It’s been a while since I read a science fiction book that was just pure fun as much as it’s clever.
On the surface, the premise seems a bit pandering: It’s 2041, and the world has been over thirty years in the grips of the Great Recession. Most people spend most of their free time in the greatest, most massively-multiplayer virtual world ever created –sort of a bigger version of World of Warcraft- called OASIS. Pretty much all gaming and sci-fi and fantasy worlds you can think of have been ported into this massive virtual multiverse, and players can move from planet to planet (and fantasy to fantasy) via Star Trek like teleport pads or any space ship from almost any science fiction film created. Designed and created by James Halliday and Ogden Morrow, OASIS becomes the solution for many who seek to escape the real world. But when Halliday learns he is dying –and with no heirs or other family- decides to leave his vast fortune (something like $240 billion) to anyone who can solve where he hidden an Easter Egg within the vast universe of OASIS. But years later, no one has figured out the puzzle, and thus the only ones who seem interested are people called “gunters,” a subculture of people who’ve become obsessed with Halliday and who spend hours upon hours going through everything he wrote and reliving almost every aspect of the 1980’s, because Halliday was fascinated with 80s pop and nerd culture of all kinds, including sci-fi, fantasy, anime, Giant Robot Japanese shows, Duran Duran, videogames and Dungeons & Dragons. So all the challenges, all the riddles involve trivia from that era, so Ready Player One becomes a massive mash-up of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Matrix (as USA Today called it) and Stephenson’s Snow Crash and other novels that feature a treasure hunt premise. Our hero and narrator, Wade Watts, is an awkward teenager, poor, over-weight, with acne and is living with his aunt in what amounts to future version of a trailer park, where RVs are stacked upon each other twenty or more trailers high to preserve ground space (which is a very clever idea, in my opinion). Like all gunters, he too seeks to solve the riddles and gain the fortune that will take him away from the world he currently lives in. Then one day, Wade stumbles upon the first clue in Halliday’s game and sets in motion a race to the finish. But there are some, including a huge corporation, that is willing to do anything, including kill people, to get control of the money and OASIS itself.
This is a delightful novel, fast-paced page turner and surprisingly well constructed. Debut novelist Ernest Cline –who wrote the screenplay for the little seen (but worth it) indie film Fanboys- spent much of his young adulthood working a series of low-paying tech support jobs that allowed him to surf the Internet while on the clock and research his many pop-culture obsessions. His love of the 1980’s shines with endless nods to almost every popular pop culture event that made that decade my favorite as well.
In the end, Ready Player One is pure escapism, yet there is coda to it as well, but it does not interfere with the pacing. One thing that interests me is that Cline sold the rights to Warner Bros and I’m curious how the studio and Cline (who is writing the screenplay) intend to use the multi copyrighted material of other companies and studios. I mean the holders might not want to sign the rights over, but if handled right, this could be a great movie the same way Toy Story was. Everyone knows the story of Mattel not allowing Barbie to be used in the first film, only to realize what money the lost by not allowing Pixar to use her –so the quickly acquiesced for the later films.
As huge fan of the 1980s and classic video games, Ready Player One is a valentine to the era and an enjoyable trip to those halcyon days.