In his USA Today article published 21 August 2011, Don Oldenburg praised Ernest Cline’s debut novel Ready Player One as ‘Willy Wonka meets The Matrix‘. As strange and mismatched a comparison this first sounds, I actually think Oldenburg got it pretty bang on, with one glaring exception: if you’ve ever read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash the following will sound rather familiar to you…
Eighteen-year-old Wade Watts is your typical modern-day antisocial genius teenager. Having become painfully aware of the injustices of living in a modern world ruled by corporations where people live in slum-like compounds known as ‘the stacks’, Wade shuns reality in favour of a fully rendered virtual utopia known as the OASIS – kind of like a cross between the internet and an MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game).
Now here’s where things get interesting. The creator of the OASIS, one 1980s-obsessed James Halliday, hid an Easter Egg inside the game’s programming. Upon his death, he announces that whomever finds said Egg will inherit not only the OASIS, but also Halliday’s multi-billion dollar fortune (that’s the Willy Wonka part). Wade, like many other Egg hunters (or gunters as they are known in the novel) has completely devoted his miserable existence to immersing himself in the OASIS and the life and loves of James Halliday. Still, years go by with no success, and it becomes increasingly likely that Halliday may have taken the secret to his grave after all…
And then Wade stumbles upon the first clue.
As someone who grew up in the 90s rather than the 80s, I was a little bit apprehensive going into this book, thinking perhaps I wouldn’t get any of the in-jokes or understand all the references. I soon discovered however that these fears were completely unfounded, as the 1980s were actually a pretty pervasive era, and I actually know far more about them than I first thought. It helps that Ernest Cline doesn’t just stick to the 1980s, but also incorporates other milestones and phenomena of ‘geek’ culture – The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, The Matrix, World of Warcraft, Playstation, Xbox, blogging, vlogging, YouTube gaming etc. – to make the book feel more current. On top of that, Wade (i.e. Cline) was always there to hold my hand and explain some of the more obscure background details, or at the very least point me in the right direction of an appropriate internet search (I had particular fun looking up the intricacies of level 256 on Pacman – see right).
Whilst Ready Player One makes an attempt at high concept (like The Matrix) and social commentary (like Snow Crash), what it actually is is more of an excellent, rollicking soft sci-fi love letter to the history of video games, computer engineering and geek culture, with a dash of adventure, high stakes and romance thrown in for good measure. The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good and there are no grey areas in between. The main protagonist, Wade Watts, is pretty much the best at everything he does (I sincerely doubt the plausibility of some his claims to have watched/played/read so many films/games/books x amount of times), and whilst his supreme knowledge can sometimes come across as over the top and arrogant, the reader knows he is merely acting as a mouthpiece for the author’s own loves and obsessions to guide us through the story. The plot may be predictable, but it still manages to be engaging and thrilling, and whilst the writing is quite dense, it is very visual and easy to follow.
Essentially what I’m trying to say here is that there is nothing new in Ready Player One. It’s all been done before, but that’s the point. The aim of the book is not to intellectually challenge, but to thoroughly entertain, and to resonate with every nostalgic bone in your body. In this, it succeeds brilliantly.
For more information on Ernest Cline, please visit his official website:
Also, because I really do think the two books are very similar and because I absolutely love it, check out Neal Stephenson’s website and Snow Crash in the ‘Books’ section whilst you’re at it too: