Ernest Cline’s debut novel Ready Player One has all the hallmarks of dystopian fiction. Its protagonist and narrator, Wade Watts, is a disaffected youth living in the over-populated outskirts of Oklahoma city. The year is 2045 and the world is facing the inevitable and devastating consequences of global warming. Wade – along with most of human kind – plugs in daily to a virtual reality platform called OASIS, thereby escaping from the stifling bleakness of the Earth. When OASIS’s eccentric creator dies, he leaves behind a message: he has hidden an Easter Egg in his game, and the first person to find it will inherit his fortune and his company. We follow Wade as he attempts to do just that.
For the most part, Ready Player One is harmless fun. The writing is not particularly sophisticated, but this is hardly unusual given that it’s young adult fiction, and it contains far less blatant errors than others I’ve read in the genre. It is escapism, but with enough darkness to keep the excitement of imminent danger in the forefront of the reader’s mind. There is a steady escalation of unease through Wade’s interactions with Innovative Online Industries (IOI), a corporate institution that seeks to take over and fully monetize OASIS. This is a theme that feels increasingly relevant to the real world, where the rise in online connectivity seems to incongruously hand more power to companies than to people, and we exchange our private information for basic virtual conveniences.
Although its treatment of issues such as these is sometimes oversimplified – the IOI’s attempted takeover is publicly visible, where in reality this informational hoarding is often more insidiously disguised in access to ‘free’ services such as Facebook – it is packaged in a way that appeals well to the plugged-in youth of today. Those who immerse themselves in online games such as World of Warcraft will be familiar with the fantasy life that Wade leads within OASIS. It’s a world where almost anything is possible, from the use of magic in player versus player combat, to the creation and colonization of entire planets. At the same time, the theme of the online setting doesn’t feel overplayed; where most of our popular games rely either on fantasy with some similarities to a human past, or science fiction set in the distant future, OASIS is a fairly unique blend of both of these things. The technology is heavily sci-fi based, but relies on references to the 1980s to provide an anchoring nostalgia fix.
Where this novel might fail to hit its mark is with those who possess only a passing general knowledge of the 80s; a wide audience that Cline was likely trying to capture with prose thick with recognizable pop culture mentions. While the references to gaming are often niche, beyond that, they begin to feel a little corny. Even with my own meagre understanding of the time period I felt that the allusions made were often to the most obvious of texts. From Heathers to Bladerunner, and Family Ties to Jeopardy, the novel doesn’t often make reference to anything that would prompt me to move beyond the surface-level understanding of the era that I already have. Perhaps to those with an established interest in the decade these would read as joyful homages to the classics, but to me it just felt boring; I’d rather watch John Hughes’s characters in context than read a watered-down version of them in reference to Wade and his friends. Particularly as this is often at the expense of more nuanced characterization. At one point in the story, Wade arrives at an event in what is probably the most recognizable vehicle of the time: a Delorean. It has some modifications, of course; he has installed the AI named Kitt from Knight Rider, and attached Ghostbuster stickers to its exterior. These are the kind of rather uninspired details that render the nostalgia elements predictable. And in a novel that relies so heavily on pop culture trivia to bolster its plot and explain the motivations of its subjects, this is a major pitfall.
ideas that are at once recogniseable in their relation to our recent past and present, and compelling in their foresight into our not-so-distant future
The expected teen romance in the story thankfully doesn’t fall into the trap of creating a generic Mary-Sue as the protagonist’s love interest, Art3mis. However, it still doesn’t really offer anything new in this area. It makes some attempts to represent Art3mis as a strong female heroine who is capable and initially determined to work independently. But this is undermined by her actual function within the story: she provides someone for Wade to gush over. It’s not bad, but it’s not all that good either. The plot twists and subsequent reveals are also often obvious, meaning that the build of tension and culmination of interesting fantasy elements sometimes come to nothing upon execution. Given how simple it turns out to be, it seems impossible that it took five years before anyone was able to find the first key to the Easter Egg – particularly as the clue for it was within the “most scrutinized video in history”. I just didn’t buy the idea that a 17 year old boy with limited privilege and access should have been the one to crack it in the end. But perhaps to a teenage audience who wants very much to invest in the individual power and agency of one young person, all of these things can be overlooked.
While not always perfectly executed, Ready Player One contains ideas that are at once recogniseable in their relation to our recent past and present, and compelling in their foresight into our not-so-distant future. These links to our own reality lend a sense of importance to the writing that makes it unsurprisingly popular with a younger audience not already well-versed in these issues. If nothing else, this novel is a spectacle, and provides an entertaining romp through a multi-layered fantasy world.