Book Buzz: Ready Player One

First, an apology.  Life has been busy lately, and my blogging has fallen off a bit.  I’m glad I’ve been able to keep up with the ABCs, but I seem to be posting with less regularity.  Part of that, I think, is that there’s not a whole lot of interest coming out right now.  I’m sure that will all change once we hit big convention time (Origins and GenCon).  I have a BIG post that’s hopefully going to be finished this weekend, and some other games I’ve been eyeing that I think I should go ahead and write about.  For now, however, I think I’m going to do something I’ve never done: give a book review.  The book is:

image from boingboing.net

Ready Player One was the first novel from author Ernest Cline, and was published in 2011 by Random House.  It’s a novel set in a dystopian future where the economy has collapsed, and everyone spends most of their time within OASIS, a virtual universe created by a recently deceased supergenius named James Halliday.  Upon his death, a short film is released that announces the presence of an Easter Egg in the code that, when found, will award the victor with Halliday’s entire fortune ($240 billion and control of OASIS).  Of course, this sparks a massive hunt for the keys that will unlock the Egg.  All anyone has to go on is a four line clue.  The book picks up five years into this hunt, with no one having figured out the first clue to find the Copper Key.  The book follows the fortunes of narrator Wade Watts and several other so-called “gunters” as they try to find the Egg, partially for the fame and fortune, but also to keep it out of the hands of IOI, the evil multinational corporation who wants to control OASIS for their own nefarious purposes.

What does this have to do with board games?  Nothing, really.  It has more to do with geek culture than anything.  There are lots of references to 80s video games, movies, and music.  The biggest relevance to what I typically cover on this blog is the inclusion of Dungeons and Dragons within a major plot point.  For this review, I’m going to try not to spoil much, but there are some points I need to talk about in order to give a broader impression of what I thought.  Consider this to be a minor spoiler warning.  If you’d prefer to not be spoiled on anything, I’ll go ahead and say that this is a fantastic book that you should read at the next available opportunity.  On with the review!

SETTING: I’ll start with the setting of the book.  First of all, the book is set in 2044, and as I mentioned, the economic collapse is pretty devastating.  A lot of the lower class lives in what are known as The Stacks, so called because mobile homes are stacked on top of each other to save space.  The real world is very bleak, and the book doesn’t really spend a lot of time there.  There are really only three major real world locations – Oklahoma City, Wade’s home; Columbus, OH, corporate headquarters of both GSS (makers of OASIS) and IOI; and Oregon, home of Halliday’s partner and friend, Ogden Morrow (the Wozniak to Halliday’s Jobs).

Most of the book takes place inside OASIS, which can be compared to a lot of MMORPGs that are out there right now.  It’s virtual reality, so you interact with the world much in the same way you would in the real world.  However, you get an avatar that you can customize to look like whatever you want, and can interact in much more dynamic ways than in reality.  The universe is divided into hundreds of worlds, each individually coded to provide unique challenges.  Users can interact with NPCs and try to advance their own characters, though there’s not really much of a goal to the system (other than the Easter Egg).  Mostly, people can just do whatever they want.  You can even go to school in OASIS.  This provides a very convenient narrative device that allows Cline to do whatever he wants with the story.  If there’s something new he wants the characters to do, just send them to a new world.  It’s the same thing X-Men has been doing with mutants for years.

Halliday grew up in the 1980s, so there are a lot of references to the decade in the world, including a challenge where players have to play Matthew Broderick in the movie WarGames, or needing to accomplish a perfect game in Pac-Man, or find the lich in an old Dungeons and Dragons module.  For fans of the decade (of which I am not one), there’s a lot of nostalgia there.  For the rest of us, it makes you want to go back and take a look at what you missed.

CHARACTERS: The central character of the book is Wade Watts, a high school senior whose family lives in The Stacks.  He attends high school in OASISl, and is the first person to get the Copper Key, which is the first step in the quest.  This fact comes out in the prologue to the book, so I don’t think that’s really a spoiler – besides, he’s the narrator, you had to figure he was going to play an important role in the book.  In the real world, Wade is fat, pasty, your stereotypical geek.  In OASIS, he is Parzival, and though he is able to upgrade his appearance, he can’t really hide his real world status, particularly since he can’t afford the various special features offered in OASIS.  So he’s stuck on Ludus, the school world until he can figure out how to get to the first gate.

The first few gunters to find the first key after Parzival become big characters as well – Art3mis, a blogger that Wade has been following for years, and who was actually the first to find the gate (though she couldn’t get past the first challenge); Aech, Parzival’s best friend who deciphered the location based on what he knew about Wade; and the team of Daito and Shoto, two Japanese gunters who were able to deduce the location once a few people had found it.  The five (called The High Five) are forced to come together to fight against IOI, who are aggressively trying to get to the key by any means necessary.  IOI’s team is led by Nolan Sorrento, who is kind of a one-dimensional bad guy whose primary objective is to find the Egg so IOI can control OASIS.

One of the most interesting things about the novel is that no one really knows who anyone else is.  The burgeoning romance between two of the characters is marred by the fact that neither really knows who the other is.  Is she really a 300 pound bald guy named Chuck?  Who knows?   As it turns out, not everyone is what they seem to be, but I’ll let you find out about that when you read.

STORY: The structure of the book is basically in three acts, which makes sense because of Ernest Cline’s background as a screenwriter.  Each section of the book directly relates to one of the keys, and the search that goes with it.  To avoid spoiling anything, I won’t do a full plot synopsis here.  However, I will say that the overall arc is fairly predictable, though the journey is what makes it enjoyable.

STYLE: This is a very straightforward book.  The ideas within it are very inventive, and the story continues to move along, which is something I like.  It’s a very action heavy book – not a whole lot of time is spent in character development (beyond the thoughts and actions of Wade).  But that makes sense in a first-person book.

The book features a bunch of clues for the characters to figure out.  As a reader, you have no chance to figure them out yourself since they refer to Halliday’s life, as well as random elements of 80s culture, which all of the characters have spent the last five years learning.  So don’t look at it as a mystery – just let the characters do the work.  With the treasure hunt aspect, I’d compare it more to something like The Da Vinci Code, where each clue leads to another.  However, in DVC, Dan Brown was limited by real places (creative liberties aside).  Here, as I said, Ernest Cline can do whatever he wants.  That’s the advantage sci-fi and fantasy have over realistic fiction.

Overall, the book is very readable.  There’s probably not a whole lot of literary substance there, but that doesn’t matter to me.  I want a good story, and I got it.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  I enjoyed it from start to finish.  My biggest problem was that the culmination of the love story at the end seemed kind of anticlimactic and awkward, but that makes sense seeing as it’s two geeks coming together.  Overall, I give it a hearty thumbs up and encourage you to go out and read it before the inevitable movie is made.

I’ll be back to talking about board games this weekend.  Be sure to stick with me.  Thanks for reading!

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