Ready Player One
by Ernest Cline
I confess: I wish I’d written this book. I’m just a little bit too young – my brother, three years my senior, was the one who rode his bike down to the corner drugstore to play the new Pac-Man game when it arrived; I remember him telling the family about it, and being confused: so you eat the ghosts? – and not quite geeky enough, especially when it comes to Japanese anime and robot/monster shows, which I never got into. I watched Voltron (Both versions – everybody remembers the lions, but does anyone else remember the Voltron made of cars? Much cooler.) and StarBlazers and G-Force, but that’s about it. Fast forward a few years to Transformers and G.I. Joe, to Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, which featured a light gun shaped like a jet fighter that you could shoot at the TV screen and score hits on the bad guys, and I’m all in. I did play the role-playing games, and I watched the movies – War Games and Monty Python and the Holy Grail are also two of my favorites – but I never had an Atari 2600, so I never played Adventure seriously – just a few times at a friend’s house, where I got stomped by the dragons and opted for Pitfall or Centipede or Missile Command instead – and I never found the Easter egg in that pixellated dungeon.
So I couldn’t really have written this book, which explores geek culture from the 1980’s to a depth that I could not hope to plumb. But I am so very glad that Ernest Cline wrote this book, because I loved it. Absolutely loved it.
The book is about a video game challenge. It is set about 40 years into our future, when the internet has become a single enormous virtual reality environment, built by a Bill Gates-like figure who focused on video game design rather than operating systems and world domination. When this gaming guru dies, he creates a challenge for everyone in the system he created (which is essentially everyone around the world, in one way or another): find the secret challenges he left, conquer them, and you inherit his entire vast fortune, and control of the virtual world. And because this man grew up in the 1980’s, the entire thing is one enormous trip through the world of reminiscence: a kind of “I Love the 80’s” that focuses exclusively on geek culture and touches every part of life.
This is the first book in a long time that I actually didn’t want to put down, and at the same time, didn’t regret reading straight through: the excitement is excellent, but it isn’t constant, and so it didn’t feel exhausting. The dystopian elements were highly disturbing to me, particularly the mobile home “stacks” and the indentured servitude that came as a result of credit card debt, but they were wonderfully well done – and I especially liked that Cline also included some positive aspects: the idea of virtual school, with the improvements and limits that Cline describes, would be a dream come true for me, as an introvert who teaches high school English but would really like to spend lots of time playing video games and living through role playing adventures. I also loved that Cline managed to create realistic and genuine human interactions both within and apart from the virtual world; by the end, I wasn’t really sure if the hero would win the game, but I was really just hoping that he’d win the girl.
I identified with the characters, loved the plot and the adventure, and was completely enchanted by both the setting and the nostalgia. This is a geek masterpiece. You have my gratitude, Mr. Cline. Excelsior!