I say this because, usually, on books that are power reads like this—where you just have to get to the end because you’re so curious—authors fail to put enough meat at the ending about the characters and what might happen for you to feel a proper sense of closure. (Or they put too much on and you just feel inundated with TMI.) As such, I usually end up with a bit of headache and some depression that a book like this is over. However, Cline does a great job of concluding it well so that there’s enough spelled out and enough left open—which is a really difficult tight rope.
Technically, the ending of this book COULD have been the ending of a standalone novel—except for one major element that’s put in place that begs for at least ONE more novel. However, there is a theme of trilogies referenced throughout this book—from Star Wars to Indiana Jones (sans CS) to Back to the Future—are mentioned throughout, so I would expect that this is actually the first book in a trilogy. (I could definitely envision each story arch for two more books and I hope that this doesn’t end up being a standalone book, because at least a bit more needs to be dealt with—and, frankly, the re-creation of the ‘80’s is way too fun to not return to for at least one or two more books. )
The dynamics of this book are amazingly strong, because Cline manages to look at all the big “vs.” statements: man vs. man, man vs. environment, and man vs. himself in ways that feel organic. Wade’s competing not only against a really bad villain, but also against friends that, in any other world, he’d be sharing his adventure with. He’s competing against his own depression and self-loathing, which finds ways to undermine his efforts and for which he has to discover new ways to survive. And he’s competing against a real world that wants to destroy him physically and a virtual world that wants to destroy his ability to exist.
And, throughout it all, Cline is able to work in his clear love of the ‘80’s, music/movie trivia, and nerd pop culture in a way that stays integral to the story; managing to elicit nostalgia WITHOUT feeling like a crutch or a “cheap trick” (no pun intended). And, if you’re not that familiar with the ‘80’s, Cline doesn’t require you to know the culture to enjoy the ride—because he explains things as needed. (However, those who are already familiar will definitely have an extra special time—not unlike an X-Men enthusiast watching the recent film, X-Men: Days of Future Past.)
If there was one small gripe I would have with the dynamics of the book, it’s that the evil corporation that is one of Wade’s main competitors is a bit too one dimensional. It’s clear that they’re designed to be very reminiscent of the Agents from the Matrix, but I would’ve liked to have had their leader, at least, showing a bit more multi-dimensional perspective. (My favorite villains are always the ones that have honestly deluded themselves into believing that the evil they’re doing really IS for the good of others.)
I really despise the term “Young Adult” literature which tends to be slapped on any novel that includes a protagonist under the age of 21. “Young Adult” is a patronizing term that’s used for “teens”—and it always brings to mind asinine series like, Twilight. In my mind, books that publishers brand with the “Young Adult” label immediately are stating that they are so one-dimensional that only 13 year olds will like them. If you happen to like them as an adult, then you are most likely mentally deficient in some way. Although RPO has won awards for Young Adult literature, Crown at least had the good sense to NOT put that wretched term anywhere on this novel. Good for them for showing some spine on that one—because this is a book that doesn’t deserve to be judged before it’s consumed. It deals with just as many deep concepts as most of the books published today.
The reality is, if you love ‘80’s music, culture, and vintage video games; if you’re intelligent and passionate; AND if you like books that make you think, then RPO will blow your doors off.
This is not a book to check out from the library; this is a book to own. (Probably you’ll want to own at least two or three versions, from the audio book—with Wil Wheaton’s narration—to the kindle version—which you can read with the lights out—to the print version—which just feels so tactile!)
I would also suggest that, the first time you read the book, you just throw yourself into it the way it demands that you do from page one. But, on the second read through, actually have your YouTube screen up and, as they’re mentioned, watch the music videos, listen to the music, look at the video games described—see if it doesn’t take this to a whole new level.
Before this book was published, Warner Brother’s bought the rights to it for film adaptation. So far, I haven’t heard any motion on the film actually getting made which, unfortunately, I can understand. The cost for ALL of the copyrights for everything mentioned in this book would probably drive the film up to $200 million BEFORE any actors were cast. I hope I’m wrong and Warner Brother’s really does make an incredible movie of this.
However, if Warner Brothers never does release this as a film, then reading it with the multimedia influences going on around you will still make this book amazingly interactive for you—maybe even better than a film since you’re combining real influences in your brain, rather than a director preserving you his vision of it. (There’s one puzzle that deals with Rush’s 2112 concept album and I pumped it up while I was reading. SOOOOO cool!)
Story: 5.0 Moons (out of 5.0)
Dynamics: 5.0 Moons (out of 5.0)
Gothic Fit: 5.0 Moons (out of 5.0)
Final Score (not an average): 5.0 Moons (out of 5.0)