Monday, December 5, 2011

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I’ll tell you right up front that Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One isn’t for everyone. The rather involved premise will alienate as many people as it attracts. The book takes place in the near future where a high school kid named Wade lives in a trailer park somewhere in what’s left of the United States after a global energy crisis. The only bright spot in Wade’s life is a massively-multiplayer online simulation called OASIS. OASIS is kind of like Second Life, if Second Life had assimilated World of Warcraft, Dungeons & Dragons, and all the other role-playing games you can think of. If you’re not familiar with or interested in MMOs, Second Life, or RPGs, that’s your first clue that this book isn’t aimed at you.

Like most people, Wade lives most of his life in OASIS. He goes to a virtual school and then spends his free time in a virtual basement playing virtual recreations of old video games or watching virtual copies of old movies. Why all the nostalgia? The explanation requires another geeky vocabulary word: Easter egg. Video game designers often hide little jokes, messages, or rewards within their creations and these have come to be known as Easter eggs. James Halliday, the guy who created OASIS, hid the biggest Easter egg of all time: ownership of OASIS and the company and fortune it spawned. Halliday made it clear that in order to find his Easter egg you’d have to share his obsession with the games, movies, and television of the 1980s. So Wade and all the other egg hunters (or “gunters”) memorize facts about Atari games, giant robots, and John Hughes movies just in case one of these trivia bits turns out to be the key to untold riches.

I’m guessing that by this point in the review you’ve already made up your mind about Ready Player One; that big mishmash of nerd culture sounds either totally rad or totally stupid. Trust your gut on this one. Cline writes well, but not quite well enough to win over a reader who’s turned off by high-stakes Pac-Man games and Small Wonder jokes. I can think of several people who would absolutely hate this book.

But I can also think of several people who would absolutely love this book. The plotting is good, the puzzles are fun, and the main characters all reminded me of good friends of mine. The pop culture references usually transcend simple name-checking and achieve something witty and interesting. The fight scenes are full of the sort of jaw-dropping images that would really sell a cutscene or get rehashed by your D&D group for years to come. If this book works for you, it’ll work in a big way. My only disappointment is that I read the book before I realized I could have listened to the audio version read by uber-nerd Wil Wheaton.


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