Book #13 for 2012: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Ready Player One is pure pleasure and pure fun. It reads like a YA novel for people who were YAs in the 1980s, very nerdy YAs who were raised on a diet of early video games, Dungeons & Dragons, the geekier movies of the period and 80s rock groups like Rush. Although the action of the book takes place in the 2040s, Ready Player One is steeped in 80s pop culture through and through.
Here’s the premise: Back here in the early 2000s, there lived a computer genius named James Halliday, who along with his business partner Ogden “Og” Morrow founded one of the most successful video game companies of all time: Gregarious Simulation Systems or GSS. (The name is something of a joke, since Halliday is a pure Asperger’s geek, far more comfortable with computers than with human beings.) Not long in our future, GSS will announce its greatest achievement, a stunning virtual reality simulation called OASIS (Ontologically Anthroprocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation) that contains a vast universe with thousands of planets. OASIS is so big that it contains other massively multiplayer games, like World of Warcraft and Everquest, as tiny pieces within it. Anyone who can afford the wraparound 3D goggles and haptic gloves (which allow you to manipulate and feel objects within the virtual universe) can enter OASIS and effectively take up residence there. You can even go to school there, because one of its planets is devoted entirely to education. Other planets are devoted to things like shopping for virtual merchandise, but most are devoted totally to fun. Each planet is stunningly detailed, with a vast environment to explore, and many of them contain puzzles, dungeons and infinite opportunities for role-playing. Given that the world economy has continued the downward spiral that it began in 2008, by the 2040s a lot of people would rather spend their lives in the OASIS universe than in the real one, coming out only for biological and economic necessities.
What triggers the book’s plot, though, is the death circa 2040 of OASIS co-founder Halliday. In his lifetime he had amassed a vast fortune somewhere in the hundreds of billions of dollars and, never having married or fathered children, has no one to leave it to. So in his final will and testament — which he records on 3D video, of course — he announces to the world that he’s set up an immensely complex puzzle quest within OASIS and whoever solves it first will inherit every cent he owns.
You can see, of course, the problems such a quest could cause. A lot of people are going to want Halliday’s fortune and will be willing to do almost anything to get it, including cheating (though there are no real rules, so cheating isn’t really possible), stealing and even killing. But when Halliday’s fortune isn’t discovered within a few years a lot of people decide that it was all a big practical joke and quit looking for it, all except a dedicated (and decidedly nerdy) group of diehards who call themselves “egg hunters” (because the object of Halliday’s quest is what video game players like to call an “easter egg”), a term that rapidly finds itself abbreviated to “gunters.”
The hero of the story is an 18-year-old male gunter named Wade Watts (his late father, also a geek, wanted his son’s name to sound like a superhero’s secret identity) who lives with his malicious aunt and her violent series of boyfriends in the 2040s equivalent of a trailer park — stacks of old, rotting trailers piled like skyscrapers on the outskirts of cities and abandoned as homes for the homeless. To get away from his own relatives, Wade finds an unoccupied trailer hidden away at the bottom of one of these stacks, sets up his virtual reality rig there, and spends his days either going to high school in the virtual world or working on the Hunt, as the search for Halliday’s easter egg is called. Like all gunters, Wade knows that solving the clues that Halliday has left to the location of his treasure will require a voluminous knowledge of 80s trivia, especially regarding the sort of 80s pop culture that Halliday himself was immersed in during his adolescence, which includes movies like War Games and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, arcade games like Joust and Tempest, and text adventures like Zork. (One suspects these things were also youthful obsessions of the book’s author, Ernest Cline.)
And though most of the world has written off the Hunt as a joke, when Wade solves the series of puzzles that leads to the first of the three keys that will literally unlock the treasure, everyone becomes interested again, because a giant scoreboard (like the High Scores board in a video game) appears on virtual reality displays around the planet and the name of Wade’s OASIS avatar is right at the top. (His avatar is named Parsifal, after the knight who found the Holy Grail.)
Ready Player One is a little slow off the ground in its opening pages because there’s a lot of exposition to be gotten out of the way (as should be apparent just from the fraction of it I’ve given in this review), but once Wade finds the first key the book takes off like a combination of 80s trivia contest, open-world computer game and Alfred Hitchcock chase thriller. Everybody wants to know who Wade is and how he found the key — and “everybody” includes Innovative Online Industries or IOI, a vast and malevolent corporation put together for the express purpose of finding Halliday’s easter egg. If IOI finds out who Wade really is — and, of course, they do — they’ll be willing to kill him and everybody he knows in order to beat him to the next key in the set.
Ready Player One isn’t a deep novel, though author Cline includes a touching romance and a nice little moral at the end, but it’s a fast read and a highly entertaining ride — especially if you were around, or even know anybody who was around, in the 1980s.