Book Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I always like to read a book that is being adapted into a film before I watch it because it is interesting for me to see how filmmakers adapt something from one medium to the next (also I like to snobbishly say “the book was better”). Books are probably the easiest thing to adapt, with video games being the hardest, and with Ready Player One by Ernest Cline inhabiting both mediums, Steven Spielberg has his work cut out for him in his adaptation of the book coming in 2018. Since 2018 is still a ways away, lets kill time while the game loads by reviewing the book.

Ready Player One is set in the dark future of 2044. The global energy crisis has wrecked both the economy and the environment. Crime is rampant and the government is next to useless since people only elect celebrities to be president (O dear God…). The only relief people can find is by logging into OASIS, an MMORPG/virtual society, that has replaced the Internet, public schools, Amazon and any form of entertainment you can think of.

Our hero is Wade Watts (known as “Parzival” in OASIS), a teenager from Oklahoma who lives in the stacks (towers of trailers stacked on top of each other). He is a “gunter” and spends all of his time looking for an “Easter Egg” hidden inside OASIS by its deceased creator, a genius computer programmer and 80s pop culture fan. Whoever finds the egg wins his entire fortune, including a controlling stock in the company that owns OASIS, which would make the winner the wealthiest and most powerful person on the planet. Years, however, have gone by since people learned of the egg and no one has come close to finding it…until a moment of daydreaming in school causes Wade to uncover the first clue.

Suddenly Wade finds himself thrust into the spotlight as people once again become obsessed with the hunt. On his journey, Wade will make new friends, find romance, cheat death, play a ton of classic video games and confront a ruthless corporation who will stop at nothing to find the egg for themselves and take control of OASIS…and you better believe there is an epic battle scene at the climax.

I hate to steal from a blurb on Ready Player One‘s cover, but USA Today really nailed it when they called the book “Willy Wonka meets The Matrix“. I certainly believe the contest to find the egg could only come from the warped mind of an uber-nerd with too much money and time on his hands. Plus the action scenes described in OASIS could put even the best bullet time fight scenes of the last couple decades to shame if done right. Plus, who wouldn’t want to watch the RX-78-2 Gundam take on Mechagodzilla?

O yeah, did I mention the nostalgia? If you are a fan of the 80s, Ready Player One is the book for you as it is full of references from that decade, along with bits and pieces of the 70s, 90s and beyond. Some of the references are pretty obvious (you get a Ghostbusters reference on the very first page), while others are pretty obscure, and I am sure there were some that I missed. Admittedly, being originally published in 2011 means that some references are a little dated. For example, when talking about Star Wars, Wade only mentions two trilogies, meaning that this is not a future where The Force Awakens exists.

Now the nostalgia factor is both Ready Player One‘s greatest strength…and weakness. On one hand it feels quite prophetic. Wade’s world has become highly nostalgic for the 80s because of the Easter Egg and the belief that only by absorbing that decade’s culture can you find the location of the egg. Thus the whole world is obsessed with 80s culture as well, and there are very few mentions, if any at all, of anything modern and new being created. I know in 2011 it seemed like nostalgia was king, but even in 2017 it doesn’t seem like anything can get made these days without some name recognition. While the jury is out on towering trailer parks, the idea of a future obsessed with the past instead of creating anything new is a present that we are all dealing with.

On the other hand, the shear amount of nostalgia in Ready Player One can be too much. A good friend of mine who read the book before me said he was put off by all the references…and I can’t say I blame him. Cline does seem to have crammed a lot of them in there and unless you are a pop culture junkie like me, it can become just useless words to get through before you can get to the meat of the story.

Look at it this way: Stranger Things on Netflix is an awesome example (in my humble opinion) of 80s nostalgia done right. The references are mostly in the background and while the show’s creators do borrow a lot from those old stories, it is mostly just their methods or formulas. You can watch Stranger Things and not know anything about ETGoonies or any Stephen King book…and still think its a great show. It becomes in many ways a historical drama (with dimension hopping monsters) rather than nostalgia bait. Ready Player One might be able to do the same thing, but the spectacle of all of the pop culture on display might be distracting rather than enjoyable for people unaware of where the references come from.

Granted I am sort of eaching for issues with Ready Player One because I honestly had a blast reading it. The characters were likable, the bad guys were despicable in the right sort of way and the world-building (both inside and outside OASIS) was fantastic. I could hardly put the book down and it was always a shame when I had to plug into the real world. It became my own personal OASIS during these last couple of weeks and if Spielberg can pull off his adaptation, he might actually make a “good” video game film…and all he had to do was adapt another book.

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