Ready Player One: A Novel by Ernest Cline (New York: Broadway Books, 2011. 376 pp)

Ernest Cline is a screenwriter, spoken-word artist, and full-time geek. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, their daughter, and a large collection of classic video games. Ready Player One is his first novel.

To Buy and Buy Again

Unfettered consumerism is probably going to kill us all. Someday, our insatiable appetites will catch up to us. Tracing the roots of consumerism often point us to the birth of advertising and marketing. The strategic impulses encouraging us to buy more than we need to account for our production surpluses.

Of course, once consumption becomes normal, the next phase is to consume based on cultural cross-sections. Here, the high school clique addresses the subdivisions of our consumerist culture. A walk through a mall points to the shopping habits of each and every stripe. Preppy clothes here. Hot Topic there.

I raise the notion of consumerism to introduce the positive and negative aspects of Ernest Cline’s dystopian thriller, Ready Player One.

The Future of Nerd

Set in 2045, Ready Player One introduces us to Wade Watts. An obese nerd, living with his aunt in the stacks—literally trailers stacked on top of each other to look like skyscrapers, Wade lives his adolescence in virtual reality. OASIS, a Second-Lifestyle augmented reality video game, is the place to be. With reality struck with famine, war, and environmental catastrophe, OASIS is the oasis for society to escape the horrors of reality.

“But that’s where the bad news comes in. Our global civilization came at a huge cost. We needed a whole bunch of energy to build it, and we got that energy by burning fossil fuels, which came from dead plants and animals buried deep in the ground. We used up most of this fuel before you got here, and now it’s pretty much all gone. This means that we no longer have enough energy to keep our civilization running like it was before. So we’ve had to cut back. Big-time. We call this the Global Energy Crisis, and it’s been going on for a while now” (17).

5 years earlier, James Haliday, the creator of OASIS, posted a message on his death, announcing the greatest Easter egg—a surprise within a video game—for players to hunt down. Beyond three keys and gates lies Haliday’s vast fortune. The first OASIS player to solve the riddles for all three keys and gates wins Bill Gates’ level wealth.

Scavenger Hunting Against Corporate Interests

An avowed student of all things James Haliday, Wade is a “gunter,” a nickname for Easter egg hunter. Even though popular opinion has waned after 5 years without any movement toward finding the first key, Wade spends his free time outside of his e-high-school, studying and trying to find this key.

When a Eureka moment occurs, Wade sets off a chain reaction of events, launching the game into full force and encountering the dangerous corporate interests that will stop at nothing to take full control of the OASIS platform.

“Like most gunters, I was horrified at the thought of IOI taking control of the OASIS. The company’s PR machine had made its intentions crystal clear. IOI believed that Halliday never properly monetized his creation, and they wanted to remedy that. They would plaster advertisements on every visible surface. User anonymity and free speech would become things of the past. The moment IOI took it over, the OASIS would cease to be the open-source virtual utopia I’d grown up in. It would become a corporate-run dystopia, an overpriced theme park for wealthy elitists” (33).

Just Like the 80s Films

Despite some intriguing world building and narrative premise in acts 1 and 2, Ready Player One crumbles under the weight of feeling like it needs to represent for “nerd culture.” Every possible reference you could imagine to 80s sci-fi, arcade games, and prog rock is cited liberally. While I appreciate winks to the past and the nostalgia it conjures, the constant references take away from the narrative intrigue.

Likewise, Wade falls in love with the avatar of another “gunter,” and the questionable links to online dating and romance feel bordering on insensitive. It makes me wonder if the narrative would be considered “PC” 15 years from now.

For these reasons, Ready Player One squanders a compelling premise. Instead of a deep dive into questions of augmented reality and the values of net neutrality, Ready Player One reads like a shrine to nerd culture and that particular brand of consumerism.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

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