Friday, February 13, 2015

Book Report 52 Project: Ready Player One

For a while now, I’ve had a dedicated, awesome friend who has taken an interest in what I was reading. I’d tell him, “I really want to finish the Matched Trilogy.” He’d then respond with, “You should probably read Ready Player One.” I’d promptly forget about the book, then tell him about this fabulous new Neil Gaiman book I was reading, and he’d very nicely remind me about Ready Player One. Eventually, as I ignored him and this book, it became less of a friendly reminder about the book and eventually became a threat that if I didn’t read it soon, he was going to strap me into one of those Clockwork Orange Style Machines and shove it under my eyes.

So, Steve... I finally Read Ready Player One.

Ready Player One by Robert Cline is the story of a dystopian future where, as dystopian futures tend to be, everything sucks. That’s putting it mildly. Unemployment is rampant, life is hard, the schools are terrible and everyone pretty much lives to eventually go into a virtual game world called OASIS. It’s a sprawling world that’s less game and more a lifestyle, including schools, sporting events, mini-games, and pretty much anything you might imagine. The creator of the OASIS is a 1980’s obsessed pop culture nerd named James Halliday that dies well before the story starts and leaves, in the game, a series of tasks and Easter Eggs. The person who finds these Easter Eggs will end up inheriting his entire fortune, which is believed to be something like all the money on Earth. I wasn’t 100% clear on it, but it’s a lot.

Our hero, Wade Watts, is a small town poor kid who plays under the name Parzival, but just barely as he can afford to go to school and that’s about it. He longs to join the ranks of the “Gunters”... people who hunt for the Easter Egg.. and studies up on James Halliday, hoping to find that clue. Eventually he finds the first egg, yadda yadda yadda, adventure ensues, with a ton of 1980’s pop culture references. 

Before I continue with this book report, I’d like to point out that at this point, I’ve finished about five books this year. One I read in two sittings, that was Into the Night, the first sitting took me through the slow beginning but once it picked up I couldn’t put it down. That was a quick read, though. Ready Player One isn’t as quick. It’s a pretty big book. I stayed up until 4 a.m. reading it, because I couldn’t put it down. So while I discuss some flaws with it, you have to know that I really enjoyed this book. Like a lot.

Damn it, Steve, when you’re right, you’re right.

While it’s a long book, Ready Player One does move very quickly, managing to pack in a lot of exposition in a short period of time, and without really being that intrusive. It helps that a lot of the references were familiar to this nerd, reading the book. I can understand why it would be a bit daunting to anyone who may not be familiar with them, but they get explained pretty easily and pretty amusingly. While it’s a great strength, a few times it can get bogged down with “hey... the 80’s were pretty awesome, weren’t they?”

I also really enjoyed the “bad guys” of the novel... a faceless corporation named Innovative Online Industries, trying to find the Easter Egg for their own nefarious means. But they added an interesting element to the novel. The OASIS is a large “playground” where pretty much anything can happen. Part of it is pretty monetized, poor Wade Watts can’t go too many places because he doesn’t have much money. But in the long run he still can enjoy parts of the game, either through school or with his friends, Aech (and later) Art3mis. But the idea that these guys want to take something and basically turn it into a cash grab, destroying the spirit of it... it adds a real element of danger to the story itself. 

There’s also a great little piece that in corporates the villains of the novel. Halliday loved the 80’s so he tried to re-create it, adding in little bits of trivia and challenges that force people to be familiar with his favorite things, be it Monty Python, old-school adventure games, John Hughes movies... but in studying these things, people would learn about and celebrate them. They had to love them in order to know about them. Cline obviously cares about them, so he ensures that his off-screen character so to speak, cares about it to. In a way it “forces” Wade and his friends and fellow gunters to love it, but at the same time they learn to enjoy it. It’s about sharing. Innovative Online, specifically Nolan Sorrento a high ranking official looking for the Easter Egg... he doesn’t learn to love it. He has hundreds of people feeing him information, studying just to try to find the egg, not learning to love the culture itself. It presents an interesting contrast. In one way, they all learn about the 80’s for one reason: money. Cold Hard Cash. A lot of it. In some ways, all of it. In another, one group learns to love it, have fun with their friends. It’s just “nice.” There’s no other word for it. Reminds me of when I used to hang out with my friends. More of what Halliday (and by extension, Cline) is trying to each.

The novel, however, is not without it’s flaws. As mentioned, there is a feel in some places that are basically “wow, the 80’s sure are cool!” And, while it happens later in the book, the 80’s gets replaced by “whatever science fiction or nerd culture stuff we can talk about now!” The protagonist gets a Serenity Firefly Class starship which is cool, but seems wildly out of place when we’re talking about Atari. And this is a small one, but has everyone in the 1980’s forgotten about Sierra On-Line and the height of Adventure Gaming like Space Quest, Quest for Glory, Kings Quest... these were great games and a precursor to what we see now, and would have easily fit into the 1980‘s version of the game. Some parts to tend to drag, and the ending is way too abrupt. 

But again, minor quibbles in the long run. The book itself moves at a deft pace, and in the end, is a nice reminder of a life a while ago before things got... complicated. I know that there’s a movie in the works, one I hope never gets made. Billions of dollars in licensing aside, they would never be able to capture what is so great about this novel. It’s set in a future, but manages to transport you into the past. It manages to make you look at the way things were when everything we take for granted now - specifically video games, just hanging out with your friends on a Friday night eating greasy pizza- were a staple of life. Just takes you back. A movie wouldn’t be able to do it the same way, or wouldn’t be able to capture it the same. 

All in all, I would recommend you read this book.

Thanks, Steve. 

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