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 and decided to give it a read. 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 how-to books. I get weirdly obsessive, I’ll admit. The Other Half has to remind me, every so often, to take a fiction break.
I devoured it in one day.
Once Upon a Time in the Future…
Ready Player One 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.
Nostalgia for the early days of gaming
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.
Past, present and future merge in one place
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.
In the time since I originally wrote this review, Ready Player One has come under a lot of criticism for being poorly written, centering and pandering to young males, and objectifying women (among other issues, which can be readily found just by doing a brief Google search). I’ve wound up in disagreements with others regarding the demographic of the book, as if RPO was held up as some sort of over-the-top teen male reaction to the female-centred Twilight franchise.
Folks, I have neither read nor watched Twilight. I can’t speak to the contents of the series, but the actions of and reactions to the fanbase just turned me off. Ready Player One, on the other hand, was marketed as a fun nostalgic romp for ageing GenXers (a demographic in which I qualify). It really wasn’t until the movie was announced that the marketing actively started trying to appeal to young men. Taken in context: A well-paid marketing team sat down in a meeting and said something to the effect of: “We have an opportunity for awesome ticket sales here, guys! We won’t just get the parents in the seats, we’ll get their kids too. Just make the female lead look as good as the DeLorean.”
When I read Ready Player One, it was as a nostalgic, escapist romp with a typical boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back subplot. If you’re looking for highly insulted feminist commentary, I’m sorry to have disappointed you. My brand of feminism is a little more easygoing. 🙂