Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is a nostalgic sci fi fantasy epic: a very enjoyable literary chocolate milk. Set in a dystopic but not unimaginable future, leaning heavily on 80s and 90s pop and game culture, it is a standard hero story: a redemptive quest in fun new packaging. It is geeky, pleasing, and really rather compulsive reading.
The year is 2044 and the ‘real’ world has become an ugly place. The harsh consequences of climate change and neoliberal capitalism are immediately, painfully apparent: there is no more oil, there is little-to-no society; famine, poverty, corruption and disease are widespread. Wade Watts is our everyman hero and like most of humanity, he escapes this depressing reality by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a massive free-play online alternate reality world.
The game has transformed from immersive virtual reality to an alternative economy: it has its own wars, societies, schools, and rules. It is both MMORPG and virtual society. And who can blame the humans left on earth neglecting their own planet and bodies to jack into OASIS, considering what is offered? It seems at times as if our distressed, dying world exists only so the physical bodies left can plug into OASIS. And for the narrative these competing societies and the choices of engagement that Wade has to make adds increasing complexity.
OASIS is where he is schooled, where his friends are, and most importantly where he plays. Wade is a natural at the puzzles, games and 1980s pop culture references that OASIS’ creator, James Halliday, loved. After Halliday’s death it was revealed the massive international virtual Easter Egg hunt he secretly hid about the game: he left no will but one clue, with the winner of the hunt inheriting his fortune and total ownership of OASIS. Considering OASIS is both the most successful and stable ‘country’ the world has, this would make the winner the most powerful person on earth.
Our rough-around-the-edges unlikely hero is not really in the same league as the rest of the hunters. He dreams of the Egg like everyone else, and is smart and studies up, but he hasn’t the money or experience points to really explore OASIS like other hunters do. Also competing for the prize is the evil Innovative Online Industries who want to own and exploit OASIS for their own profits.
So we have our mission, our hero and the bad guy. It is a story structure told a thousand times before, but a combination of the added layers of complexity of virtual versus reality in this dystopic sci fi world; the imagination of such a fully realised space; and a cast of wholly developed supporting characters make this a timeless story very well told. I suppose we know how it is going to end but it really is an awesome journey getting there.
While nostalgic, Cline is also very nuanced in his writing. Ready Player One critiques as well as celebrates the very culture its story is drawn from. It is full of humour and in-jokes around gaming culture and pop culture influences but never feels like an exclusive club. And while we may infer that Wade and Halliday are both some form of alter-ego for Cline, living a life he wants, that doesn’t stop them from being well established characters, more than just a front. I really enjoyed this book – nothing wrong with a little chocolate milk.