Ready Player One is a coming of age story at its heart, but it also has adventure, romance, and science fiction elements to it. It’s about Wade Watts, an eighteen-year-old senior in high school. He is an orphan and lives in a double-wide with his aunt and her boyfriend, and two other families on top of a “stack” in Oklahoma City. The story takes place in 2044, and most of the world’s economy has tanked due to the depletion of the world’s fossil fuel energy resources. Poor families have migrated out of rural areas and into the cities, which are now overpopulated, and has led to the development of the “stacks” of mobile homes and RVs using metal girders. The cities are filthy and have become very dangerous.
Wade spends most of his time in an abandoned van where he can hang out without having to worry about people bothering him, or his aunt taking his stuff to pawn for rent money. He has one friend named Aech who, like Wade, is a student on a planet called Ludus, which is located in a virtual reality called the OASIS. They have never met in real life, and in fact Wade has no social life outside of the OASIS.
The OASIS was developed by James Halliday, an eccentric billionaire who developed computer games at first, then the OASIS, which is accessible to anyone free of charge via the internet. Upon Halliday’s death five years prior to the opening of the story, he initiated a world-wide Easter egg hunt (or OASIS-wide, to be more accurate) for three keys and their corresponding gates – which in turn lead to the ultimate prize of control of the OASIS and lots of money. Much of the world has spent time trying to be the first to solve Halliday’s riddles and win the contest.
Halliday grew up in the 80s, and much of his favorite entertainment comes from that era. Wade (or Parzival, as his avatar is known) is an ardent egg hunter – or gunter – and spends much of his free time researching Halliday and the media he enjoyed. Like many, he hopes to be the one to win the contest. But Innovative Online Industries also has their eyes on the prize so they can take control of the OASIS and turn it into a subscription based service. The IOI’s agents are called Sixers, and are basically the evil IOI Empire’s stormtroopers to the gunters’ Jedi knights.
I mostly enjoyed this book (mostly…). I have a hard time believing that our society could devolve to what Cline has envisioned in only thirty years. But other than thinking it couldn’t happen in that short time frame, the rest of the dystopian world (outside of the OASIS) he has created I find believable and vividly described. Where he really succeeds is in his description of the OASIS as a virtual utopia and how people use it. As a gamer myself, I think the world he has created is a natural evolution of our current gaming and internet culture. It is free to access, but changing the way your avatar looks, where he/she/it can go, etc., costs real money and its used for everything from work, to education, vacations, and especially social networking and entertainment.
It’s hard for me to describe exactly why I didn’t love this book. On paper (no pun intended), it should have been a slam dunk. It checks a lot of the boxes for me in terms of subject matter, but I think it ultimately fails because it was just too easy to put down. I was able to stop reading at the very end, right before the climax. Normally I can’t do this. I’ll stay up until dawn reading a book if it captures my interest enough. This book just didn’t. I do think its worth the read because the subject matter and themes are provocative (how much of what you experience is valid if it’s in virtual reality), and the main characters are sympathetic and engaging. If you want a nail biter that will keep you on the edge of your seat most of the time, this book simply isn’t it. But if you want a pleasant read that you can easily put down if needed, I would definitely recommend it.