Friday, July 27, 2012

Review: Ready Player One

Ernest Cline's Ready Player One (Crown Publishing, 2011) features no grand, sweeping philosophical statements, no startling revelation about human nature, no moral judgments or object lessons.  Like the game that forms the backbone of its plot, it is an adventure with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it rests its case on that straightforward simplicity.

Wade Watts, like the protagonist of many a science fiction novel, is a high-school student-cum-computer-geek in a dystopian society, but unlike many a science fiction novel, RP1 hardly dwells a second on the dystopia part.  The world of 2044 is in ruins, due to a catastrophic shortfall in fossil fuels, but this crisis is put in primarily to motivate the near-universal emotional investment in OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a sort of virtual-reality massively multiplayer online game that serves simultaneously as school, work, and escape for most citizens, including the continually impoverished Wade.

OASIS was the brainchild of James Halliday, a reclusive, Wozniakian genius with an intense penchant for 1980s pop culture, who, with his more affable business partner, Ogden Morrow, built a multi-billion dollar computer game empire starting in the 1990s.  Over the years, they gradually drifted apart, as Morrow focused on sustaining their company after the death of his wife (his and James's childhood friend) and Halliday seemed to fall deeper into mental illness.

The events of RP1 are set in motion when Halliday dies in 2039.  His death is announced not on the obituary page, but in a video will and testament shot by Halliday himself.  Halliday had no wife, no children, no surviving relatives at all, so in his video, he explains that he will bequeath his entire estate (valued at about a quarter of a trillion dollars) to the first person to solve a series of puzzles embedded into OASIS and its millions of fictional worlds.

Wade had a boundless admiration for Halliday even before his death, so he knows all about 1980s culture, an asset that will stand him in good stead in his quest for the billions.  The problem is, so do many of the other OASIS users, including his best friend Aech (pronounced "H"), geek-girl blogger Art3mis, and the obligatory bad guys, the faceless multi-national corporation Innovative Online Industries (or IOI)—none of whom Wade has actually met face-to-face.  Throughout RP1, Wade will have to contend with each of them and his other rivals, some of who are ready and willing to commit murder and worse in their race for the prize, as well as Halliday's own devilish imagination and his obsession with the 1980s. 

RP1 is written in a quick, breezy style with pulpish overtones.  (Of course, for those who grew up with the golden age of science fiction, the pulp might be a positive.)  In developing his story, Cline feels compelled to explain a bit of Halliday's world creation, and as a result occasionally gets caught up in his own world creation.  From time to time, we are treated with technical details on how his characters connect to OASIS—details that will abruptly jar many readers from his otherwise breathlessly scripted (and somewhat thin) plot.

The 1980s pop culture references are another matter.  They are dotted liberally throughout the book, sometimes merely for flavor, other times integral to the plot.  And Cline's novel features a slightly implausible ending, albeit one that mirrors that of popular movies in its time frame.  For those of us who grew up in the 1980s, reading RP1 is a bit like watching retrospective "clip" episodes of shows like Silver Spoons and Family Ties (one of Halliday's favorites); others will just be bemused by the constant parade of cultural touchstones they have no connection with. 

To a certain extent, Cline is trying to maintain his footing on a slippery slope.  The technical and pop-culture references are consistent enough to suggest that he had more in his back pocket, details that would have appealed to a very specific audience, but which he held back in aiming for a broader audience.  On the other hand, if he had held back even more, RP1 might have been more accessible, but it would have lost much of its childlike appeal.

Ultimately, RP1 spreads it on thick with its geek and pop culture details, thick enough to turn off readers who don't sympathize with its emphasis.  One gets the distinct impression, however, that it otherwise wouldn't be substantial enough to satisfy those of us who do, and while it teeters on the precipice from time to time, RP1 just does get the job done.

Brian's 0-10 score: 6.0

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