It’s unsettling reading your childhood in a novel. But for any geek who grew up in the ’80s, Ready Player One hits all the touchstones.
Actually, for anyone who grew up in the ’80s it hits close to home — John Hughes movies, Atari and In Your Eyes weren’t exclusively the purview of the socially awkward. But when Ernest Cline’s dystopian cyberpunk adventure started down the Dungeons & Dragons and 2112 paths, I knew I’d found a winner.
Ready Player One is set 30 years in the future, when global warming and persistent economic malaise has turned America into a polluted, overpopulated wreck. People live in “stacks”, trailer parks where the double-wides have been piled on top of each other, creating makeshift skyscrapers. Fossil fuels have run out, and transportation is prohibitively expensive.
But that doesn’t matter much, because everyone has access to the OASIS.
Designed by James Halliday, the OASIS is a virtual-reality MMO that serves as school, work and playground for the population of the world. An eccentric programmer with a love for all things ’80s and geeky, Halliday has infused the OASIS with more pop culture references than a VH1 program, leading to a sort-of revival of ’80s culture.
And when Halliday dies he sends a message to everyone in the OASIS — he has hidden an Easter Egg within the program, and whoever finds it will inherit his fortune.
And that’s the story, a Willy Wonka-esque journey through ’80s pop culture to find the hidden treasure buried amidst clues and puzzles derived from movies, video games and rock and roll. We follow Wade Watts, aka Parzifal, and his friends Aech and Art3mis as they use their encyclopedic knowledge of Matthew Broderick, Monty Python and Zork to beat the villainous Sixers, employees of a rival tech company looking to win the Egg Hunt and turn the OASIS into a for-profit game.
The plot is relatively straightforward. Wade goes from rags to riches, a poor orphan who uses his wits to become king. He grows up, gets the girl and defeats the enemy. There are a few twists and a couple bumps along the way, but there is never any doubt that Wade and his friends will ultimately triumph, even if it takes some heavy deus ex machina to make sure. And there is some heavy deus ex machina employed.
I also noticed that Halliday’s encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture ended around 2010, as if nothing worthwhile was created in the ensuing 30 years. But it’s not fair to condemn Cline for not worrying about future pop culture. That’s not the point.
And plot is not what makes Ready Player One such a joy.
No, the joy lies in Cline’s gleeful celebration of his youth and its icons, from John Cusack to Gary Gygax. I lived a lot of the activities celebrated in Ready Player One, from late-night D&D sessions to a Rush soundtrack to marathon arcade sessions playing Black Tiger.