Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book Review: Ready Player One - Ernest Cline

Do you remember when you were a little kid, and you’d be in your room, totally bored, or outside someone had dug a pit in your backyard, or there was a new fridge in the kitchen providing you with a huge box to play with? What about how during those instances you’d pull out all your toys and set up a battle royale amongst them? Transformers VS G.I. Joe’s VS Thundercats VS Silverhawks VS G-Force VS Star Wars. G.I. Joe’s led by Luke Skywalker would charge into battle against Cobra led by a temporary coalition of Cobra Commander, Mum-Ra and Darth Vader. Then even that would move from epic ground troop battle into a showdown between the biggest and boldest of the various factions. Voltron would form up and take on Unicron in front of Castle Grayskull while Macross Valkyrie’s, Starscream and Thudercracker swept in with aerial attacks.

We all did it. In the 80’s we all used our various toys and staged wars amongst our various childhood fascinations and obsessions. It was a way to make our toys be extraordinary, and I personally recall killing hours and hours of time in such ways. The other way I killed time when I was young was, of course, playing video games. I had a Commodore 64, a PS2, an Intellivision, An Atari 2600, Nintendo, Sega…the list continues to this day. Basically if it came out on a game console, I owned it and I played it.

Ernest Cline has gone and written a book that is aimed (like the proverbial, spring-loaded red toy missile) directly at those of us who remember doing the above, and what he has created is one hell of an excellent ride.

It’s the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place.

Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets.

And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune—and remarkable power—to whoever can unlock them.

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday’s riddles are based in the pop culture he loved—that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday’s icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes’s oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.

And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.

Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt—among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life—and love—in the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

As things get going it is clear that Wade, like everyone else on a planet where humanity is waning, is digging himself deep into a fantasy world where he can exist without feeling the pressures of the real craphole our planet has become. Designed by men who would be OUR (read: the Reader’s) peers, OASIS is a Big Bang Nerdgasm. The late 20th Century explodes in a cornucopia of pop culture that people in 2044 study and are interested in, since their own world has closed in on itself and almost devolved. The 70’s, 80’s and 90’s have become an era in which humanity as a whole can look back on fondly as better times, and James Halliday has given them the ultimate format into which they can retreat. Basically everything any one of us has ever fantasized about has been pumped judiciously into this novel. Beyond the fact that most of the actual plot has to do with various pop culture staples (Star Wars, Blade Runner, Back To The Future, Classic video games and game systems ect.) since OASIS designer James Halliday was a child, and aficionado of the 1980’s pop culture scene, there is also LOADS for us as the reader to grab onto. In certain instances Cline has seen fit to give us nods to these beloved nostalgic memories without preamble. Very much like Easter Eggs for the reader (Clever, that). For me something like when Wade first logs onto OASIS at the novel’s outset his password phrase is “You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada.” which is a line from one of my fave 80’s movies, THE LAST STARFIGHTER, I can’t tell you how wide my grin was when I read that line. The narrative is absolutely peppered with those little nods from Cline to us, some of which are totally unexpanded upon, but if you are in the “know” then you will fully get them.

The pace is seriously set to “Ludicrous Speed”, like “we’ve gone to plaid” kind of speed. I started reading this book and nearly didn’t put it down. It only took two sessions of reading over two days to finish. The novel sings along and the narrative is continuously interesting at no point slowing even a bit. That’s a tough thing to do, so I have to give Cline much credit for keeping things tight and breathlessly sliding along.

I cared about everyone involved in this story even though we only see it VIA Wade’s (ParZival’s) perspective. Aech, Art3mis, Daito, and Shoto are all really well fleshed out and care is taken by the author to give them all unique voices. It’s also tough to give a villain the proper voice and make him menacing without going overboard into campy or cheesy. With Sorrento (leader of a maniacal corporation bent on getting the prize and monetizing OASIS, thus making it suck) I think that Cline rode that balance well, as when he (Sorrento) first shows up and talks to Wade he is quite matter-of-fact in his menace and that rang really true to me. There is also a love story buried in here and even that is handled deftly. It has a voice that is decidedly wise as to how these young people WOULD interact, adding the aspect of the world they live in and how you might know someone’s avatar for years and never have met the person behind it. So I feel it is safe to say that the characterization is well handled across the board.

The quest within the novel to find the Easter Egg is fascinating itself. This is not simply because once we (the reader) realize as the first key is found that each subsequent success will be a “nerdy nod” to us, but also because of the slow and deliberate way that the enigmatic designer (Halliday’s) life is revealed. I was totally riveted in that quest myself and simply HAD to keep reading to find out what happened next and how it tied into the past.

In a book of this nature there is always a danger of going overboard with the nostalgia (over-egging the nostalgia pudding if you will), but I think aside from a few clunky dialogue sections (normal in a first novel), Cline avoids this and gives us just enough to keep us grinning. Like I mentioned earlier there are bits that are explained (like the first Video Game Easter Egg, a designer’s name buried in the Atari game ADVENTURE!) and then there are bits that are not that we are meant to simply “get” if our memories serve us well enough (like Wade’s Login Password phrases).

The novel also twists and turns at unexpected moments. So while you are aware that Wade is (let’s say) headed towards the second key, you don’t know what pitfalls are going to drop under him because honestly in a world where OASIS literally has EVERYTHING, you never know what is going to appear over the next hill or around the next corner. That kept me guessing, and that’s always a good thing.

If I had one complaint it would be that the novel ties up a little too quickly and that the end dovetails a little too neatly. I’d like to have seen a bit more conflict in the resolution of certain plot elements. There are a few things that could have been nice to have known about or seen a longer resolution to. Basically I feel the novel could have benefited from a nice epilogue or something. That’s kind of wishful thinking on my part though, so I get that, and to be honest I probably wanted more at the end simply because I wanted more at the end so I’d get to keep reading in Cline’s world. I’m not even sure if that makes it qualify as a complaint anymore since I feel that way. I wish there was more to read of it right now!

This book was, for lack of a better word, stellar. It felt like it was written directly for my generation and was aimed squarely at my nostalgia node. It is a ridiculously fast-paced, well-plotted novel with as clever a vehicle to drive it as ever I’ve seen. A compulsive, midnight page-turner for the Generation X and Y set that simply won’t let you sleep until you devour the final page. I can totally see myself re-reading this book down the road just to catch stuff I may have missed on my first run through. This is my first book of the New Year (let’s not argue date’s with 3 days to go) and Ernest Cline has absolutely knocked this one out of the park, hitting the Death Star’s power core with a well-aimed X-Wing shot, blowing it to utter smithereens. This novel is totally spellbinding from cover to cover, and for a first novel to burst out of the gate with such verve is definitely the indication of a great storyteller. Sufficed to say, if Cline continues to write like this I will be sure to check out anything he writes in future.

I kind of want to read it again right now. Is that wrong?

NOTE: The cover art at the top of the post is the forthcoming paperback cover art. While I dig the hardcover art on my copy, I feel that the paperback art is utterly sublime, so I wanted to post it. 


  1. I just read this book last week and I have to agree that it was fantastic (specifically for anyone that grew up in the 80's).
    Spot on review and I loved your Death Star analogy - I couldn't imagine a better choice of words for this particular book.

  2. READY PLAYER ONE was clearly written as a love letter to the 80s and early nerd pop culture.

    Once I picked it up I literally couldn't put it down until I finished it. (yay, reading at 3am!)

    I quibble over the fact that a lot of the dicoveries were made using information that the readers weren't privy too. I want to be able to feel like I have an outside shot at solving the mystery too. But that's me splitting hairs.

    A great read, I'd recommend it highly.



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