by Ernest Cline
345 pages, Arrow
(This review is of the audio version, read by Wil Wheaton. Yes, that one)
Review by Pat Black
Ready Player One. This is the dream we all dream of.
The phone goes: it’s Spielberg. You assume it’s a joke, a prank played by your pals. But after some pre-watershed-sitcom misunderstandings in which he chuckles at your growing consternation, you find out that no, it’s actually Spielberg.
He wants to adapt your book into a movie. Shall we draw up some paperwork? Sign here to become a total winner. Your official title is now Sir Victor de Jacquepotte. No, don’t bother going back to work on Monday. We’ll send a limo round to collect your P45.
This actually happened to Ernest Cline with Ready Player One. It’ll be a movie soon, directed by the most famous film-maker who ever lived. Ooh, you jammy bugger. Talk about finding the Grail.
Set in 2044, the novel tells the story of a teenage shut-in called Wade Watts who spends his spare time in a fully-immersive virtual reality world called the Oasis. Provided you’ve got the equipment, the Oasis is free to access. You can go to school in it, play games in it, “interact” with others in it, and do pretty much whatever you want in it, across countless virtual galaxies, in any realistic or fantasy setting you could wish for. You can create worlds; you can fight people; you can make love. You can hunt dragons, complete quests, direct space battles, become a kung fu master or a sports hero – anything you like, any way you like it. It even has a pseudo economy, a virtual currency system using experience points – basically a personal scoreboard after you complete games, pick up artefacts, pass exams, or whatever.
You control your 3D avatar with haptic gloves and visors. Some sensory information is added to whatever you can see, depending on how up-to-date your set-up is.
All of this happens while you are sat in your house, oblivious to the real world.
The inventor of the Oasis is a tech geek/punk baron called James Halliday, a composite of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and that guy who wrote Chuckie Egg. When Halliday dies, a great game begins – the search for the ultimate Easter egg, hidden somewhere in the Oasis, which will grant the finder Halliday’s entire fortune – hundreds of billions of dollars.
People who look for the Egg are called Gunters. These are the amateurs, and there are millions of them. But with all that lolly on offer, you can bet that corporate interests start getting involved. These are represented by the boo-hiss baddies of IOI industries, a tech firm with designs on control of the Oasis, monetising it, and doing all that bad old capitalist stuff.
People flock to the Oasis because the real world is shit. Cline posits a future where the Great Recession never ended. As time ticks on, this moves from an outrageous prospect to prescience. This is a vision of the western world in irrevocable decline. The environment is a nightmare, junk food is a normal diet, public services are almost non-existent, crime is endemic and… let’s just stick a big “dystopia” label on it.
Wade – who calls himself Parzival in the Oasis, a nod to his Arthurian quest for Halliday’s Egg – has one friend in the virtual world, a fellow 1980s geek and video game nerd called Aech (pronounced as the letter H), who you can be certain is not what they seem.
Parzival is obsessed with pop culture from the decade that Halliday became a teenager and got interested in computing. As a result of painstaking research, Wade/Parzival succeeds where millions of others have failed over the years, and uncovers a clue which will help him find one of three keys which he needs to claim the Egg.
Along with Aech, Parzival teams up with other virtual partners, including the geek Dream Girl trope, Art3mis, as well as two Japanese brothers, Daito and Shoto. With the villainous IOI agents taking a murderous interest in his activities, a classic treasure hunt is on.
This involves solving riddles and playing classic video games such as Joust and Pac-Man, but also includes Dungeons and Dragons modules, the back catalogue of Rush, the movie War Games, primeval text-based eight-bit adventure games, and many other pre-internet geeky touchstones.
I had a wee problem with this.
One thing which must exasperate authors is when readers hit them with criticism that boils down to: You didn’t write the novel I was expecting. Why didn’t you write your book like this (inserts own idea)?
I can’t avoid this with Ready Player One.
When I was a kid, one of my favourite comic strips was The Computer Warrior. It appeared in The Eagle, and came out during the Triassic era of British home computing in 1985. It has more than a hint of Tron about it, but if Edgar Wright ever wanted to adapt a British comic book property, The Computer Warrior is a perfect fit.
In it, a kid gets sucked into a virtual realm through his Commodore 64-type machine. Here, computer games become reality – you fight for real. If you lose, you are sent to The Nightmare Zone.
This is where his best mate ended up; so the kid has to complete several computer games in order to win his friend’s freedom. To begin with, the games were fictional, generic Space Invader-type battles. Then someone hit upon the idea of using real-world computer games as a promotional tie-in. So the Computer Warrior played Wizard of Wor, Gauntlet, Pastfinder, Desert Fox, Side Arms and many other now-classic, sometimes forgotten games, before completing his quest. The strip was a big success, and ran for a whopping nine years, right up until Eagle closed.
I expected Ready Player One would be something like The Computer Warrior. It isn’t.
During key moments, when Parzival has to play classic games in order to find one of the keys or clear the gates for the next stage, I thought we’d have a description of someone playing a real-world version of these digital relics. The thoughts and feelings of Pac-Man, as he chomps his way around the maze, avoiding ghosts; now that’s something I’d want to read.
But you don’t get anything like this – you read about a kid standing in front of a games cabinet, mashing buttons and hunting for quarters in his pockets. It’s not quite the same, nor is it anywhere near as exciting.
Why didn’t you write your novel this way?
I know, I know.
The treasure hunt parts were fun, although the increasingly smug, high-five eighties geek lore references did get on my wick. I’m not saying I was the cool kid at school or anything but there’s something horrendously lame about this kind of behaviour.
So we get lots of references to video games, movies, TV shows and board games - most you’ll get, some you won’t. (One big thing that was missing, for me, was adventure gamebooks – the Fighting Fantasy/roll a dice games, or good old Choose Your Own Adventure.) These things have a currency in their own right, as the geeks compete either consciously or unconsciously, testing themselves to see who has the most knowledge of digital arcana, fully referenced, sourced, dated, accredited and annotated. You wonder if scientists do the same thing; or academics; or cloistered monks a thousand years ago, poring over illuminated manuscripts.
Away from the trivia, there are some very serious points to be made in Ready Player One, and it is here that the book works best.
For a start, this book has lots to say about a life lived online. At one point Wade comes right out and says it: I’m a fat, pimply recluse. A shut-in. A loser. The only reason he isn’t in his mom’s basement is because mom’s long dead.
The book’s best part is when Wade is made a legalised slave for IOI industries. He works in tech support, and hates it. His stinging comments to mouth-breathing Oasis users are filtered out automatically by AI, and his very tone of voice is modulated so as not to offend. There’s a delicious cynicism in these parts; the revenge of patronised IT workers the world over.
Cline explores the idea that, in the future, having accrued astounding levels of personal debt, young people will become indentured to big companies. Wade is given enough food and shelter to exist on, with the dangled carrot of “paying off” his dues through work, which he never will.
The book is excellent during these parts. It was almost disappointing to jump out of Wade’s real world and back into Parzival’s digital grail quest. In these sections, Ready Player One was exceptional.
Cline also warns us about the perils of meeting people online. Now I have met people online and am happy to say I’m friends with them, despite never having met them face-to-face. But when you cross the boundary into love, romance, or just plain old sex, Problems Can Occur. I know folk who have met partners online, either through dating sites or shared interest forums, and I say to them: well played. There’s good sense in filtering out personality elements or interests in a potential mate which clash with your own. But you still have that messy, awkward, social interaction thing to do in real life, with all its blemished wonders.
Sex will be a key driver of virtual reality, as it has been in lots of entertainment technology (John Waters’ infamous quote about the real reason VHS was invented springs to mind). To his great credit, Cline goes there, outlining exactly what a computer geek shut-in like Wade will do for teenage kicks in this wild digital frontier. Have you seen those weird lifelike Japanese dolls? They’re targeted right at the Otaku, you can count on it. This stuff is moving faster than Chuck Palahniuk can imagine it. People are doing this right now.
There is another moment where Cline pulls the rug out from under us, when it seems Parzival and Art3mis are going to fulfil the story’s romantic requirements at a virtual nightclub in the Oasis. It’s almost a John Hughes or Cameron Crowe movie moment, complete with soaring pop music epiphany… almost… Until Art3mis brutally rips the needle off the record.
This scene was the best in the book. It was a necessary collision between unbridled fantasy and harsh reality. These things happen to most folk in teenage life, regardless of technology, but it will be food for thought for anyone who is enthused about all the distractions and controversies virtual reality is bound to bring. The most basic of which is: none of it is real.
If you scoff at the idea of people spending their lives plugged into machinery and experiencing nothing of the world outside, you should consider how computers are already an indispensable part of our existence. Your working day; your shopping; your aimless babble on Twitter, your herd mentality likes and shares; the commercial-break reality you serve up for friends and relatives on Facebook; the porn you climax to; the book reviews you read. At the risk of donning a full Chicken Little outfit, there are surely grave dangers in making our online existence even more immersive than it already is.
Whiny nerd voice: Why on earth didn’t you finish this novel with the words Player Two Has Entered The Game?
Now, I’m off for a run in the sunshine. Time for fresh air and exercise.
During my run I will listen to music on headphones, to help me forget the pain, the tiredness, the sweat, and the tedium. Later on, I’ll write some fiction, in the hope of one day taking people’s attention away from what’s really happening in their lives.
Maybe one day I’ll get my own call from Spielberg - who knows? Then people can sit down in a darkened room and see my fantasies projected onto a screen for a couple of hours, lost in a world of their own.
Reality can be over-rated.