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A fun Easter egg hunt, but not much more
on September 20, 2015
Ready Player One is Ernest Cline's debut novel, in which a kid has to beat a video game to save the world.
Now, granted, this is no ordinary video game. In the 2020's, immersive virtual reality finally takes off in the form of the OASIS. The OASIS is like a usual RPG, with avatars, quests, magic, monsters, and all that, but is also so much more—it has quickly become the world's dominant platform for economics, education, and leisure time. So many users spend so much time logged into the OASIS, for such a wide variety of reasons, that "real-world" economics, education, and leisure have nearly disappeared.
Before the eccentric creator of the OASIS died, he coded into the OASIS an elaborate and fiendishly difficult Easter egg hunt, with the top prize being full control of his multi-billion dollar company. For years, the leaderboards sat empty, until a high-school kid and egg hunter (or "gunter" for short) named Wade (avatar Parzival) finally cracks the first clue. Overnight, Parzival is an OASIS-wide celebrity, attracting interest from fellow gunters as well as the IOI, a multinational corporation dead-set on winning control of and exploiting the OASIS, even if it means murder.
Ready Player One has a unique style—following the theme of video game Easter eggs, the novel is packed with references to nerd culture of the 80's (which is itself the theme of the hunt). Maybe I'm just 20 years too young, but the rapidity with which Cline fires off these references grows quite tiresome. I understand most of the references, but I just can't appreciate them with any sense of nostalgia. Cline often seems to over-indulge in obscure trivia, like the fact that the iconic line "My God, it's full of stars" was not from the original 2001: A Space Odyssey, but from its lesser-known sequel (okay, I did appreciate that one, but you get what I mean).
Another complaint is that the bad guys are so obviously bad—IOI is a stereotypical giant evil fascist corporate empire corrupt enough to cheat and even murder in order to monetize the OASIS; its employees' avatars are all hulking male drones distinguishable only by their employee number, and so on. It's just too simple to be interesting in and of itself.
One thing I picked up on is that while Cline obviously has the 80s nerd cred, he doesn't really seem to understand computers. It costs OASIS users money to transfer to a new world but people can just copy and paste source code to build a school for free. Somehow that doesn't add up. Moreover, Cline repeatedly describes OASIS as open source, but apparently nobody thought to comb through the source code to find the Easter eggs.
Some of the prose is terribly bad, especially when Wade waxes on about how much smarter he is than all his teachers. This aside, I do have to give Cline credit for my favourite scene in the novel, where a virtual negotiation between Wade and IOI rapidly turns into a tense hostage situation in physical space.
All in all, I'm not particularly surprised with the quality of Ready Player One. For a book about video games, it does indeed read like a video game in print. In that way, it's fun, but doesn't have many other redeeming qualities. Three stars.