The PFG Book Club: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I was in need of nutrition, friends.  I’d been blazing through a stack of intellectual candy, enjoyable books by authors like Joe Hill, graphic novels, rereading favourite short stories…fun, but not exactly brainbusting.  I needed vegetables, I needed a big, fat, IMPORTANT book, so I pulled down the copy of Roberto Bolano’s 2666 I’d been keeping for such a moment and cracked the spine.

I used to make a joke that the year I read Atlas Shrugged was the worst summer of my life.  I think Bolano might have taken the torch. At least I finished Ayn Rand.

I’d like to say I made a valiant effort, but I can’t.  I hid from that book for a solid two weeks after Amalfitano started ruminating on geometry and even after I made a concerted attempt towards reading it on the streetcar, in waiting rooms at the doctor’s office, on the toilet, I’d only advanced 25 pages, it was time to go.  It’s sitting on my shelf now, my bookmark still in it, I’m sure if I ever pick it up again, I will have zero problem picking up the plot again, since Bolano didn’t seem to care about one in the first place.  Frankly, I’m still a little worried by my experience with the book, but that’s a topic for another time.

Social skills need not apply.

When I tossed Roberto aside, I needed to a palate cleanser, a literary sorbet.  Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One seemed custom-made for it.  It succeeded in every way in that respect.  Also like a sorbet, once it was removed from the table, I’d already forgotten it and was thinking of the next course. Food metaphors!

Ready Player One is a dystopian novel like you kids all love these days.  Humanity at large, having all but destroyed the planet, spends most of their time in the OASIS, a massive online virtual experience, a sort of World of Warcraft/Second Life hybrid:  players can go on quests for loot and experience points or they can live, work and go to school in the simulation.  Many do both.  When OASIS creator James Halliday dies, his will reveals that ownership of the company that controls the OASIS and Halliday’s immense fortunes will be left to the first person who can find an easter egg he’s hidden somewhere in the simulation.  To find the egg involves finding three keys to pass through three gates.  

Battle lines are quickly drawn between the Egg Hunters [“Gunters”] who are out not only for their own profit, but to keep control of the OASIS from falling into the hands of global telecom conglomerate Innovative Online Industries [nicknamed “The Sixers” because their employees’ avatars don’t have names, just six-digit numbers that start with 6], who wants to control the OASIS so they can properly monetize it, since Halliday demanded the simulation be free to access.  

The catch, because there had to be one:  the keys and gates leading to the egg are all hidden behind puzzles tied to Halliday’s greatest love — the pop culture of the 1980s. For five years, no one makes any headway, no names appear on the scoreboard that emerges on Halliday’s website after his death.  Until a poverty-stricken, third level high school student named Wade Watts [aka ‘Parzival’] finds the first key and the chase is on.  Gunter and Sixer alike immerse themselves in every facet of 80’s culture, analyzing every line of ‘Anorak’s Almanac,’ a collection of Halliday’s rambling essays on pop culture, named after his OASIS avatar.

And this is where Ready Player One shines.  The players looking for the egg become as obssessed with late 20th Century geekery as Halliday was. References fly throughout the novel: movies like Ladyhawke, WarGames and Ghostbusters; the music of Rush and Duran Duran; tabletop Dungeons & Dragons; text-based computer games like Zork; Japanese giant robot shows of the 1970s, Cline keeps all his geek bases covered.  Coming across a reference to one of your own personal beloved relics [for me it was Cowboy Bebop] is like getting a knowing wink from the author himself, and makes reading the book a pleasure.

Sadly, not much else about the book inspires similar levels of excitement.  It would be unfair to say the characters are paper thin, since most of them end up having at least one feature that keeps them from being completely cardboard.  The dialogue is downright dreadful at times: an early scene between Parzival, his best friend Aech and a rival gunter read like it was written by someone who watched hours of after-school specials to try and approximate how the kids would talk.  Action sequences frequently suffer from clumsy prose. To wit, this description of a narrow escape:

As my ship blasted skyward, I began to take heavy fire from several directions. But I was lucky. My ship was fast, and my shields were top-of-the-line, so they managed to hold up long enough for me to reach orbit.

Well that’s good.

I’m being mean now, and I don’t want to give the impression that the book isn’t worth reading, because it absolutely is.  But when I see headlines heralding it as the best science-fiction novel someone’s read in a decade?! Hooker, is you serious?! It’s a fun trifle, but it ain’t the best anything anyone’s read in a decade.  And frankly, that sort of hype is doing the book a disservice, because it doesn’t live up to it.  It can’t, and it’s not fair to expect it to. 

If you remember coding in BASIC and LOGO, if you ever played an Intellivision, if you know what a Kikaider is, you’ll find a lot to enjoy about the book, just don’t let the hyperbole of other reviewers gas you up too much.  Ready Player One was the fun, breezy read I needed it to be, and not much else.

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