Thursday, June 27, 2013

Ready Player One

This one came my way via my father, Gamer Dad-- trading book recommendations has been one of our best ways of staying connected since I so cruelly went to college in another state and then stayed there. :P

Rating: 4 stars
Length: Moderate (374 pages in trade paperback)
Publication: June 5, 2012 from Broadway Books
Premise: Five years ago, an eccentric billionaire died and left his entire fortune, as well as control of the most powerful corporation in the world, to whomever could find the Easter egg hidden in his virtual reality. No one has found more than a scrap of a clue until an egg-hunter calling himself Parzival reaches the Bronze Key, kicking this half-dead world into a frenzy.
Warnings: offscreen murder and mass murder, suicidal plans
Recommendation: If you're at all a fan of 1980s pop culture, nerd subcultures in general, or virtual reality, pick this one up. It's a little black-and-white on the morality scale, but in a delightfully over-the-top way that it's hard not to love.

Why this is just straight-up fun to read:

Wade Watts has grown up in a world dominated by the energy shortage  and is growing up near the top of an enormous stack of trailers. He escapes his surroundings by going to school in the OASIS, an immersive virtual reality that allows teachers and students to log in from anywhere without the expense of transportation. For him, like many users, the OASIS is its own world-- other students can mock him for not having the nicest virtual gear, but he's safe from attacks and can use time at school to work on his grail diary. Like so many people, he dreams of finding the virtual egg of James Halliday and escaping from poverty. Halliday's will came in the form of a short video laden with 1980s pop culture references-- people are sure that it's full of clues, so 1980s pop culture, especially nerdy gaming bits, has experienced a cultural renaissance. Wade, who calls himself Parzival in OASIS after the grail-seeking knight, can't afford to travel and search the far reaches of this reality, but he's determined to study every show, movie, game, and song until he finds a clue.

Dystopian settings normally drag through murky and nuanced morality, but Ready Player One sticks closer to the morality of Star Wars-- the heroes are scrappy underdogs with one chance to save the world from the evil forces who outnumber and outgun them in every way. Individual egg hunters (or "gunters") have been searching, but so have the Sixers, employees of Innovative Online Industries. IOI would obviously like to control their only rival in the market, so they have a special branch devoted to finding the Halliday's egg, and all employees in that division have to wear the same avatar and go by their six-digit company number, ensuring that they make a perfectly faceless evil mass, much like stormtroopers or orc hordes. If IOI controls the OASIS, they plan to charge a monthly free to access the only escape tat many people in this world have ever known as well as lock down content and put advertisements everywhere to make even more money. Cline has chosen to make this company properly villainous, with no real redeeming qualities, and that's the right fit for this story, especially once IOI demonstrates its willingness to win by any means necessary, up to and including murder.

The gamers who do succeed in finding the Copper Key, the first clue in Halliday's sequence, do so because of their genuine love for the culture of the era, from games to music to movies, and it's obvious that this hangs together because the author loves those things as well (to the point that he designed an in-book Easter egg hunt for readers just to bring the meta). In places the way the characters trade nerdy references back and forth can come off as exposition-heavy, but it's definitely no more unusual than talks that people have in real life. While Wade and his friends may have gotten into 1980s pop culture in an attempt to find the egg, it's long since turned into the defining passion of their lives out of love. The competition also works well, given that they know only one person can gain the final prize-- they'll occasionally offer hints, especially to pay debts, but none of them want to win by taking an easy way through. They manage to get along only by discussing the things they love and avoiding any mention of the clues themselves. When the Sixers looks like they're about to seize the lead or lock off a clue forever, however, they're willing to work together as a team for the sake of OASIS. It's most impressive when they have no choice but to coach each other and show that, in their own ways, they're all brilliant in the subject area they've chosen.

The split between real life and OASIS works well-- the egg hunters in particular tend to spend hours in virtual reality, even at school, and the hours outside it obsessively practicing old arcade games or watching moves to prepare. Wade in particular sees the real world as flat and dead, with so little to offer that he wants to leave the solar system; midway through his quest, he locks himself inside and vows not to see the light of day again until he's figured out how to pass the next Gate. Cline eventually resolves the tension with the not-surprising notion that drowning yourself in a virtual world can be a way of avoiding and missing out on the real one, but the intervening passages about why these people don't want to live in the world outside provide a more sympathetic and balanced outlook than is typical. They may be avoiding the real world, but that's because it's become a rather horrible and dangerous place and they don't have any idea where to start fixing it. That backdrop of balance sets the tone for everything that follows, and it's great to see virtual reality exist without the deep horror of addiction that crops up in books like The Unincorporated Man. No matter how much they love virtual reality, they have to log out sometime, so the two worlds can never fully become one.

The red pen:

The worldbuilding detail is devoted primarily to the OASIS because that reality is the only one Wade reocgnizes for much of the book-- it's a valid choice, but it means that the real-world detail has just enough space to become preachy. Wade's narrative features several pages ranting about how the previous generations have killed the earth, used up the natural resources and so forth, and then we get into side tangles about how God is a lie and humanity deserves to be abandoned. The opinions work well for Wade himself, but they come off as awkward in a long-form monologue. That preachiness also seeps into what could have been one of the more interesting real-world minor surprises. People can make their OASIS avatars look like anything, but ones used for school are supposed to be the same gender and race as the actual user. Given the collapsing infrastructure, however, people are sometimes able to get around that. Wade meets a person face-to-face who has taken advantage of this to get more respect than would otherwise be possible. This angle, so far beyond trying to look more beautiful as many people do, gets buried in Wade's self-righteous lecture (ostensibly to himself but actually to the reader) about how people are still good and worthwhile regardless of appearances.

By far the weakest element of the story is the romantic subplot. Wade is attracted to Art3mis, a famous blogger who shares and more than matches his own love for the 1980s, but she wants to focus on the quest and believes that it's impossible to form a true relationship without being face-to-face. She eventually talks to him after a series of e-mails and they become friends, but it's all done in a montage style that leaves it hard to tell if they have any real rapport beyond common interests. They go from friendly opponents to friends to nearly dating to Art3mis pulling back in such a compressed face that it very much comes off as establishing something for Wade to mope over instead of charting two people getting to know each other. When he sends her endless notes and presents and stands outside her virtual house with a boom box, the whole thing tips over from tolerable infatuation into outright stalking, and that makes it hard to cheer on Wade's efforts to be part of her life. Persistence is a virtue in every other aspect of this quest, but when someone tells you to leave them alone as a hard boundary and you refuse to do so, that's threatening behavior and would be grounds for a restraining order if done to their face. Wade does eventually come to regret it, but more because his affection was slowing down the quest than because it was an obnoxious way to behave.

It would have been nice to see any of the puzzles be based on books or even comic books-- Halliday is known to have had an enormous library and Wade has read all of it, but all of the Keys and Gates are based on audiovisual media, with a particular focus on games. Given that Ready Player One is a book instead of a movie or miniseries (and it would be a fun one), it's odd to see comics and books left out of the party this way. The clues can be fun to follow even if you aren't fully acquainted with all of the background-- unfortunately, in a few places it's hard to tell why no one has figured them out before. It's hard to go into detail without spoilers, but suffice to say that people could crack some of them with brute processing power. If IOI (and everyone else) has known for years that the clues were scattered in nerd culture, predominantly that of the 1980s, they've had time to assemble a private searchable database powered by future-Google and feed every scrap they have into it until something useful comes up. Not all of the puzzles could work this way, of course, but enough of them do that it's hard to see why the forces of evil haven't triumphed a long time ago.

On the whole, Ready Player One is quite fun, all the more so if you've been exposed to a lot of the culture mentioned. I'd seen most of the movies mentioned, am something of a guilty eighties music fan because power guitars make great editing background music, and owned the Ladyhawke soundtrack back in high school, so I got enough good chuckles out of it to not be too bothered by the sea of video-gaming tips. If your interest in pop culture doesn't stretch back further than the nineties, it might be quite as much fun, but it's hard not to appreciate the hammed-up geek joy of giant robots fighting for the future of virtual freedom.

Prospects: This one is definitely a stand-alone that would be ruined by a sequel, but the film rights have been sold. Cline is planning another book called Armada and film rights have already been sold as well-- no word yet on its release date or anything else, but I'll update this post if there is.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~Diane Duane's Omnitopia Dawn deals with virtual reality as a haven for creativity in a similar way, though it does so in a near-present day that lacks the dystopian undertones of Ready Player One.
~Listen to "1985", Bowling for Soup's cheery love song to this era in all its ridiculous era.


  1. Good review, I agree with most of your comments (romantic sub-plot could have been better, but true nerds haven't socialized and really don't know how to behave). Would have been interesting to see a puzzle from book/comic, but I think the author stayed with movies as the readership would have much more familiarity, cult movies are much more well known than most best sellers. -Gamer Dad

    1. I think that Wade's poor socialization is good from a character point of view, but I really want to see Art3mis push back with "hey, what you're doing isn't okay" instead of giving in to his badgering and then cutting contact. Granted, she's not around people a lot either, but so it goes.

      For books and comics...I'm not sure there's a perfect solution. Having the Blade Runner puzzle rely partly on a clue available in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep might have been a good balance point. Nerds tend to focus on every mangled detail in the book-movie adaptation process, and I think it could have worked without a ripple. I definitely buy that movies are more well-known than book, but he spent a *long* time explaining the nuances of video games that most readers have never seen. Talking out the finer points of some Asimov or Heinlein (which Halliday totally would have read in high school) woudn't have taken any longer. The book is still great, but my book-nerd is definitely showing.