Stop! We Are Good Times!
At least, we were. The eighties was a time of growth for the computer game industry. It was also a little tumultuous. Right at the birth of the industry, Atari refused to allow their game creators to stamp their name on whatever they produced. One particular programmer, Warren Robinett, decided that this wasn’t good enough, so he snuck his name into one of his games. You had to work to find it, but it was there for the taking assuming you knew what to do.
This was one of the first “Easter eggs” inside a game. Atari never knew that it was there until well after the fact and it was too late to recall the cartridges.
This idea – the idea of Easter eggs – is the basis for the whole of Ready, Player One, a book in which a game developer tycoon passes away and leaves instructions in his will that his vast fortune can only be inherited by whoever wins an egg hunt that uses riddles which lead to eighties movies and video games.
The story of the actual egg hunt is told by one Wade Watts, a young man who starts hunting for the egg after his mother passes away. [To those worrying, this isn’t particularly a spoiler. We get told right off the bat that Wade doesn’t live with his parents anymore and then informed about what happened shortly after.]
The world Wade inhabits is a wrecked Earth circa 2040. This version of our world isn’t great: we’ve basically depleted the fossil fuels we hold so dear and the economy has crashed, leaving it next to impossible to find a job. On top of all of this, global warming is a fact, not a “maybe.”
So, it’s not a great place to be growing up, but this particular Earth has one redeeming feature: The OASIS. This particular piece of software is what has subsumed the internet as we know it. Now, instead of building web pages and using a static, two dimensional browser to visit that site for it’s information or wares, you build an immersive 3D simulation of the concept.
Once the 3D simulation is built, you hop in using a pair of gloves and a visor which give haptic feedback. What this means is that if you touch something in the simulation, ie: some wood on a table, the gloves attempt to simulate the texture of that surface, transmitting it as vibrations or stimulations that run through your fingers and trick your brain into believing that you’ve actually touched a wooden surface.
The happy upshot of all of this is that the simulation is “nearly real,” but with limitless opportunities for non-real things to occur. Want your world to have no gravity? No problem. That’s a setting you change if you buy a piece of land. Want magic to be a real force in the world? Go ahead. Turn magic on and technology off.
This, in turn, leads to many, many worlds that can be visited, including – for example – World of Warcraft.
And all of this costs twenty five American cents. It’s “virtually free.” The company that runs this elaborate system only ever charges for transportation fees. If you – for example – never want to enter a gaming zone, you never have to. Just travel over to a shopping district or a party district, park your avatar [“you” in this simulation] wherever you want it to be and never worry about moving again.
Naturally, there are those who don’t like the way the OASIS is run – they don’t feel it’s making enough money, given the global reach it has This leads to a clash between the “egg hunters” seeking the egg for altruistic reasons [and to mostly keep the OASIS the way it is, now, media freedoms and everything intact] and IOI, a vast corporate bully that wants to bill you for everything you ever do within the system. [Sound familiar? ;)]
This particular feud – with Wade and the egg hunters on one side and IOI and its cheating thugs on the other is what drives the novel. Every time the good guys make positive strides toward finding the egg, the cheating Sixers [a group within IOI devoted to finding the egg so they can corporatize the simulation] steal that information by hook or by crook.
And this leads me to my only pair of real problems with Ready, Player One: the plot is fantastic, but the execution is a little flat. We’ve seen this story writ large throughout cyberpunk’s history: lone wolf with altruistic motives versus multinational with more money than they know what to do with. This particular part of the novel wore a bit thin for me. In a sense, I kind of wished that Ernest Cline – the author – built up someone inside the egg hunting community that was a bad apple, instead. [It comes close – there’s one character that’s a little like that, but he’s played for laughs.]
My second problem with this novel is the romance. While it “has reason” to exist, [it nudges the protagonist along on his own personal journey] it just derails the entire book. There’s a section in the middle which turns into a bottomless pit of teenage angst that – again – has reason to be there, but doesn’t “sit well” with the rather Spartan nature of Ernest Cline’s storytelling.
That’s the last thing I want to touch on, here. The writing is a little uneven. For the most part, Cline’s descriptions are pretty dry. “Here’s a book-case, and I’ll tell you a little about it” – there’s no flowery prose or anything that might distract the reader from what’s happening and that is sort of a shame. There’s such a great set-up here for description that it almost feels wasted. The bigger problem, though, is the dialogue. Some of it is quite cringe-worthy, but if you can navigate that, then Ready, Player One is a blast.
So, should you read this book? If you: grew up in the eighties, or know a lot about eighties geek culture, you will be amply rewarded for your time. There are lots of little nods to all kinds of media from that decade. It helps a lot to have played a good handful of the games Cline has mentioned as well, because apart from cursory explanations, he leaves you in the dark for those.
If you love video games and are willing to do a bit of research into the games, movies and music of the eighties, again, you will be well rewarded for your time. There’s a lot to soak up here that would give anyone interested in that decade a place to start.
But if you’re not into any of these things, then this book will probably just fall flat for you. Which is a shame, because it’s a mostly fun, harmless jaunt through a re-imagined internet.