Ready Player One – Ernest Cline
I have to admit that I would not have picked up this YA novel to read, optionally. It was set as homework for me by one of my students, at school. While I’m not sure I think it was, ‘completely fricking awesome,’ (Patrick Rothfuss) and I admit that I don’t know if it is ‘pure geek heaven,’ (Chris Farnsworth) or not, and I am usually suspicious of any novel that uses three pages to quote recommendations for the book in its beginning (less is more, in my opinion) I found this a very readable, engaging 4/5 star novel.
If you’re not drawn in by the futuristic real and virtual world (the teenager), then you are likely to be hooked in by the 80’s references (the parent). Basically, the novel is set in 2044. Things in the real world are pretty bad, what with there being no oil, weird climactic conditions, over population and terrible extremes of poverty and wealth. Most people choose to spend most of their time in a virtual world called OASIS, developed by James Halliday. When Halliday, who becomes super wealthy, dies, he has no heirs. The book begins…
‘Everyone my age remembers where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about the contest. I was sitting in my hideout watching cartoons when the news bulletin broke in on my video feed, announcing that James Halliday had died during the night.’
Of course, with no heirs, who will inherit the huge dynasty, virtual and real, that he has built? Inevitably, he sets a challenge, a quest, ensuring the winner will be someone truly worthy of his fortune, and suitably qualified to manage his world. The quest is presented through a video message, ‘actually a meticulously* constructed short film titled Anorak’s Invitation’ (Anorak being Halliday’s Avatar). As an aside, I can’t help but think that Anorak is a slightly unfortunate name for a socially reclusive computer geek – worrying, even. But this classic quest is worthy of a Greek Legend.
“before I died,” Anorak says, speaking in a much deeper voice, ‘I created my own Easter egg, and hid it somewhere inside my most popular videogame – the OASIS. The first person to find my Easter egg will inherit my entire fortune.’
Another dramatic pause.
‘The Egg is well hidden. I didn’t just leave it lying under a rock somewhere. I suppose you could say it’s locked inside a safe that is buried in a secret room that lies hidden at the centre of a maze located somewhere” he reaches up to tap his right temple – ‘up here.’
‘But don’t worry. I’ve left a few clues lying around to get everybody started. And here’s the first one.’ Anorak makes a grand gesture with his right hand, and three keys appear, spinning slowly in the air in front of him. They appear to be made of copper, jade, and clear crystal. As the keys continue to spin, Anorak recites a piece of verse, and as he speaks each line, it appears briefly in flaming subtitles across the bottom of the screen:
Three hidden keys open three secret gates
Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits
And those with the skill to survive these straits
Will reach the end where the prize awaits.
Five years go by, and none are able to crack the bad poetry – I mean – super clever code! Enter Wade Watts, poor orphan neglected by his evil stepmother – I mean – drug addled, mean-as aunt, having to make his own way in the world. Wade Watts navigates the straits with the kind of light bulb moments his name suggests. Talk about the anti-hero. Wade Watts is an overweight, super geeky, social recluse who deals with his life by withdrawing almost permanently into the virtual world Halliday created, becoming a ‘gunter’ (geeky Easter egg hunter). With all the time he has on his hands, Wade becomes an expert on the 1980’s and Halliday.
Miraculously (Yes – I do have a slightly raised eyebrow here):
‘on the evening of February 11, 2045, an avatar’s name appeared at the top of the Scoreboard, for the whole world to see. After five long years, the Copper key had finally been found, by an eighteen-year-old kid living in a trailer park on the outskirts of Oklahoma City.
That kid was me.
Dozens of books, cartoons, movies, and miniseries have attempted to tell the story of everything that happened next, but every single one of them got it wrong. So I want to set the record straight, once and for all.’
I’m no technology geek. I have two teenage sons for that. But, I was completely engrossed in most of this story. The plot is complex. I love a mystery – and the clues (if not the verse) got better. It was possible to work things out – especially if you lived through the 1980’s. I remember when the Commodore 64 was flash. We had a machine we plugged into the TV and I remember coding in Basic for hours to watch dots move across the screen, using IF/THEN to make things a little more exciting. So, this book was fun to read from that perspective.
But it also has all of the necessary elements for any great quest – the under dog/pauper seeking a fortune and perchance a princess, the arch nemesis and his army (in the form of Sorrento and the Sixers), success, defeat, Monty Python, The Tempest, Castles, Sir Lancelot and more. It’s almost as though the author wrote down everything he knew, and somehow incorporated it into the novel. By the way – Ernest Cline – the name is a worthy pseudonym, and I suspect he is an avatar…really…an earnest geek, a cline… (a continuum with an infinite number of gradations from one extreme to the other)…Visit his very cool website here: http://www.ernestcline.com/blog/about/
There were moments when the plot had too many easy answers. There were moments when it was just a bit too geeky for me. There were moments when I was confused by the sheer amount of information I was given. However, this really is a good book. A serious 4/5 stars for me. I recommend it. Even if there are parts you read once over lightly – a bit like a technical manual, there are other moments you will connect with and take delight in. You might even go and watch an 80’s film or two, and reminisce.
Age group: 13+ (complex)
* meticulous may be a slightly over used adjective, in spirit if not in actual word, in this novel.