Ready Player One

Ready Player One Book Cover Ready Player One
Ernest Cline
Science Fiction
Crown
2011
374

In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he's jacked into the virtual utopia known as the  OASIS. Wade's devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world's digital confines, puzzles that are based on their creator's obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them. When Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade's going to survive, he'll have to win—and confront the real world he's always been so desperate to escape.

About a year ago, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t reading enough fiction. I’d plink away at a Terry Pratchett novel for a bit, but almost always went back to loading up on a bunch of non-fiction. I get weirdly obsessive, I’ll admit. The Other Half has to remind me, every so often, to take a fiction break.

We went window-shopping at The Mall this weekend and I had a chance to stop in at Indigo. I came out with Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I’d heard good things about it online.

I devoured it in one day.

Ready player one
Apparently I ran out of tea and didn’t notice. This never happens.

The story is set in a near-future dystopia. The wage gap is severe, and an energy crisis has caused the population to crowd to the big cities. Online gaming has evolved to an immersive utopian experience known as “OASIS”, and most of humanity spends its time jacked into the system. One of the founders of OASIS has left an easter egg in the programming that will allow a lucky explorer to inherit his entire legacy. The trick is that the founder was obsessed with the 1980’s culture of his teen years. To go forward on the quest, participants will need to know the 80’s intimately.

We see the story unfold from the point of view of Wade, a teenage Egg Hunter (or “gunter”). He uses OASIS to attend school, socialize, and get away from the grim reality he would otherwise have to experience. His online name is “Parzival”, and we follow him on his personal grail quest.

My own teen years straddled the mid 80’s to the early 90’s, so this was a bit of a nostalgia trip for me. I get references to 80’s movies and music. I remember many of the different early computers and devices mentioned.

As a sidebar, my grandfather was a Ham Operator and early-adopter of technology. He gave us a Vic 20 with a tape drive so that we could play Frogger. I know he had one in his Ham Shack that he claimed was for translating Morse Code, but the plain fact was that he was so fluent at code that he would translate entire paragraphs before the program even started chewing through the dots and dashes.  So he, essentially, bought us two computers on which to play Frogger. One at our house and one at his.

I was also caught up in the early 2000’s World of Warcraft MMO culture. We would spend hours logged in, questing, raiding, and socializing. I still play occasionally, though I’ve mostly gone back to good-old antisocial single-player Sims. That said, I can see a future where an analog of Second Life takes over and becomes the worldwide GUI for commerce and entertainment. And as in the book, I can see that whoever takes over that GUI would, at its essence, control the world economy.

I think one of the things that amuses me most is how the author has blended the past, present, and future into his novel. Yes, there’s the obsession with 80’s culture and the overwhelmingly dismal future, but there are pieces of the present in there. Characters blog, marathon-watch TV shows, and shop. These are all things that we do now. People meet, fall in love, and marry online. They do that now. The future of Cline’s novel isn’t so far away that we can’t be a part of it now, even though we don’t have the hardware to fully wire ourselves into the internet.

The takeaway message that this is a possible outcome if we don’t get our heads out of the sand and look up once in a while is powerful. And every time you think that our hero, Wade, is getting it under control, the stakes go up.

I definitely recommend giving Ready Player One a read. And read it in hard copy. There’s a weird kind of irony, I think, if you read it on electronic media.

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