Note: A copy of Ready Player One was provided to the author for review.
The past decade has been the Age of the Geek – studios pander to the Comic-Con crowd, Internet buzz can destroy a movie’s opening weekend and nostalgia drives marketing. For every dyed-in-the-wool geek creator or personality, there’s at least two or three willing to take glamour shots of themselves licking a PlayStation while wearing a Red Lantern ring at a Jonathan Coulton concert. It’s easy to be skeptical of anything that tries to label itself ‘for nerds’ or ‘for geeks’ – those of us with long memories still remember when those words were pejoratives. Too often the stuff they produce ‘for’ us is awash in high concepts, strained pop culture references and hyperactivity, none of which is anchored to a real story or real characters.
It’s easy to be burned by ‘entertainment for nerds’ and the real thing deserves to be lauded when it comes along.
Part Willy Wonka, part Say Anything… and part The Keep On the Borderlands, Ernest Cline‘s debut novel Ready Player One is an addictive mashup of nostalgia-powered science fiction, pulpy quest narrative and high-school coming of age narrative that transcends the mishmash of its parts. The subject matter is something that Cline, the screenwriter of 2009′s much-loved film Fanboys, knows something about, but can his first novel live up to his screenwriting? The answer is yes: Ready Player One is a fun, endearing debut novel.
Wade Watts lives in a near-future world gone to hell, where the class divide is a wide, bottomless chasm and megacorporations literally own their employees. To escape his dystopian trailer-park reality, he spends his time in The Oasis, an immersive, persistent massively multiplayer online environment used by most of the world’s population. In his free time, he’s a Gunter – part of an online subculture of hackers and gamers looking Halliday’s Easter Egg, the final bequest of The Oasis’s creator James Halliday. The first one to find the Egg stands to win billions of dollars and control over the future of The Oasis itself. Also in the hunt are Wade’s virtual best friend Aech, Art3mis, the girl of his dreams, and the corporate-sponsored Sixers, who want to sell the soul of his online world for windfall profits from restrictive microtransactions and subscription fees. The only problem? In the years since Halliday’s death, nobody has even found the first clue to the prize. Nobody until Wade Watts, that is.
A story that spans two worlds, virtual and real, can lead to a sprawling, complicated narrative (Tad Williams’ bloated if occasionally brilliant Otherland series takes a similar concept to Inception-esque heights), but Cline’s narrative is streamlined, straightforward and, with the exception of a few large expository infodumps in the early chapters, as kinetic as an amusement park ride. Most of Wade’s epic quest happens inside The Oasis, so the story never feels bogged down with ‘worlds-within-worlds’ acrobatics. Even the Oasis, despite its seemingly infinite number of in-game worlds, features only a handful of locations as important parts of the Egg Hunt, among them a Dungeons and Dragons module, a Blade Runner planet and a planet-sized vintage arcade among them. For the most part, Cline also eschews focusing overly hard on the technical side of things and spends more time showing us the relationships between the characters and Wade’s transition into adulthood. Grounding the story in online relationships is a move that makes Wade and Aech and Art3mis instantly more relatable. We aren’t living in their world, but we probably understand the nuances of having Internet friendships and romances.
Ready Player One reads like nothing quite as much as it does a John Hughes or early Cameron Crowe movie, the ones about charming outsider kids finding their dare-to-be-great moments. That’s no mistake, as Halliday’s quest – and Wade’s – is rooted in 80s nostalgia.
Beyond the 80s homages built into the plot and structure of the novel, Cline peppers Ready Player One with copious fandom references – from Star Wars to tokusatsu to Firefly and the full gamut in between. A weaker storyteller might try to use these to pander to its target demographic, to establish his bona fides to the audience by way of copious name dropping. Cline, on the other hand, uses each giant robot, each 80s movie quote and each classic video game to establish his characters more than he does himself, especially Halliday – a character who the audience really only knows through his own media consumption.
There are some clunky passages – Wade’s explanation of virtual public schools is a good example – but they tend to be a necessary evil of starting in media res in a futuristic setting. Cline’s dialogue, on the other hand, is as glib and snappy as a dialogue between impassioned nerds should be.
Ready Player One is compelling nerd literature and one hell of an 8-bit-inspired ride through my generation’s collective childhood. Like all good nerd lit, it remembers that nerds are people, too, and ends up telling a very human story about love, friendship, greed and obsession that anybody can read and love.
Bonus: Tomorrow, come back to read Jeff’s interview with Ready Player One’s author, Ernest Cline!