Sigh… this book. After having finished Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, I finally understand why it’s so divisive. I believe that if you are a white, male with nerdy inclinations who came of age in the 1980’s, you’d love this book. Since I am pretty much none of those things (with the exception of having lived through some of the 80’s), this book is not that relatable to me (and my disinterest doesn’t even account for its thematic troubles).
Ready Player One begins with its adolescent protagonist, Wade Watts, detailing his history in first person narrative. Similar to other chosen-one archetypes, he’s an orphan, poor, and lives with his abusive aunt and her boyfriend. It is 2045, and the world is a dystopian wasteland where everything has gone to hell: climate, economy, poverty, and psychological and physical well-being. In order to escape from their daily drudgery, humanity spends the majority of their time in a virtual world called the OASIS, developed by a technological genius named James Halliday. Halliday has recently passed away, with no heirs or family to bequeath his enormous fortune. As such, he developed a series of Easter eggs, or puzzles, which includes finding a series of three keys and gates; the first OASIS user to find all three keys and crack the riddles wins the “Egg”: his fortune and control of the OASIS.
Halliday, who came of age in the 1980s, developed his Easter egg hunt such that only someone with an inordinate amount of 80’s pop-culture knowledge could crack all the riddles. And Wade Watts, AKA Parzival, knows A LOT of 80’s factual minutia. And he tells us this, AD NAUSEUM. The quintessential geek gatekeeper, Wade is insufferable and obnoxious about just how much he knows (and how much others don’t). He and his friend, Aech, continuously bust each others chops on their knowledge of obscure details relevant to the egg’s discovery. And when Wade’s love interest, Art3mis, enters the picture, he subconsciously tests her knowledge of Halliday as well to determine how much of true Egg Hunter (or “gunter”) she really is. No story is complete without a villain of course; Nolan Sorrento, the head of rival corporation Innovative Online Industries (IOI), seeks the Egg in order to gain control of the OASIS and ultimately monopolize it by charging users exorbitant fees. He tracks players who have found the keys and propositions them to either work for IOI and help them find the egg, or risk being eliminated (both virtually and in the real-world).
Overall, I’m annoyed at Ready Player One for what it could have been. In more capable hands, it could have been a meaty science fiction novel exploring topics such as corporate monopolization, extreme poverty, social isolation, and how advanced, virtual technology can either help or hinder these problems. However, these themes were treated only on a superficial level. As it stands, the book reads like a list of trivia that Wade knows. And Cline doesn’t even trust his reader to get his pop-culture references. Like, he’ll briefly mention some detail (“my ship was originally named Serenity“) but then tells you immediately the origin of that reference (“a transporter ship from the seminal show Firefly“). Have some faith in your reader, Cline! Add to this his stereotypical, bordering on caricature, portrayal of Japanese characters, as well as his “nice guy” interactions with Art3mis (women are so hard to understand, they’re like aliens! blah blah). It was just…not good.
Ultimately, Ready Player One is akin to eating potato chips. Once you start, it’s hard to stop. But all those chips leave you feeling unfulfilled and hungry for something with substance.