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Title: Ready Player One
Author: Ernest Cline
Publication Date: August 16, 2011 (book and audio)
Publisher: Random House Audio
Narrated By: Wil Wheaton
Recording time: 15 hours, 40 minutes
Teenager Wade Watts lives with his aunt in Oklahoma City in the “stacks”, a poverty-stricken district constructed of trailer homes piled on top of each other. He spends his spare time as a “gunter” (“egg hunter”), logging on to the OASIS as an avatar under the moniker Parzival, reading Halliday’s journal Anorak’s Almanac, and researching details of the 1980s pop culture, mainly classic video games and movies, that Halliday loved. One day, he realizes that the first key is located on Ludus, the same virtual world as his own online high school, in a re-creation of the Dungeons & Dragons module Tomb of Horrors. He meets Art3mis, a famous female gunter and blogger, and advances further than she does when he defeats the AI Acererak at the video game Joust. He is awarded the Copper Key, and appears on the “Scoreboard“, attracting the world’s attention.
Parzival completes the Copper Gate’s puzzles on the planet Middletown, which is modeled after Halliday’s boyhood home. He plays through the Dungeons of Daggorath video game in a recreation of Halliday’s parents’ house and then role-playing Matthew Broderick‘s character in the film WarGames. Art3mis clears the gate shortly afterwards, as does Wade’s best friend Aech. Wade’s fame enables him to make a living by endorsing virtual products. It also brings him to the attention of Nolan Sorrento, head of operations at Innovative Online Industries (IOI), a multinational corporation bent on a well-funded effort to find the Easter egg in order to take control of the OASIS and monetize it. When Wade refuses to join IOI, Sorrento attempts to kill him by blowing up the stacks where Wade lives, killing his aunt and disguising the explosion as a meth lab accident.
Wade escapes and moves to Columbus, Ohio (hometown of both GSS and IOI), where he assumes the pseudonym Bryce Lynch and living in an anonymous apartment designed for hardcore OASIS users. He begins a wary friendship with Art3mis, but when he asks her out, she declines.
After Five months pass, Art3mis finally finds the Jade Key, and Parzival believes it to be on Archaide, a planet containing a copy of every video game ever made, where he plays a perfect game of Pac-Man, thinking it part of the Egg hunt, but receives only a quarter as a prize. Aech, after finding the Jade Key, provides a hint leading him to the planet Frobozz where he solves a recreation of the text adventure game Zork and whistles a 2600-hertz-sound through a Cap’n Crunch Bo’Sun whistle. Sorrento establishes a base there to farm Jade Keys for their company’s avatars, unlocks the second Gate, and rapidly acquires the Crystal Key as well through trial and error. Shoto, another high ranking Gunter tells Parzival that Sixers have killed his partner Diato, passing it off as a Japanese suicide.
Parzival unlocks the Jade Gate, a Voight-Kampff machine, by entering a privately-owned Blade Runner-themed building, and completes the arcade game Black Tiger and is awarded a virtual mecha as the prize and another clue: a red star in a circle. He acquires the Crystal Key on planet Syrinx, and after playing the track “Discovery”, finds a clue regarding the conditions to unlock the final gate. As he messages Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto with instructions on how to get through the Jade Gate and obtain the Crystal Key, Sorrento ends his covert attempts to clear the third gate, located in the fortress of Halliday’s avatar, Castle Anorak, on planet Chthonia, and places an indestructible force field around it.
Wade manipulates his assumed identity in order to be arrested and placed in indentured servitude in IOI’s tech support department. He then uses black market passwords and security exploits to hack into IOI’s intranet and acquires a wealth of incriminating information: footage of Daito’s murder, the attempt on his own life, as well as plans to abduct Shoto and Art3mis and force them to find the Easter egg for IOI, then kill them afterwards. Aech remains anonymous due to his mobile setup. After escaping the corporation, he shares his information with his friends and publicizes a gathering of avatars to storm the castle. They are interrupted by Ogden Morrow, who offers them a safe haven at his home in Oregon. Wade meets the real-life Aech and Ogden, but not Art3mis or Shoto, who are already hooked into Ogden’s immersion pods.
The day of the battle, Wade uses a previously deployed booby trap to bring down the barricade, and a massive fight among avatars ensues. Parzival, Art3mis, Aech and Shoto use their Mechas to fight Sorrento’s Mechagodzilla Kiryu, though Parzival has to use his Ultraman artifact to defeat and kill Sorrento’s mecha and avatar. IOI use a doomsday device artifact called the Cataclyst to destroy the castle and all avatars in the entire sector. Parzival survives because having the Pac-Man quarter granted him an extra life. As he enters the Crystal Gate, he announces that if he wins the final challenge, he will share his fortune with the three of his friends. He plays Tempest, role-plays King Arthur and various other characters in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and retrieves the Easter egg in Adventure. His victory grants him control of the OASIS. Sorrento is arrested for the murder of Daito and conspiring to kill Wade and the others. Back in Oregon, Wade and Art3mis, whose actual name is Samantha, meet in person and rekindle their relationship with a kiss.
Ready Player One is a YA sci-fi novel that manages to combine a treasure hunt, a puzzle-based mystery, a dystopian future, and just about every fragment of nerd culture from the 1980s into one fast-paced story.
In some respects, the novel almost feels like it includes too many branches of nerd culture. It leans very heavily on IT and technology based jargon to create the immersive world of The Oasis, as well as the technological real world with which the Oasis interacts. We also discuss – in minutia – arcade games, video games, movies, television, and music from the 1980s. Cline’s premise effectively earns the nostalgia tour it provides to its readers, but at times I had to roll my eyes at how much of this there was.
The minutia is explainable though through the premise. The protagonist and side characters compete to win not just a twelve figure prize, they also compete to save the virtual reality world they all prize as an escape from their bleak actual reality. In order to justify a victory so significant, the task must be monumentally difficult.
The story does contain a couple of weak points, in my opinion. First, the revelation of Ogden Morrow’s role in the story – and his power within Oasis itself – significantly reduces the story’s stakes as it reaches a climax. If worse comes to worst, the reader knows in the story’s last chapters that Og can intervene and that he will feel obligated to do so. Second, the YA romance arc just did not really work for me. Art3mis’s resistance to a relationship with Wade felt clunky and plot-serving. As a result, she ended up feeling like a wish-fulfillment prize to be won by Wade, rather than a relationship that was developed and earned.
The good far outweighs the bad, though. Cline’s story is tight, the premise is great, the story and its pacing are well-crafted, and his character conversations are funny. He manages to unload an unbelievable amount of pop culture without it feeling too out of place because the context of his premise allows for it. Despite it being a futuristic novel, the setting of the story’s detailed rendering of the past often felt like a return to the familiar world of my childhood. The juxtaposition of future and past was pleasant.
I listened to the audio recording read by Wil Wheaton. His performance was fantastic. Despite now being decades past his teenage years, Wheaton’s voice still manages to project youth, naivety, and a young person’s brand of cynicism and optimism. The highlight of his reading, for me, was the way he delivered the narrator’s off-handed mention of “Wil Wheaton” within the story as a still-living old geezer currently doing a good job of holding public office.
Despite being a YA novel, the story does touch on some relatively heavy philosophical debates. What is reality? What is it to be a person or to know another person? What are our responsibilities to others? The story seems to conclude at the end that there is no virtual replacement adequate enough for actual reality. Wade does not really know his best friend, truly, until they meet in real life. He does not get the girl until they meet face-to-face. However, the story argues with itself somewhat. Once Wade and Aetch meet, after an initial shock, they realize they already know each other quite well. Wade and Art3mis fall in love virtually. It is actualized in person, but the foundation is laid virtually. Wade is more free, and more himself, within The Oasis. Reality imposed restrictions on the expression of his true self, in some regards, that virtual reality did not. Wade was clearly a genius, however, it took virtual reality to educate him and then bring that genius to the fore.
This is a good book and I thought Wil Wheaton’s narrator performance in the audio recording was outstanding. If you’re a fan of sci-fi or 1980s nostalgia, I definitely recommend you pick this one up.