Written by J.T. Johnson
ORIGINAL RELEASE DATE: August 16, 2011
AUTHOR: Ernest Cline
PUBLISHER: Random House
I first read “Ready Player One” about three years ago. I had received a copy from a Loot Crate box and didn’t know what to expect. I dove in and was hooked from the first page on. Recently, Steven Spielberg directed a film adaptation of the book that definitely takes its liberties but keeps the spirit of the book alive. With the new film, I figured that it was time to log back into the OASIS and revisit Ernest Cline’s pop culture tribute.
The book is set in a dystopian future where global warming, overpopulation and wars have taken their toll. People live in dismal settings such as the Stacks, cities built out of mobile homes that are literally stacked one on top of the other. In order to get away from such grim environments, most people on the planet log into the OASIS, a massive virtual reality where people go to school and live virtual lives and the virtual economy is the most stable on Earth.
The creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, passes away and after his death, a message plays across the entire digital world. As it turns out, Halliday hid an Easter egg somewhere in the simulation. All one has to do is find three keys and three gates and once all three gates are cleared, the person who won gets the egg and inherits Halliday’s entire fortune, his company and the OASIS itself.
Five years later, we join high school student Wade Watts in Oklahoma City. He lives in the aforementioned Stacks and escapes into the OASIS like everyone else. He is also a Gunter, someone who is constantly on the search for Halliday’s egg. In five years, no one has made any progress until Wade, as his avatar Parzival, discovers the first key.
This is when the novel turns into a race against time due to the evil machinations of Innovative Online Industries, referred to simply as IOI. This company has also been looking for the egg so that they can take control of the company behind the OASIS and do what they please with the simulation. They employ thousands of operatives, known as Sixers due to their six digit numbers that also acts as their avatar names.
Parzival is not really alone as he searches for the keys and the gates. He has his best friend Aech and he comes to know Art3mis and brothers Shoto and Daito once their names hit the Scoreboard after finding the first key. They become known to the world as the High Five, but they claim to work separately.
While this may be technically true, they really do end up working together more often than not. The book is a classic good vs. evil story and is about realizing that you need others more than you might think. It is also clearly inspired by other stories, with Cline himself mentioning that “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was one of his biggest influences while writing the novel.
The book is also noted for its numerous pop culture references. Halliday grew up during the 1980s and therefore, most of the clues deal with something from the decade. Various challenges include gaining a perfect score in “Pac-Man”, reenacting certain films such as “WarGames” and playing various video games in the virtual world. This is where Cline successfully connects with the reader’s nostalgia and I couldn’t wait to see what the next reference would be.
Thankfully, though, Cline doesn’t simply depend on the nostalgia factor. Yes, that is what hooks you at the beginning, but you soon begin to care about the world, both virtual and real, that these characters live in and you also want to cheer on Parzival and his friends as they race for the egg. The leader of the Sixers, Nolan Sorrento, is also the perfect villain. Not only is he a force to be reckoned with in the OASIS, but he is also a very real threat to the High Five in the real world and you hope desperately that he and the IOI will be defeated.
It is also inescapable to realize that the IOI is a comment on present day corporations, especially companies that actively work to monetize the internet. I’m looking at you AT&T, Comcast and Sudden Link.
Some people have complained that the book panders too much to those who love pop culture and they think the book depends too much on the references. Maybe they have a point, but I think that Cline wasn’t attempting to simply pander more than he just wanted to write a love letter to an era he grew up in. More importantly, though, I also think that there is a legitimately good story at the center of his pop culture tour de force that’s also worth checking out.