Ready Player One, written by Ernest Cline and published in 2011 by Broadway Books, is aptly described as “Willy Wonka meets The Matrix.” Cline’s debut novel is a New York Times bestseller with translations in over 20 countries. To say that this book has been widely accepted and acclaimed would be an understatement. The entire premise of the book revolves around a treasure hunt, so it was only appropriate that Cline announced his own contest. For readers that could follow the clues in the book, Cline promised a 1981 DeLorean outfitted with its own Flux Capacitor. The contest was completed roughly three months after it was announced and appeared to be noticeably easier than the tasks set before the characters of his book. My brother, as well as several friends, have been bugging to read Ready Player One since it came out. I finished it back in July, but I’m just now getting around to writing a review. It’s about time, right?
Ready Player One takes place in a dystopian 2044, where Wade Watts is among the thousands of OASIS users searching for the clues hidden throughout that digital world, hoping to be the first to complete the series of tasks set by OASIS creator James Halliday. The first to complete the quest inherits the kingdom, so to speak. In this case, the entire fortune of Halliday and control of OASIS itself. When Watts stumbles across the first clue, he is suddenly thrown into the forefront of the contest and is threatened in OASIS and the real world by parties that would seize Halliday’s fortune for themselves. Through it all, Watts forms friendships and alliances that may give him the edge in the final showdown.
Before we dive into the deeper aspects of the review, I want to tackle the elephant in the room (or in this case, the giant anime robot): the nostalgia factor. This book is a smorgasbord of 80’s movies, books, games, and pop trivia. James Halliday designed the entire OASIS around his favorite decade. That means that various digital planets are named after Monty Python characters. A town was built following the set designs from the TV show Cheers. Avatars level up, gain money, and find items of power like any good Dungeons & Dragons campaign. For someone not steeped in geekdom, the in-OASIS mechanics can seem like an impenetrable wall, but Cline does a reasonable job of explaining for the general audience. In fact, from talking to people, the nostalgia factor has drawn many more readers to Ready Player One than the premise of the book, and that’s okay. In fact, that’s awesome. I would like to think that Ready Player One is a gateway book, enticing more popular fiction readers into the world of science fiction.
In terms of plot, Ready Player One is executed well. I wouldn’t go as far to say flawlessly, but the pacing of the book is very, very good. Cline spaces periods of action with periods of exposition and foreshadowing reasonably well. While the main plot of the story is easy to understand and follow, there are a few key pieces of information that suffer from poor foreshadowing. Specifically, the use of Artifacts within the OASIS. Artifacts are unique items of power within the digital world that have immense power, but often great limitations (long cooldowns, specific conditions for use, etc.). In many ways, the book revolves around the use of these Artifacts, so they are pretty important. I’m straying close to spoiler territory, so I’m not going to give specific examples. In general terms, let’s just say that there are some Artifacts that get the whole treatment: discovery, exploration of the power, then use for intended (or unintended) purpose. At the same time, there are some very important artifacts that are discovered, not mentioned for a chapter or two (or more), and then the reader is specifically told what they do, just before their use. It diminishes their impact on the reader, in my opinion.
It’s such a small thing in an otherwise great book, but I will admit that it pulled me out of the story at those points. On one hand, at least Cline explained these Artifacts before using them to solve problems, but I feel that Ready Player One would have been a stronger book if there had been foreshadowing more than a paragraph before the Artifact was used.
Okay, enough with the bad. Let’s keep talking good: characters! Watts is a great protagonist because he’s smart, motivated, and incredibly geeky. He is exactly the person needed to solve Halliday’s quest. At the same time, he’s precisely NOT the person to be able to survive when being attacked by an evil corporation bent on OASIS domination. It is precisely this schism that makes him an interesting character to read. Inside the OASIS, Watts is comfortable, calm, and idealistic, although he’s a bit of a loner. In the real world, he’s awkward, antisocial, and does everything he can to avoid drawing attention to himself in a world plagued by an energy crises and economic failure. Watts’ growth arc is one of the more dramatic that I’ve ever read, but is also very believable. Real world consequences mean that Watts’ actions inside the OASIS are just as important as those he carries out in person.
The supporting characters all feel different and necessary. Aetch, Art3mis, Daito, and Shoto are all rival treasure hunters and good friends to Watts. Their interactions are fun to watch, especially Watts’ friendship with Aetch and his blossoming relationship with Art3mis. Having grown up in the burgeoning digital world of always-online gamers and geeks, Watts’ growing infatuation with Art3mis feels very real and familiar. The hesitation and excitement in every conversation between the two of them drags you to the next page, then the next, then the next.
Sorrento, leader of the IOI Sixers, is a bit of a stereotypical villain, but it is still fun to read about him. He reminds me in a lot of ways of a Bond villain. Kind of over the top, but easy to suspend disbelief on. Needless to say, Sorrento isn’t really the reason you’re reading this book. You’re reading it to experience the ride that Cline takes you on with his puzzles and world. You’re reading it to figure out what happens between Watts and Art3mis. You’re reading it to figure out who Aetch really is.
All in all, I will say that this book is a fun read for anyone who was born or grew up in the ’80’s. There is, of course, the nostalgia appeal, but Cline has crafted an intricate and exciting story that is accessible to a large audience. For me, Ready Player One was especially helpful, because the way Cline portrays the OASIS is one of the better digital worlds I’ve read about recently. I would strongly encourage you to pick up this book and give it a read.
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