Book ’em, Nerd-O: Ready Player One

During Peder’s and my trip to AcadeCon last month, we spent a lot of time in the car, driving through the largely uninspiring landscape that is the Midwest. And while we filled some of that time with talking, we filled a lot of it by listening to the audiobook version of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, read by Wil Wheaton. We’d both heard a lot of great things about the audiobook (the fact that it’s read by Wheaton would have been reason enough to interest us, to be honest), and we’d been wanting to listen it one for a long time — and if there’s a more apropos time to listen to a sci-fi novel set mostly in Ohio than a road trip to a nerdy convention in…Ohio, I have yet to think of it.

I didn’t know a ton about this novel before reading it, beyond the fact that it was near-future sci-fi, and that you can’t go more than a couple of sentences without hitting an 80s reference. What I didn’t know, however, was that this story takes the concept of virtual reality technology to its logical conclusion in a really satisfying and unique way, and that it, like so many sci-fi novels, is eerily prescient in terms of the ideas it deals with.

Image: Crown Publishing

Ready Player One is set in the year 2045, and centers around a young man by the name of Wade Watts (so named because his father thought it sounded like a superhero’s alter-ego). Born into a world where poverty, drudgery, and misery are the prevailing winds (for his family even more than most), Wade escapes his harsh reality the way everyone around him does — by spending most of his waking hours logged in to the virtual reality platform known as the Oasis. When Wade was about 15, the mastermind behind the Oasis, James Halliday, passed away — but not before leaving a video clue letting the world know that he’d hidden an extremely hard-to-find easter egg somewhere in the Oasis. The first to find that egg, he tells them, will become the heir to his multibillion-dollar fortune, and will gain ultimate control over the Oasis itself. For Wade, who came from nothing, this chance at untold wealth is irresistible. So he joins the legions of others like himself in the search for the egg, under the guise of his Oasis avatar, Parzival. He learns every possible detail about Halliday’s life and absorbs as much of the 80s content Halliday so dearly loved as he can possibly stuff into his brain, in hopes of finding the secret that will unlock the series of gates that will finally lead him to the ultimate prize.

I have to admit — as this book began, I soon started to doubt all the hype I’d heard about the story. And let me tell you, there had been a lot (which may have been part of the problem). The book begins with infodump — a lot of infodump. Like, we’re talking most of the first six chapters’ worth. There were stretches where it was so tedious it was almost physically painful (hyperbole, you say? Just barely, trust me) — this was somewhat by virtue of the fact that, when listening to the story via audiobook, we weren’t able to just skim over the lists upon lists of information Wade offers when describing what, among Halliday’s repertoire, he has studied. But regardless, it felt excessive to say the least.

Thankfully, the infodump mostly subsided after the first few chapters, and that’s when things really got going. Once the setup has passed, the pacing takes off, and it doesn’t let up until the end. As you go along, it’s hard not to find Wade’s/Parzival’s obsession with all things Halliday/1980s to be infectious, and as the tension mounts, all you want to do is keep reading (or listening, in our case) to find out what’s going to happen next. Wade makes a lot of realistic decisions, both in-game and out — he’s almost preternaturally smart, to be sure, but it’s sometimes his downfall, and when he becomes too confident in his abilities and in his (staggeringly vast) knowledge of 80s canon, he’s often confronted with his humanness, as that last key bit of knowledge or foresight eludes him, and something just barely slips through his grasp (whether it be the latest clue, something happening in the real world, or one of his few but important relationships). It’s these moments that make the story both believable and compelling, and make us root for Wade/Parzival as he fights to win the prize against all odds.

One of the main things that stood out to me about this story (aside from the infodump) is how cinematic it feels. Part of this was due to listening to the story on audiobook, but a lot of it was because of Cline’s way with words. No matter what was happening in the story, I felt like I could visualize everything, vividly and easily, every step of the way. Strangely enough, it’s this aspect combined with the infodump portions that lead me to believe that the movie adaptation of the book (due out in March 2018), is going to be amazing. In fact, I think there’s a chance it could even better than the book itself. And book purist that I am, I can assure you that I don’t say such a thing lightly. My prediction is that the movie version will be able to quickly show many of the aspects of the story that the book took so much time to explain, just by virtue of being a different medium. And along with that, since the story has such a visual quality even in book form, I think it’s going to be dynamite when it’s translated to the screen. And the trailers we’ve seen so far have done nothing to diminish either of these notions, in my mind. Suffice it to say, I have high hopes for the movie, and I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

The other aspect that makes this story successful, as I see it, was its ability to look into the future with a keen eye — or at least one version of the future. The world of RPO has fallen into disrepair and decrepitude, mostly because everyone is so caught up in virtual society that they can’t be bothered to maintain the real one. Everything is run by corporations (most of them evil), and the number one concern on everyone’s mind is the next time they can log in to the Oasis, real-world responsibilities be damned. As I mentioned, this is taking the idea of addictive technology to its logical conclusion, and this naturally introduces some elements that feel pretty farfetched. Nevertheless, when our own world is seeing technology encroach into our lives to exponential degrees, the very concept of RPO feels like a wakeup call. Like similar cautionary tales in the world of sci-fi, it’s hard not to see it as a sign that we’re at a crossroads, and that how we move forward from here will determine whether our world starts to look more and more like Wade’s.

Overall, despite the pitfalls along the way, I found Ready Player One to be a satisfying, exhilarating read. As I mentioned, once things start moving with this story, they don’t stop, and the heights and depths to which the story takes the reader are well worth the wait. I’d recommend this book to any sci-fi fan, 80s afficionado, or pop-culture geek. After powering through the rough beginning, I found the payoff to be as good as I hoped, and if this book sounds up your alley, I think you will, too.

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