I am so glad I started reading Science Fiction last year.
Wade Owen Watts lives in the stacks, the impoverished remains of a city in a destroyed North America, where RVs are stacked into apartment buildings. He’s an orphan, living with 15 other people in the trailer of his unloving aunt. Needless to say, his life sucks.
That is, except for the OASIS. An immersive simulation game, Wade can escape his terrible life by logging in as his avatar Parzival. He can avoid people, problems, and the real world by submerging into the gaming one—as does the rest of the world. His best friend, Aech, is only known to him through the OASIS, and his cyber crush, Art3mis, is an internet personality. Who needs the real world?
Then, James Halliday, the creator of the OASIS, dies, and leaves his fortunes and company up for grabs by installing a contest into the OASIS. He has hidden an Easter Egg, requiring contestants to find three keys and three gates in order to obtain it. Halliday, who is obsessed with 80s pop(geek)culture, has made the keys and gates only available through trials involving the era. As such, Wade, who is hoping to find the Egg, is also obsessed with 80s culture.
But Wade and his friends soon find out the that the hunt for the egg isn’t just a game. They aren’t just playing for the egg, they are playing for their lives.
The plot is actually pretty standard. It’s coming-of-age meets Willy Wonka meets 80s pop culture. It’s also standard quest narrative. It’s also a standard romance. And standard sci-fi undertones. And standard unredeemable bad guy. This makes the plot sound fairly bland, and in many ways, it sort of is. Some aspects seem fairly predictable, while others are implausible.
What makes the plot of Ready Player One stand out is that there’s an odd wrench thrown into it all—none of this is actually real, but the stakes are. How can nothing produce something worth killing over?
Well, that and the comedy and romance and utter 80s geek-ery of the story.
The key to the characters is that we are never sure of anyone except for Wade, our narrator. Art3mis, Aech, Daito, and Shoto are complete mysteries to us for a large amount of the story, despite the close relationships they appear to maintain. The problem with this twist is that the characters get very little time IRL, so there’s no time to make these conclusions myself.
So what do we know about them IRL? Honestly, they tend to fall into trope-ish categories, which I won’t mention here for spoilerific reasons, but as you read the book you’ll get the point.
The character interactions, when they occur, are definitely the shining star of this book. I’ve already gushed about what I have already deemed “Artz3val”, but Wade’s interactions with Aech, Shoto, Daito, and the antagonist Sorrento are also well written.
The OASIS is an amazing idea, though not the first of its kind. And for the most part, I like the description. The world building is extensive, trying to cram in as many references and their explanations, while still building a world and over-arching plot around the entire thing.
However, I have to say that Cline doesn’t have the best writing style. In his world building, he tends to infodump quite a bit, telling a lot more than showing. The best example of this is when Shoto is talking to Parzival about Daito, and instead of the two sharing dialogue, Wade summarizes what Shoto told him. This makes the book clunky and disjointed. Sure, there are no loose ends by the end of the novel, but by the time it’s picked up again, I forgot it was a loose end to begin with.
There’s also the strange issue of the 80s references. I don’t know much about the 80s, I just know the basics: The Breakfast Club, Atari, Monty Python, Back to the Future, Star Wars. The clues in the story are solved entirely with 80s pop culture, so while this makes the interpretations surprising to me, they also make the solutions anticlimactic. But this will vary from person to person.
The book deals heavily with the question if virtual reality is the same as real reality, and there are a lot of parallels to our use of social media now. Unfortunately, while it continues to ask these questions, it doesn’t give the reader or the characters much time to answer them. The answer is basically spoon-fed to Wade, and I’d rather he figure it out by himself. He was on his way there, if the book gave him more time.
I feel like the book doesn’t take itself seriously enough at some points, and it really should, because all the ideas are there, just not given enough time to play out.
I guess I should also mention the audiobook aspect. I loved Wil Wheaton’s narration. His voice takes on different tones for each characters, without going falsetto or sounding corny. His calm near monotone when he speaks as Daito or Shoto is very distinct, as is the free joking nature of Aech and the sarcastic tone of Art3mis.
I feel like this book has potential, a lot of potential, and it hasn’t quite reached it, since its buried beneath reference beneath trope beneath geekery.
Still, what saves this book is its interesting concepts and the character interactions, not necessarily the plot and the characters themselves. You could say that the concepts and interactions revamp these tropes. It’s these two things that kept me reading, and probably what will get me to read the book again.
Recommendation: Buy. Especially if you are a gaming nerd. You are going to want to own this book.