In the world of Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One, the most popular and resonant pieces of popular culture are the ones that were made with the most care and love. That idea carries over into the craft of the novel itself—there a lot of love in this book.
The novel takes place in a near-future world where the internet, electronic commerce, social media, and video gaming have essentially been assimilated into a world-wide virtual reality simulation called the OASIS, which users interface with through the use of visors and haptic feedback peripherals that can simulate every impact, sensation, and experience the user’s avatar encounters while in the simulation. In the OASIS, you can be anyone you want to be, do anything you want to do. Wanna live out the entire series of Firefly playing as Malcolm Reynolds? Head to the Whedonverse sector and have at it. Wanna build a secret stronghold inside an asteroid? You can. People use the OASIS for everything, from shopping online to going to school. A real, non-post-apocalyptic world does exist outside of the OASIS, but it is a world deep into the third decade of the Great Recession, a world ravaged by poverty, natural disasters, and global warming. Many members of this future world opt to spend a large amount of their time in the OASIS, access to which is totally free.
The OASIS was created by a technological genius named James Halliday. Upon his death, Halliday hid an ‘easter egg’ (a term that will be familiar to many experienced gamers) in the OASIS, which a gunter (one who hunts the egg) attempts to find by solving a series of increasing difficult and esoteric quests based on Halliday’s intense love for 1980s films, video games, and music. Finding the easter egg entitles the user to Halliday’s considerable fortune and control of the OASIS. Naturally, the competition is fierce, and not all of the combatants have the OASIS’s best interest at heart.
Wade, the hero of the novel, is one of these gunters. A bored high school senior with a woefully low-level avatar living in poverty in Oklahoma and attending school in the OASIS, Wade has devoted his life to the study of Halliday’s obsessions and the quest for the egg. To spoil what comes after would be unforgivable, but suffice it to say that the quest has several surprises in store for those who undertake it.
Of course, it is nearly impossible not to think of Halliday’s OASIS as a forward-looking cautionary prediction of what our current always-connected culture could be heading toward. And while I believe that is a fair reading, Cline doesn’t dwell on this connection for too long. This is not a philosophical science fiction novel about the perils of technology, though technology and how it affects the way we engage with other human beings is a pervasive theme. However, rather than retreading the common discourse that suggests that technology keeps us separate from one another, Cline’s novel shows, I think smartly, how technology and the internet can facilitate close and meaningful relationships with other people, even other people we have never met in person. All of this heavy theme-y stuff aside, the more important (and most fun) part of the novel is Wade’s improbable hunt for Halliday’s egg.
Imagine Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire mashed with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory mashed with Neuromancer and you’re sort of on the right track. Sort of.
But the best thing about Ready Player One, and the reason it’s my favorite book I’ve read so far this year, is the sense of care and love and went into it. This is not a quick cash-in on the resurgent popularity of the 1980s. Nor is not a vacuous, pandering send-up to video game culture. This is a thoughtful, well-crafted love letter to all things geeky. It is obvious that Cline had a blast writing this book. I can’t remember the last time that I was this excited to pick up a book and continue reading. I loved every minute of it, and when it was over I wanted to read it again. It does what the best fiction does; installs us into another world and leaves us wanting to never log off.
I give Ready Player One five large helpings of lasagna. If I could, I would give it six.