Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One.

NY: Crown, 2011.

This is the downright geekiest book I’ve read in a long, long time. In fact, if you were born around 1970 and grew up a pop culture junkie in the ‘80s, this is absolutely the book for you. Hey, I’m a generation older than that and I still loved it.

Here’s the set-up: It’s 2044 and the U.S. is basically falling apart. Only the wealthy can afford gas-powered cars, corporations can force debtors into lifelong indenture-slavery, and you can buy a gun from a vending machine. Millions of small-towners have moved into the cities so they can get to work — those few who have jobs, anyway — and many of them live in trailers stacked twenty-high on the dangerous outskirts of town. It’s a world any sane person would want to escape from.

Fortunately, there’s OASIS, which has virtually (in all senses of the word) replaced the Internet. Designed and established originally as a groundbreaking Massive Multi-User game, it has now become the alternative “real world” for much of the world’s population. Everyone who can manage it works there, plays there, learns to read and write there, goes to college there, carries on business there, and spends every moment they can on its tens of thousands of exquisitely rendered planets, many of them with pop-culture themes. All this is made possible by very advanced haptic rigs that vary from cheap visor-glove combos to bodysuits and gimbaled control chairs, depending on what you can afford. James Halliday, genius inventor, designer, and almost-sole owner of OASIS, is now worth $130 billion. And then he dies.

A gamer of genius all his life, Halliday has set up a contest in his will whereby whoever can open three Gates with three Keys, leading to the discovery of the ultimate Easter Egg, will inherit everything. Thus is born the life of the egg-hunter — “gunter” — who sinks every waking moment in the quest. Wade Watts, at eighteen, is the quintessential gunter and nearly six years after Halliday’s death, he’s still looking for the breakthrough clue to the first Gate. There’s not a video or computer game, geek-movie, rock group or tune, or any other detail of ‘80s culture that he doesn’t know because any bit of it might be the key to the first Key. He has a number of friends online but none in the so-called real world and, it goes without saying, zero experience with girls. And then he gets a lucky break — and suddenly the race is on. But he’ll have to be careful because there’s a mega-corporation called IOI that believes OASIS hasn’t been properly managed to produce a big enough profit. They plan to remedy that by completing the quest themselves and taking control of things – which, again, means of everything. The entire world, basically. And considering how much is at stake, they’re not too picky about how they accomplish their goal.

I’ve never thought of myself as a game-player — except that I spent several years in the late ’70s playing D & D every weekend. And when I got my first home computer, a TRS-80, in 1980, I also became addicted for awhile to text-type games, especially ADVENTURE and ZORK. (You could do a surprising amount with numbered-line BASIC and a handful of pixels, all of it backed-up to a 5.25-inch floppy.) My own pop-culture references date from the 1960s and ’70s, but my kids were growing up in the ’80s, so I was aware of their world, too. Well, Cline knows it all, tossing out descriptions and playing strategies of games, and giant robots, and Saturday morning animation shows, and third-tier rock groups on every page. It’s an epic quest tale in a strongly cinematic style. If you’re in your forties, there’s a good chance you’ll love this book. Most of the less-than-stellar reviews I’ve seen have mostly criticized the author for arcane errors in antique games — which only tells me the reviewers are even geekier than the author. Don’t worry about that.

And don’t worry about the fact that the author sometimes seems to be trying to produce a Young Adult novel for middle-aged readers. This isn’t meant to be Great Literature. It’s meant to be fun, and in that it certainly succeeds. Just read the first couple of chapters on faith. I guarantee you’ll be hooked.


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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Great review, thank you. I found a floppy of ZORK in my closet, but do not have a computer that has a floppy drive, fancy that.

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