Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One was a really, really fun read. In fact, the one and only problem I had with it was that I was born in the 90s and not the 80s, so that took a hit on the enjoyment factor just a little. Other than that, it was a hell of an all-out geek fest.
The book is, to me, a comprehensive handbook to 80’s pop culture as much as it is a novel. It contains a cornucopia of references. On more or less every page, Cline includes an 80s videogame, line from a movie, a show, actor, action figure, gaming, music or computer device, or cultural phenomenon such as dress code, way of speaking, etc. He just never lets up, from the first page till the end. The fun just doesn’t stop.
The novel follows Wade Owen Watts, an 18 year old kid living in Oklahoma City, America. The year is 2044, and climate change, pollution and rising sea-levels have devastated the human population. Watts, being one of the lower classes, lives in a trailer balanced on the precarious top of 21 other trailers in a suburb not-very-inconspicuously called “the stacks”. His parents have died and he now lives with his not-so-nice aunt and her even-worse boyfriend in this cramped space.
Luckily for him and thousands of others in similar situations, video game genius and maverick, James Halliday, has invented a high-definition virtual reality world called the OASIS in which you can be whoever you want. It is a completely immersive experience; once the user puts on the goggles and haptic gloves, he or she enters the world, which is real enough to pick up things, smell scents, walk around, attend school, visit the multitude of sectors and worlds available as well as interact with other real-life, real-time users of OASIS, be it to hug them, bump fists, fight with or kill them. Understandably, users like Watts spend a majority of their waking time in the OASIS– it is a much better, more comforting world than their actual reality.
When James Halliday, a multi-billionaire dies, he releases an worldwide announcement that he has hidden an Easter egg somewhere in the multitude of worlds and sectors in the OASIS, and the whoever finds it inherits his entire fortune, including the ownership of his company. Users would have to get past a series of challenges and open three gates using three separate keys. Each of the keys has a riddle, leading them to the next challenge and therefore subsequent key. The last key, a crystal key would open the gate to the final challenge and overcoming it grants the winner the Easter egg and therefore Halliday’s inheritance. The antagonists this quest? Innovative Online Industries (IOI), an internet service provider which wants to own the OASIS and therefore monetise it.
There is a catch, though. Halliday is an 80s fanatic, and OASIS, as well as the challenge, has been largely designed after that era. The hunt requires the seeker to be intimately acquainted with the 80s, in order to decipher the codes, references and puzzles. Therefore, all the egg hunters (gunters) go crazy on 80s pop culture.
And this is the fun part of the book. I mean, such a storyline is predictable. Obviously, Watts gets the key, not the IOI. Obviously, he gets through every battle, with some holdups along the way. What’s so great about this book is not how the story ends, because we already know how it will end. What’s so great is the way it is brimming with 80s pop culture, and the kick readers get out of seeing their childhoods come back to life in the most fantastic way possible. Imagine a virtual reality world so real you can barely differentiate it from real life. And in that world, everything that made up your childhood comes to life–almost literally.
To gear up for the hunt, Watts masters every 80s game he can, reads everything he can (guides to Dungeons and Dragons, for example), memorises the lyrics of every 80s song, line in every 80s movie and character in every show. There are worlds and challenges where you can take on the role of your favourite character and play his/her role in the movie (Sean Astin’s (Hey, Bob!) Mikey in The Goonies, for example), or be a character in a game (Black Tiger). Watts’ adventures in the OASIS reminds me of the choose-your-own-adventure Goosebumps books I used to read as a kid (what’s up, 90s kids!), where you get to be a character in the book and have a say in where the story takes you– but on a WHOLE NEW LEVEL. A REALLY awesome one.
Cline just doesn’t miss a beat. He covers almost everything, even the most obscure references. The first key is hidden in the Tomb of Horrors, taken from Dungeons and Dragons. From there, the player is challenged by the demi-lich Acererak to a game of Joust on an old-school video gaming machine. Beyond that, Cline also references WarGames, The Space Giants, Ghostbusters, Cyndi Lauper, Space Balls, Buck Rogers, Silver Spoons, Pacman, Ultraman, WWF, Cap’n Crunch, The Pepsi Challenge, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Kurt Vonnegut, boomboxes, Rubik’s cubes, Battlestar Galactica, Lord of the Rings and Space Invaders, to name just some of them. And because of this, the 80’s experience a revival in the 2040s, with youths rocking 80s hairstyles, clothes and slang.
Oh yeah, and my favourite bit of the the entire book? The part where Watts accesses the virtual recreation of Halliday’s office, where there is a collection of computers and video game systems in order of the year in which they were manufactured: PDP-1, Altair 8800, IMSAI 8080, Apple I, Apple II, Atari 2600, Commodore PET, Intellivision, TRS-80, Sinclair ZX80, Commodore 64, Nintendo, Sega, Macs, PCs, PlayStations and Xbox. Like, THIS. Is where its at.
Which reminds me, it seems like the 80s are kinda having a comeback now too, both because of this book as well as my all-time favourite show, Stranger Things.
Aside from all the geeking out, there is a more serious subtext to Ready Player One. Watts, as well as most of the other OASIS users, are so addicted to the game because it is literally, an oasis from a harsh, unforgiving reality. Because of climate change and overpopulation, flooding, diseases, and mass poverty has swept the nation, if not the world. The rich live with access to unlimited, top-notch OASIS hardware, spending their days continuously rigged up to their machines. The poor completely ignore their situation, and, using the cheapest, free hardware available, also spend most of their time hooked up to the drug that is OASIS. Meanwhile, the world literally crumbles around them. No one cares about the fog of pollution blanketing the cities, or the hordes of homeless people, as long as they have their escape.
Beyond the theme of 80s pop culture, Cline also warns about the dangers of escapism. As Watts receives the inheritance, Halliday’s avatar confides that he has built a button which, is pushed, would delete the OASIS completely. He admits that getting lost in a virtual world is not always the best option, and that reality is more important. Watts’ rival-turned-girlfriend also wants to win the prize money so that she can solve the world’s problems, such as world hunger.
The users of OASIS, especially the egg hunters, all live in not only a fantasy, but in a glorified past. But beyond the hype of the OASIS and the pop culture references, Ready Player One features a terrible reality that will only get worse if its inhabitants do not pay attention to the real world and start changing it. Perhaps Cline writes this book not just to celebrate video games and the 80s, but to remind us that while we enjoy our virtual realities, don’t forget to look after what’s in front of us too.