Ernest Cline: “Ready Player One”

11/22/2011 § Leave a comment


In yesterday’s discussion of Bill Willingham’s novel Peter & Max, I made the argument that fiction is far from dead, given that a little creativity can so readily profit from our collective culture. Cline’s Ready Player One takes that a step further, imaginatively leaping into a future (2045) in which fuel shortages and gross income inequality (sound familiar?) have led the majority of the world to basically become hikikomori — that is, recluses who spend all of their time in the far better online world known as OASIS. Thanks to advances in haptic technology, virtual reality has evolved far beyond the limited interactivity found in Second Life and allows its netizens (there are elections, though they’re routinely won by Wil Wheaton) to code and relive just about anything. From a narrative standpoint, the thing to be relived is the pop culture of the ’80s, for after OASIS’s recluse designer James Halliday (a cross between Gary Gigax and Kevin Flynn) dies, he leaves behind all of his wealth to whoever can solve his final puzzle, modeled after the old Atari 2600 quest, Adventure. The game involves finding three keys and unlocking three gates, none of which can be solved without extensive knowledge of Halliday’s tastes in music (Rush’s epic concept album, 2112), video games (Joust, Zork, D&D), and movies (WarGames, Monty Python and the Holy Grail), just to sample a few cited in Anorak’s Almanac. 

The result plays out as a thrilling combination of the puzzles in The Westing Game, the wonder of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the world-building of Tad Williams’s Otherland quartet (though I’m sure other pop cultural combinations are equally valid: we’re all lower-level nerds compared to Cline), particularly since the protagonists — the first five people to get on the “scoreboard” — are young and idealistic people, clearly being groomed by Halliday to become his heirs. There’s plenty of action, too, thanks to the villains: a bunch of corporate tools from IOI (Innovative Online Industries), led by Sorrento (essentially the bad guy from Hackers), who are out to exploit a loophole in the contest and win control of Halliday’s fortune so that they can monetize OASIS itself.

It helps, too, that Cline, the sort of fanboy with enough talent to then make a film like Fanboys, knows exactly it takes to keep the pages flying forward. Exposition is handled with comic aplomb, and descriptions are studded with pop references, like a flying DeLorean with an artificially intelligent onboard computer named KITT with a Ghostbusters logo painted on each door, or a “large interplanetary trawler named the Kurosawa, modeled after a ship called the Bebop in the classic anime series Cowboy Bebop.” When your imagination is flying this freely, it’s hard to find a dull moment, even when Cline’s editors force him to clarify the meaning of PvP for any layman who wanders into this novel unprepared. (If you don’t think an intellectual debate on whether Ladyhawke or Ewoks: The Battle for Endor is the better film, you might want to stay away.) The only reason this isn’t in theaters already is because I imagine getting the rights to visual rights to characters from Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Blade Runner (to name a few) would probably be hellishly expensive. (Yet another strike against copyright laws.)

There are so many solid developments to cite, both from the real-world (stacked trailer-park homes are the new shantytowns, and indentured servitude is back) and OASIS (which earns its money from microtransactions involving teleportation fees, selling streaming feed for TV channels of the avatar’s ownership, and providing space for literal chat rooms that can be made to look like your beanbag-chair-strewn basement, or a recreation of the home from Family Ties) that I haven’t even gotten to the plot yet. The orphaned Wade Watts, eighteen, is an overweight loser who attends an online public school — until his avatar Parzival (named after the knight who finds the Holy Grail) becomes the best gunter (“egg hunters,” named after those who see Halliday’s prize, the ultimate Easter egg) in OASIS. At that point, his best and only friend, Aech, joins him on the Scoreboard for the contest, as do the girl he’s crushing on (through her blog), Art3mis, and two Japanese twins Daito and Shoto. Armed only with their extensive knowledge of Halliday’s childhood obsessions, the five of them end up in a race against each other to reach the egg, a task made more difficult once IOI begins cheating in OASIS and trying to kill them in the real world itself. Some of our heroes will fall in battle, and some will fall in love, and Cline’s only flaw in being such a big fanboy is that as the novel winds down and narrows its scope, a few of his twists become rather blatant. (Introducing a nuclear online artifact like the Catacylst is like setting up Chekhov’s Gun: you know it’s going to go off. Likewise, you know that the mysterious quarter our hero wins from getting a perfect game in Pac-Man is going to somehow come into play.)

For better (and rarely for worse), the thing that most of us have in common is the media that we’ve all seen, heard, read, or played; poets of the past wrote about nature, those of the future will write about silicon. And although the big ideas of Ready Player One may be limited mainly to speculation on the proper usage of future technologies — no great existential questions about the nature of identity here — those ideas are, for the time being, more than big enough to keep your eye-holes off the screen for several hours.



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