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Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

review published on February 5, 2014. Reviewed by Mark Dolphin

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

Ready Player One comes with an impressive resume of accolades for a debut sci-fi novel. It made my purchase a no-brainer as I was looking to lose myself in something immersive for a few days and that would appeal to my inner geek. Perhaps above all else, it’s an easy and fun read, and I sped through this in a week.

Taking some inspiration from movies like The Lawnmower Man and The Matrix as well as a rich sci-fi heritage, Ready Player One is set across two realities. The dystopian future earth, established in a slightly clunky chapter of exposition, and only occasionally glimpsed through the occasional forays of our narrator Wade, has gone to pot: the US is a landscape of mass destitution, lawless country, slum towns and indentured corporate servitude governed with minimal legislation. It’s a bleak prospect, and more so for having no apocalyptic catalyst: it seems the world has just peaked and now is troughing rather badly.

In this bleak existence the new opiate to the masses is the OASIS. This is World of Warcraft, The Old Republic and Second Life taken to their logical conclusions: an open-world, virtual land where avatars school, work, travel, marry and, at the heart of the novel, quest for treasures. While anything could be rendered straight onto the user’s retinas, somewhat conspicuously the vast swathes of the OASIS that we are concerned with are dedicated to the 1980s, a product of the obsessions of the creator of the universe, and by necessity our crew of heroes. Even as a child of the 80’s I don’t think I caught every reference but I did take a nostalgia trip through 1980’s penny arcades like Pacman and Joust, the Wargames movie, 80’s music, TV and more. Despite the author’s immaculate research (expect to learn more than you ever dreamed of the ancient text adventure Zork for example) it can feel a little self-indulgent, and it started to wear me down toward the end. Just because you can imagine a world populated with millions of identical buildings from Blade Runner doesn’t necessarily mean you should, nor will it be massively entertaining.

More interesting, but not really explored, is the modification to human nature by this brave new world. I’m not entirely sure whether Wade and his friends’ disregard for the real world is characterisation or the preference of the author, but the majority of the novel is spent logged into the virtual OASIS, sometimes with characters literally barricaded in their homes. This does present the main characters as somewhat detached and cold too – at the start of the book Wade has never actually met his “best friend” and knows nothing of them in reality. Two “brothers” in the virtual world have similarly never been really acquainted, and when one offers an invite to do so to the other, he is angrily shouted down. This lack of maturity is highlighted notably in Wade’s apparent failure to be traumatised by the death of his family and real world friend early on – the death of a fellow “Gunter” has much more of an effect.

My main criticism would be that it’s all too easy though: Wade is only on the backfoot perhaps twice in the whole story, and even then set-backs are temporary and easily overcome. The level of peril is perhaps more suitable then for a teenage or younger reader, which seems to jar with the marketing as an adult novel (the writing too seems a little child-orientated with plenty of show and then tell, rather than crediting the reader to make logical conclusions) and the representation of an era thirty years in the past. Perhaps I’ve read too many of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire series, but I wanted to see the characters suffer a little more, or even face some prolonged real danger. Even the prospect of virtual death represents just a set-back in the big scheme of things, as Avatars are reborn – although the novel recognises that in doing so, for them the plot quest is effectively over.

Perhaps related to the lack of jeopardy is the endless potential for deus ex machina that the virtual world provides, meaning that problems are solved rather too conveniently: when trying to approach a planet surrounded by a large and hostile Sixer armada, Wade/Parzival conveniently remembers he has a teleportation device to bypass the fleet, while his own ship cloaks itself and then flies down the surface undetected. Phew. Although it would be unfair to say every solution is similarly pulled out of the virtual air, there is often an artefact (essentially a piece of magic) to save the day – although Parzival’s real world sabotage is well-executed (but again, pulled off ridiculously easily).

Of course, suspension of disbelief may be stretched somewhat in such a laissez-faire environment but the mechanics of the world don’t seem to bear scrutiny: credits, as in current MMORPGs, have a transferable real-life currency value and some services such as interplanetary travel are restricted to those that can afford it – yet the OASIS is supposed to be inclusive in the real world with immersion rig interfaces made freely available, and free schooling for children. This economy is then undercut anyway by the reward of credits for finishing (essentially meaningless) quests within the game, making Wade/Parzival instantly rich in virtual and real world standards.

The motivations of characters can be similarly contradictory – much is made of the importance identity security within the OASIS and the plot quest is motivated to prevent an evil corporation from privatising the OASIS, yet the creators have unlimited access and the ability to spy on any character, circumventing legislated privacy mechanisms and abusing the system in the exact way they (presumably) worked to avoid.

Perhaps I was overthinking it. On the plus side, the uniform masses of the Sixers are a pleasingly anonymous worthy set of goons (who flicker and disappear when killed in true video game fashion), and the large-scale showdowns and wars are entertaining free-for-alls of wizards, space pirates, giant robots and gamer clans all pitching in gleefully with auto-refilling pistols, vorpal blades, gleaming armour, flight-giving shoes and transmogrification devices.

The ending suggests the possibility of a sequel (or two), and it will be interesting to see where Cline takes the OASIS next as by the conclusion the 80’s setting is redundant to the story and the avatars, and the future direction of the OASIS rests in one man’s hands. Hopefully, the next incarnation will not be bound by chains of its choosing and can really cut loose – after all in the OASIS anything should be possible.

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