Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Ready Player One is only five years old but already feels like something of a relic. It’s an optimistic and uplifting book with an unshakable belief in the power of nerds to do good. Events since 2011 have shaken my belief that being a nerd or a geek makes you more likely to be a good person, with events like Gamergate or the Sad Puppies unfortunately suggesting that ‘nerd culture’ isn’t what I thought it was. In this sense, Ready Player One feels like a sort of nerd utopia, where everyone is egalitarian and inclusive in their shared love of pop culture, as opposed to the polarised and exclusionary narratives which so often surround issues of diversity in ‘nerdy’ pop culture.
Ready Player One takes place in a not too distant future which has become dominated by the ‘Oasis’, a virtual reality experience where much of the Earth’s population spend all their time. Where the real world is riven with poverty, over-population, environmental collapse and massive inequality, the Oasis is a genuinely egalitarian place where anyone can live an exciting or creative life. The creator of the Oasis, James Halliday, had died five years before the start of the book, but in his will had set forth the hunt for the Egg. Somewhere in the Oasis, hidden behind three walls requiring three keys, in the greatest Easter Egg known to man and the discoverer of this Egg will bestow the finder with Halliday’s fortune and control of his company. This announcement changes the world, with many foregoing all else and hunting for the Egg full time, known as gunters. Halliday was obsessed with 1980s pop culture and so all the gunters become experts in 80s movies, TV shows, videogames and music in the hope that they will provide a clue. Our protagonist, Wade, is one of these gunters, although a fairly insignificant one, who stumbles upon the first clue for the Egg five years after the competition was first announced.
Your enjoyment of Ready Player One is largely going to be tied to your tolerance for reference based writing. Almost every major moment is a call back to some piece of 80s arcana or the other. Now, I’m not a child of the 80s. I’m a 90s kid baby. Re-write this with Pokémon, Tarantino and Nirvana and it’d be more my era, but I ended up spending a fair bit of this book feeling quite lost. I have mixed feelings about all the references. I usually don’t like them; I found them really annoying in Charlie Jane Anders’ All The Birds in the Sky, but Ready Player One is a bit different because it’s entire plot is about references. It’s about nostalgia, so it doesn’t feel as calculated and cringeworthy here as it does elsewhere. I was expecting this to end up as a comment on the toxicity of nostalgia, of living in the past and refusing to embrace the new, but that never comes.
The main cast are a likeable, if straightforward bunch. There aren’t any standout characters, but they’re all enjoyable enough that you’re rooting for the good buys and booing the bad guys. The ‘adorable nerd’ thing doesn’t feel quite as relevant these days in a post Gamergate world. No one in the Oasis is whining about SJWs or posting Pepe memes, officially making it a vastly superior place than the real internet we have to inhabit. This isn’t a criticism of Ready Player One, far from it, but it definitely made me quite sad to see that genuine optimism and enthusiasm for ‘nerd culture’, which recent events have revealed to be, at best, non-existent, or at worst toxic and hateful.
Ready Player One is a likeable enough book, certainly the genre fiction version of a beach read. I read the vast majority of it across two lengthy train journeys, which seems like the right way to absorb something like this. I’m not sure that there’s much substance here, but it’s a fun enough ride regardless.