For those of you who don’t know this, I’m the kind of person who gets car sick fairly easily. Living in New York City, this isn’t such a big deal, since I can use public transit to get everywhere. I don’t actually even have a license, much less a car. But I have a lot of college friends who live in other parts of the country, places like Baltimore, DC, Philadelphia, or Boston, which you don’t usually fly to. Trains are my favorite mode of transportation, but they’re a bit expensive, so more recently I’ve been bussing around when I’ve had to travel. But how do you kill 2-4 hours on a bus ride when you can’t read or write for fear of puking all over your fellow passengers? Daydreaming? Music? Playing 20 Questions against yourself? The best answer I’ve found, other than sleep, is actually books on tape.
A friend of mine recommended Ready Player One to me awhile ago, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it. But, with a trip coming up, I decided to pick up the audio book, which is narrated by the incomparable Will Wheaton. He does a great job telling the story, keeping it engaging with his inflections and tone. Also, the story is pretty damn good. And by “pretty” I mean “really”.
For those who don’t know about, the basic jacket cover summary is that the story takes place in the 2040s in a dystopian future where almost everyone has a second life that they live in the OASIS, an MMO that has come to encompass a lot of aspects of society other than gaming. Our protagonist Wade Owen Watts, or Parzival, as he is known in the OASIS, goes to high school online in the simulator, as an example. The inventor of the OASIS, James Halliday, is an eccentric billionaire who grew up in the 1980s. When he passes away, he doesn’t have anyone to will his money to. So instead he creates a quest within the OASIS simulator. Anyone who can complete the quest will inherit his fortune and take control of his company Gregarious Simulation Systems, or GSS.
This is one of the better novels I have read in awhile, probably the best thing I have read since Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. There are a lot of things I could talk about, and I’m sure other reviewers have touched on many of them. For instance, I think this is pretty ingenious retelling of the hero’s journey…but that can really be said about a lot of books and movies. So I’m going to pick out a couple of things that occurred to me as I was reading the book or shortly after that hopefully you’ll find a little more interesting and helpful.
1.) Nostaglia without being Nostalgic:
As I was in the process of reading (or listening) to the story, it dawned on me how clever the whole setting is. To add a little more background, since Halliday was a teenager during the 80s, he was obsessed with 80s culture, movies, music, and particularly gaming. The quest for his fortune, or Halliday’s Easter Egg, as it is called in the novel, requires that the questers (who are known as egg hunters, or gunters) become as obsessed with 80s culture as Halliday was.
The author, Ernest Cline, could easily have set this story in the 1980s and made it a period piece that touched on a lot of details about the time. [Aside: isn’t is sad that trying to sell a story set in the 1980s or 1990s means that it will probably be marketed as a “period piece”? Le sigh]. Instead he invented a future where knowledge of the 1980s was incredibly important, creating a non-cheesy way for him to show off all of his 80s and gamer geekdom at once. This allows him to tell a story about a future dystopia, something that probably has a much broader appeal than a story about growing up in the 80s.
2.) An Apocalypse that isn’t Lazy:
There are a lot of ways to approach dystopian fiction, and some of them are incredibly imaginative. As you can probably judge by my blog’s title, I am a big fan of cyberpunk, which I think was a very imaginative sub-genre to be created in the 1980s, and also very influential for future generations of writers, including Cline. There are also a lot of dystopian/post-apocalyptic settings that I find to be somewhat “lazy”. There aren’t any new technological advances that the author has to think of in world building because everything has been destroyed, and so the human race is left wandering around in a techno-less hell. In particular, I think a lot of YA novels of this style fall into this trap. Now that isn’t to say that stories like these don’t have merit, but the depth of world building doesn’t have to be there in the same way, allowing the author not to think to hard about how things might develop in the future.
Ready Player One is set in a future that, in the saddest honesty, we might very well see. Much of the world is unemployed and lives on food vouchers handed out by the government. Gas is also something that is a scarcity, and so cities have become surrounded by “stacks”, which are suburbs basically created by stacked trailers that the owners can’t afford to fuel up anymore. Instead they have congregated into ever-growing communities outside the cities proper.
The OASIS has created a myriad of jobs that allow people to scrape by in this existence. Our narrator at one point holds a job as a customer service assistant for the MMO. He reveals early on that his mother also made money as a “sex worker” in the digital world. We see other professions in the OASIS as well, such as teachers who have to instruct Wade in high school. Alongside the employment opportunities presented, we also see the escapist opportunities created by an immersive internet provider in the way that Wade and many of his friends dedicate their lives to finding Halliday’s Egg and eschew the pain and reality of the real world. Though to be fair, there isn’t a lot going on outside the OASIS that’s pleasant.
Finally, Wade mentions more than once that he is born into a generation that has never known a world without the OASIS. Cline does a great job of exploring the implications of such a society and what people in that kind of generation might value and what their culture might be like.
3.) Social Commentary:
Tying into that last point, Cline also explores the social implications of what something like the OASIS can provide. On the one hand, we have the escapist, immersive quality of it, which, as the story hints at, can lead people to miss out on the pleasures of real life, even in a world as dystopian as the one portrayed in the novel.
But it also shows some of the possibilities and opportunities created by this sort of existence. Without going into too much detail (and therefore avoiding spoilers), a person who creates an avatar in the OASIS can make that avatar appear to be whatever he or she wants. Even in zones, like school zones, where someone has to use a “human” avatar, the avatar design is up to the player. With this sort of control over appearance, and the ability to use things like voice modifiers, a person can become whoever they want in the OASIS.
So that’s all the clue-in you get, but consider the implications of that sort of existence.
So, if you’re reading this review from the link on Goodreads, you’ll know that I can only rate this book up to 5 stars, instead of say 11. That being said, I highly recommend it. It is a really fun read. Wade Watts is an engaging character, and the world that he lives in is both terrifying and interesting. The story moves along at a great pace, and the quest is quite fun.
I will say that if you don’t know anything about nerd, gaming, or 80s culture, this book might not be quite as enjoyable for you. Cline does a good job of explaining the significance and history of different cultural or gaming icons, so that you’ll never miss anything in the story if you happen to be out of the loop. However, the references run continuously throughout the novel, and while I personally feel that they strongly add to the reading experience, I could see people who might find them tiresome, especially if they’re not “into the nerd thing”. In that case, my advice is to get into it. It’s awful fun.