Saturday, September 17, 2016

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

There's a magical formula you may have noticed. It's been going on all around you and has been for years. I call it "The Twenty Years Formula." That's how long it takes for things to become popular again, through the warm, pleasantly fuzzy lenses of nostalgia. When that happens, marketers, TV producers, and writers all sit up and take notice. That's when you start geting reboots, relaunches reproductions...and, of course, READY PLAYER ONE.

I think it's pretty obvious that I'm a nerd, so I'm not going to pretentiously reel off my "nerd cred." But READY PLAYER ONE was written for people like me, who were born in the 70s and 80s and grew up in the 80s and 90s, and who like nerdy, retro things. One of my favorite movies (Ladyhawke) and one of my favorite bands (The Alan Parsons Project) are mentioned in here, as well as a whole host of other things I really like.

When I'm describing READY PLAYER ONE to people, I tell them that it's a love story to the 80s with a big heaping dash of "Willy Wonka and the Video Game Factory." The story is set in the near future, in 2044. We're in pretty dire straits, with overcrowding and limited resources. An eccentric gamer named James Halliday created a place where people could take a break from their horrible reality, a fully immersive MMORPG called OASIS, which is completely free to use after you pay a simple 25-cent sign-up fee (bar any in-game purchases, of course).

One of the best things about this book is how OASIS is structured. Cline does a really great job of showing how appealing this world is. Poor Wade doesn't have any money of his own, so he spends all his time stuck on the noob world or the world where he goes to school, but plenty of third party developers have created code within the world for planets based on books, video games, and various other themes, where players can do anything from buy valuable items in-game to playerkilling to taking virtual tours of real or fictional places in an elaborate virtual landscape. Doesn't that sound amazing? I want to link in to OASIS. It sounds pretty freaking amazing.

But the game's creator eventually dies, and he isn't content to go quietly. In a viral video will, he announces that he's leaving his vast fortune, as well as the deed to OASIS itself, to anyone who can solve a series of incredibly complex puzzles, riddles, and games all revolving around 80s pop culture. At first, everyone goes crazy. People create clans to seek out the treasure in teams, and a nefarious government enterprise called IOI creates a division dedicated to finding the answers to the riddles themselves so they can privatize and monetize OASIS, forcing players to pay to stay.Years go by without a winner, however, and gradually the public loses interest as everyone assumes that Halliday was either mad or just trying to get a final laugh in at everyone else's expense.

And then, one day, Wade figures out the answer to the first riddle - and nothing is the same.

I read READY PLAYER ONE about four years ago, after checking it out from the library. I loved it so much, I bought my own copy and immediately read it again, this time paying more attention to all of the pop cultural references and looking up various facts, songs, or details that I found interesting. This is my third time reading the book, and I got to be more introspective this time, because I'm reading it for a book club, with people who are just now reading it for the first time, and I want to think about why READY PLAYER ONE resonated so strongly with me so I can explain that magic to everyone else. The book appeals to our nostalgic memories of childhood and our desire for wish fulfillment on a chillingly efficient level, to the point where it's really hard not to root for the main character or put yourself in his shoes. He wants his passions to make him special, and he wants a way to "check out" from the terrible things happening around him. Who doesn't relate to that?

I enjoyed READY PLAYER ONE almost as much as I did the first time, although this time, I did notice a few minor things that kind of annoyed me. Somehow, I didn't notice how selfish Wade was the first time around. When they're talking about what they plan on doing with their winnings, Art3mis says she wants to give a lot to charity, to help give food to people who have none. Wade seems incredulous at this, and when pushed, says that he supposes he'd charter a spaceship and create a new planet somewhere else. This struck me as a very selfish, defeatist way of thinking. I guess it makes sense that growing up in OASIS might make him very used to instant gratification, since planets are easily coded and terraforming isn't an issue at all, but it was still interesting. I found myself wondering if he would really squander all of his money away on a spaceship if he won. Personally, I think if you have more money than you could ever conceivably spend in a lifetime - such as the billions up for stake here - you have a social and moral obligation to give back to society. Certainly, that seems to have been James Halliday's intent here. He created a game that he could have charged anything for, and instead made it free, and then gave away all his money, too. It made me think of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the original one) when Willy Wonka gives Charlie that one final test to make sure he has the moral fiber, the character, that he desires for the person who continues his legacy. The lack of parallelism here was really striking in that regard, especially considering the many other similarities to Willy Wonka that were left intact here. We're shown how evil the IOI is with their capitalistic agenda and greed, but apathy can be just as cruel, and just as devastating to a society.

The other thing that bothered me was the ending. It felt anticlimactic. If you've read the book, I'm talking about that final scene when the outcome is revealed. I was expecting a huge standoff with the IOI, or at least with Nolan Sorrento. A kind of "gotcha!" at gunpoint moment.

Those two peeves aside, though, I really enjoyed READY PLAYER ONE. It's a great story, with decent characters, and a fascinating world that I could happily explore for hours. (Really, A Song of Ice and Fire has five books out and this is a standalone? I'll take OASIS over Westeros any day). I'd even go so far as to say that it's worth reading for the pop cultural references alone. It's a love story for the 80s and an ode to geeks everywhere. I relate to both those things, so of course, I adored it.

5 out of 5 stars.

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