Verdict: An absorbing read, recommended with reservations.
Ready Player One is the kind of book that makes me want to use the words “rollicking” and “romp,” as ina “rollicking romp through the 1980s.” If you hold any sort of nostalgia for that era, or are at all into video games, there’s a good chance you’ll like this novel, the first by screenwriter Ernest Cline.
The book follows the adventures of Wade Watts, a teen living in the dystopian future after the oil crisis ruins everything. He and everyone else in his world are obsessed with the OASIS, a mashup of virtual reality, Second Life, and World of Warcraft. When OASIS creator James Halliday dies, his will stipulates that whoever first completes the baroque Easter egg challenges — all pertaining to 1980s culture — that he’s left behind will win the rights to his entire estate.
The chief candidates for this prize include an evil multinational corporation bent on — gasp — commercializing the OASIS and a ragtag band of five misfits, including Wade Watts, a girl who is almost but not quite as awesome as Wade Watts, Wade’s best friend, and of course two Japanese guys who spout totally non-stereotypical stuff about honor.
My husband and I genuinely loved listening to this book — Wade’s journey to find Halliday’s Easter egg is suspenseful and interestingly conceived. If you have fond memories of Joust or Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you’ll love it. The rendering of a perfect PacMan game — and I say this without a trace of irony — had me on the edge of my seat. It’s about as fascinating a novel as one could write about old-school video games, and it represents a geek wet-dream in which arcane knowledge about old Family Ties episodes could save the world (or at least, the fake world).
But when our book club discussed the novel, we immediately segued into elements we felt were lacking from the book. Namely, the climb to the top is too easy for Wade, who has all the answers, and this cheapened the emotional pay-off for all of us.
Cline also inexpertly tackles race and gender through the character of Aech, Wade’s best friend, who is a fat black lesbian, as it turns out. She talks about how her mother believed that the OASIS was the best thing ever for people of color, because they could just create white avatars, thereby avoiding prejudice. While it’s admirable that Cline wants to address issues of race in the book, the idea that becoming white virtually is the solution to racism (or that becoming virtually male is a solution to sexism), is — to put it gently — problematic and goes unquestioned in the novel.
The Japanese characters Daito and Shoto, while presented respectfully, suffered badly from redshirt syndrome. As soon as the latter two entered our audiobook version — expertly read by Wil Wheaton — my story sense started tingling. I turned to my husband and said, “I hope they don’t sacrifice themselves so our hero can get to the goods.”
Many of the plot advancements serve to make things easier for Wade, devices which work to lower the stakes for Wade and reduce the emotional payoff for readers. For example, Wade’s corporate rivals blow up his house (and his aunt) at the beginning of the book, but he didn’t have any particular emotional connection to his aunt — in fact she seemed like she might interfere with his OASIS plans, so rather than tugging at our heartstrings, the explosion both removes an obstacle and allows Wade to feel morally outraged toward the corporation without really developing his inner emotional life.
Similarly, when Aech turns out to be a woman, I hoped that this might spur some character development — Wade and Aech had been best friends, after all, though Wade had been involved with and dumped by the tough Artemis. However, in making Aech a lesbian, Cline preempted that possible tension — to me, queering her served only to save Wade (and the author) the inconvenience of acknowledging a fat black woman as a possible sexual partner.
And so, while the novel was a great, light read, it didn’t offer lasting emotional substance — Wade’s complex victories over the imaginary world of the OASIS come too easily — if this book is a series of caper flicks, it’s one in which the characters’ ultimate victory over evil is never really in doubt, because their plans never truly go wrong.
It’s a rollicking romp, all right, and a fun read, but that’s about it.