Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Werthead

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2044. The climate is wrecked, oil resources have been depleted and the world economy has still not fully recovered from the excesses of the turn of the century. Wade Watts, like millions of other teenagers, escapes the real world by playing in the OASIS, a computer programme that has combined the old Internet and numerous MMORPGs into a virtual reality existence. Five years ago the founder of the OASIS died, leaving his multi-billion-dollar fortune to whoever can solve an elaborate puzzle he left behind in the game. Millions have tried and failed...until Wade stumbles across a key clue. Suddenly a race is on: Wade and several fellow gamers competing with one another and a sinister corporation to be the first to win the prize.

Ready Player One is the debut novel by writer Ernest Cline, whose previous genre credit of note was co-writing the 2009 movie Fanboys. Ready Player One, like that movie, is a geek-centric, nostalgia-heavy paean for the past. In this case, Cline references early video games, 'classic' movies of the 1980s and various TV shows and bands as he creates a cultural landscape which Wade must delve into to solve the puzzles left for him and millions of fellow gamers.

The book is mostly set within the OASIS, with the world outside described fairly perfunctorily. There are allusions to ecological catastrophe, peak oil, climate change and the breakdown of society, but these elements are not developed very far at all. Within the OASIS things are more engaging, with Cline creating worlds dedicated entirely to 1980s video games or to fantastical environments where the rules of nature are twisted. It's basically Second Life meets Tad Williams's Otherworld with a dash of EVE Online and World of WarCraft on top and is described vividly and energetically. However, the creations are usually built on cultural references with Cline contributing little that is original.

This is Ready Player One's key weakness. The book is a nostalgia-fest, a romp through 1980s video arcades, ancient home consoles, old-skool Dungeons and Dragons campaigns and repeated viewings of movies like Ladyhawke and WarGames. For those who get the references, it's great fun. For those who don't, the book struggles a little. Being born seven years after Cline (and the creator of the OASIS in the book), I got a lot of the references but others, particularly to the very earliest days of home gaming, were unfamiliar. Cline, to his credit, does try to explain each reference in as concise a manner as possible, but this has a tendency to slow down the narrative whilst not necessarily helping very much (my visual imagining of Joust was very different to the reality of the game when I finally looked it up online).

The characters are straightforward archetypes, veering very little away from the standard. Main character Wade is an awkward, non-confident nerd living with an unsympathetic extended family and being irrationally blamed for their misfortunes (when we get a glimpse of Wade's home life I was half-expecting him to be sleeping a small cupboard, Potter-style). Cline shows a rare burst of imagination in suggesting that in the future, trailer parks will be overcrowded to the point of having trailers stacked on top of one another with supporting framework and these will sometimes collapse, to no-one's particular interest. The other characters are likewise standard: Art3mis is the cute-but-determined geek girl, Aech is the loyal best friend and two supporting Japanese characters are awesome with swords and much-concerned with honour, which is an unfortunate stereotype. There are a few surprises given that we only know these characters through their online avatars and their 'true' selves turn out to be rather different, but again there are few real surprises here. The villains are, well, snarling caricatures of evil whose motivations are unconvincing and whose chief representative, Sorrento, is a laughable cartoon character at best.

So, we have a book which contributes little of its own to the genre, competently-executed protagonists and awful antagonists. Normally this would be enough to consign a book to the mediocre pile, but Ready Player One still manages to rise above this. Cline's narrative has pace, verve and energy. His ideas are standard but they are handled well, and some of Wade's less laudable activities raise issues about how healthy it is to live your life online or in computer games. Cline is celebrating nostalgia but certainly not advocating dedicating your life to it. The determination of some characters to 'change the world' with the prize money whilst others dream of building a spaceship and escaping also opens an interesting debate about maturity and dealing with consequences rather than running away from them.

Plus, the book is so much damned fun. There's spaceship and mecha fights within the OASIS, antimatter bombings, a puzzle based around the D&D module Tomb of Horrors, a 3D recreation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and laughs than you can shake a stick at. At one point, as he ascends the levels and achievements of the game, Wade chooses as his vehicle the DeLorean from Back to the Future with a Knight Rider-style front grill and Ghostbusters logos on the side. Whether you find that amusing, eye-rollingly inane or merely unimportant will determine how likely you are to enjoy the whole book, but certainly, as a child of the 1980s, I found it fairly entertaining.

Ready Player One (***½) makes up for deficiencies in characterisation and originality with its fast-moving plot and engaging cultural references. The novel is available now in the UK and USA. A film version is in development.
 

MPorter

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This book is definitely a love letter to the North American nerd culture of the 80's. I can overlook the cardboard villainy and the heavy-handed "Corporations are bad" -you can't call it a subtext because it is so blatant- text(?) because the book was so much fun. There is at least an attempt to address gender-identity in the gaming community which I appreciated.

The science fiction elements serve the story that Cline wants to tell. It's only dystopian so much as Cline needs the characters to be isolated and downtrodden. The greater implications of such a society and the effect it would have on culture and progress are largely ignored. They aren't important to the story. They're set dressing.

There's a lot that Cline takes for granted trading on the reader's familiarity with science fiction tropes and previous works. Everything is very surface. Which is why I can picture this very easily as a movie. It's popcorn. Yummy yummy popcorn.

I'll re-read the book not because it is challenging but because it is easy. It plays directly into my sense of nostalgia. And it has the energy of a really good computer game.

Thank you for the great review!

~Mike
 

Rodders

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I agree with every one of the shortfalls in this book, yet i still found it to be a very engaging book. Simple, but effective. :)

Does anyone know if Ernest is planning another novel?
 
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Andy Weir (author of The Martian) has written a short story called Lazero, set in the RP1 universe, which I quite enjoyed. I'm not allowed to post a link but Google should do the trick.

As for the novel itself - it never claims to be a literary masterpiece full of original ideas. It's kind of like the mass outrage when people read The Da Vinci Code after the hype had built. RP1 is pure escapism - MPorter was spot on calling it 'popcorn'.

Can't wait for the film!
 

gdoc

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I agree with the assessment. Good idea, but poorly realised characters and a universe that sometimes degenerates into parody.

The idea is strong enough to sustain it up to a point. But in the end it is difficult to feel much for the characters. And the bad guys were one-dimensional. As noted, Cline shows little interest in exploring his world beyond its use as a plot device. Which is a shame and a lost opportunity.

I would rate it at 2.5/5. Solid idea, mediocre execution.
 

psikeyhackr

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Andy Weir (author of The Martian) has written a short story called Lazero, set in the RP1 universe, which I quite enjoyed. I'm not allowed to post a link but Google should do the trick.
Lacero Lacero

I do not regard myself a a literary critic. But I have decades of experience as a science fiction reader.

Ready Player One sucked me in real good and I had been avoiding it because it was about a gamer. I tried Armada and gave up on it. It is what I expected from RP1.

Good writing makes good science fiction better but good writing by itself does not make good science fiction. People talk about how great the writing is in Hyperion but I do not regard it as science fiction at all. It is fantasy/horror. I have even seen people suggest skipping The Fall of Hyperion entirely because the writing is not as good. Read a 500 page book and learn all about the characters to learn why they are trying to meet the Shrike and then not read what happens when they finally do? That is a great example of the 'logic' of "literary people".

Anyway RP1 is a great science fiction story. It is unusual in that there are lots of fantasy words along with the SF words. But since the fantasy takes place in a computer simulation it can actually "happen" simulationwise. If you look at Microsoft's Holoportation then The OASIS may get real.

What also matters is the condition of the real world of 2044 as portrayed in RP1. I think lots of high school kids should read it. What the "Literary People" think is irrelevant.

psik
 

E.Maree

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I rarely strongly hate a book, but this one really, really didn't work for me. This is a divisive book, so if you don't want to hear a bad word about it, please feel free to skip this post.

Video-game inspired fiction is a huge passion of mine, and I read a lot of MMO and online gaming inspired novels. RP1 seemed like it would really appeal to my fondness for gaming history and nostalgia as well as virtual reality technology. But this was filled with infodumps and sneering, holier-than-thou essays about geek culture the author presumed you knew nothing about. It was 16 hours (audiobook) of the narrator ranting about how much better a retro geek he was than the reader. His long descriptions of gaming history couldn't hide the fact that the plot was thin on the ground, and the main character was a blatant self-insert Mary Sue. You can't build a story on 80s nostalgia alone.

I've been a woman on the internet long enough that I'm tired of geeky blokes yelling at me about their superior intellect. I don't need that in my fiction.
 

Vince W

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I rarely strongly hate a book, but this one really, really didn't work for me. This is a divisive book, so if you don't want to hear a bad word about it, please feel free to skip this post.

Video-game inspired fiction is a huge passion of mine, and I read a lot of MMO and online gaming inspired novels. RP1 seemed like it would really appeal to my fondness for gaming history and nostalgia as well as virtual reality technology. But this was filled with infodumps and sneering, holier-than-thou essays about geek culture the author presumed you knew nothing about. It was 16 hours (audiobook) of the narrator ranting about how much better a retro geek he was than the reader. His long descriptions of gaming history couldn't hide the fact that the plot was thin on the ground, and the main character was a blatant self-insert Mary Sue. You can't build a story on 80s nostalgia alone.

I've been a woman on the internet long enough that I'm tired of geeky blokes yelling at me about their superior intellect. I don't need that in my fiction.
A very interesting point of view. I can see where you're coming from and you're probably very correct, but being an old, male geek it hit the right spots for me so I enjoyed it. :) Is it great science fiction? No. It's like candy floss for the mind really.

I would suggest avoiding his second book, Armada, then as it's more of the same and not nearly as interesting.
 
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I rarely strongly hate a book, but this one really, really didn't work for me. This is a divisive book, so if you don't want to hear a bad word about it, please feel free to skip this post.

Video-game inspired fiction is a huge passion of mine, and I read a lot of MMO and online gaming inspired novels. RP1 seemed like it would really appeal to my fondness for gaming history and nostalgia as well as virtual reality technology. But this was filled with infodumps and sneering, holier-than-thou essays about geek culture the author presumed you knew nothing about. It was 16 hours (audiobook) of the narrator ranting about how much better a retro geek he was than the reader. His long descriptions of gaming history couldn't hide the fact that the plot was thin on the ground, and the main character was a blatant self-insert Mary Sue. You can't build a story on 80s nostalgia alone.

I've been a woman on the internet long enough that I'm tired of geeky blokes yelling at me about their superior intellect. I don't need that in my fiction.
I hadn't thought about it that way. I had a weird viewpoint on the explaining bit. As a kid I hung out with a big crowd of geeks, but never immersed myself in the games etc. So while I love geek culture, I totally needed the explanations or I don't think I'd have been able to follow the storyline.
 

E.Maree

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Sending you both internet hugs for such kind responses. I don't like speaking badly about something people really enjoy, but something about this book really hits a nerve and reminds me of some of my worst experiences in geeky social circles.

99% of geeky life is wonderful, but it's the 1% that haunts you. :)

A lot of my male friends really enjoy the book, so I think I fell into the trap of thinking I'd have exactly the same experience as them. Sadly, it didn't have the same resonance, and I really wish it had! I've definitely heard Armada falls into similar traps, and I think I'm best not bothering with it, but I'm hopeful Cline will write something in the future that will be more my cuppa tea.
 

Vince W

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Sending you both internet hugs for such kind responses. I don't like speaking badly about something people really enjoy, but something about this book really hits a nerve and reminds me of some of my worst experiences in geeky social circles.

99% of geeky life is wonderful, but it's the 1% that haunts you. :)

A lot of my male friends really enjoy the book, so I think I fell into the trap of thinking I'd have exactly the same experience as them. Sadly, it didn't have the same resonance, and I really wish it had! I've definitely heard Armada falls into similar traps, and I think I'm best not bothering with it, but I'm hopeful Cline will write something in the future that will be more my cuppa tea.
In all honesty I think Cline is finished as far as good ideas go. After reading Armada I thought there was very little (read nothing) that was new. He'd covered it all in RP1. Unless he has some very excellent new ideas, I think I'll pass on any future Cline.
 

gdoc

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What was the problem with Armada? Idea, execution etc?

I thought RP1 a great idea, but poorly executed. Wafer thin characters and a cut and paste world designed exclusively to nudge the plot along. Even the actions of the characters were difficult to believe in their own world; the main character getting a perfect score on pac-man first time, for instance. Also the vague capitalist-corporations-are-evil trope was lazy. The company they were racing to gain control of was also presumably a big corporation itself, another aspect that was ignored.

I'd be interested to know about Armada.
 

Vince W

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What was the problem with Armada? Idea, execution etc?

I thought RP1 a great idea, but poorly executed. Wafer thin characters and a cut and paste world designed exclusively to nudge the plot along. Even the actions of the characters were difficult to believe in their own world; the main character getting a perfect score on pac-man first time, for instance. Also the vague capitalist-corporations-are-evil trope was lazy. The company they were racing to gain control of was also presumably a big corporation itself, another aspect that was ignored.

I'd be interested to know about Armada.
I don't want to give anything away to people that might want to read it, but

it's all very similar to RP1. Game geek saving the world with his 'leet skillz, 80's references, sci-fi references... While at first it's sort of fun, the story is weak and the characters weaker and by the end I wonder why Cline bothered to write it and even more why I bothered to finish it.
 

Josh Hayes

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In all honesty I think Cline is finished as far as good ideas go. After reading Armada I thought there was very little (read nothing) that was new. He'd covered it all in RP1. Unless he has some very excellent new ideas, I think I'll pass on any future Cline.
I agree, unless he changes genres, there isn't really anything else he can do with it. I wanted to like Armada, but there just wasn't enough for me to like. It felt extremely forced (even the nostalgia).

His narrative voice, however, was entertaining and easy to read. I probably read his next one, if it wasn't a forced nerd-ride.
 

psikeyhackr

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I'd be interested to know about Armada.
In RP1 the gaming was in simulation. In Armada Cline tried to bring gaming into the real world of the story. I just could not buy it.

psik
 

gdoc

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Thanks all for the heads up. I found RP1 below average, so I think I will be giving Armada a miss.
 

psikeyhackr

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It was 16 hours (audiobook) of the narrator ranting about how much better a retro geek he was than the reader. His long descriptions of gaming history couldn't hide the fact that the plot was thin on the ground, and the main character was a blatant self-insert Mary Sue. You can't build a story on 80s nostalgia alone.

I've been a woman on the internet long enough that I'm tired of geeky blokes yelling at me about their superior intellect. I don't need that in my fiction.
An interesting case of how a book interacts with the personality of the reader. Figuring out why I like or dislike a book is sometimes more about introspection than the book.

psik
 

Bugg

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I enjoyed the book, didn't love it - but then the Rush references came along, and that was my total geek-out moment. I'll always remember it, just for that bit :)
 

psikeyhackr

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I enjoyed the book, didn't love it - but then the Rush references came along, and that was my total geek-out moment. I'll always remember it, just for that bit :)
That was very funny for me too. But as someone who lived through the 80s, I was thinking, "Who the hell is Rush?"

I still haven't listened to anything by them to see if I missed something significant.

psik
 
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