Review of Ready Player One

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An escapist romp set in the near future, Ready Player One is the story of Wade Watts, a teenaged boy obsessed with winning a treasure hunt that demands deep knowledge of 80s pop-culture and video games. The winner will inherit the vast wealth and thriving business empire of the man who created the hunt, James Halliday, a recently deceased computer genius born in 1972 and freakishly nostalgic about his childhood. Halliday’s empire includes OASIS, the virtual world where most of humanity spends most of its time. The value of the prize is so great that Innovative Online Industries, cold-hearted giant of the network-infrastructure industry, creates a department of expert contestants under contract to sign over their winnings should they be the first to find the coveted egg. The head of this special department, Nolan Sorrento, is the villain — caricature of the calculating, cutthroat executive — leading his army of corporate drones in a brutal, no-rules race to beat Wade and his friends to the egg.

I can see why this book has been so popular — very high word-of-mouth potential. The number of 80s nerd-culture references is staggering, and it’s hard not to want to mention this book to a nerd friend. But the story sometimes feels like a vehicle for movie, video-game, and anime references. For me, the thrill of nostalgia for Zork, Adventure, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Star Blazers (a personal favorite), Joust, Devo, etc. wore off pretty quickly. The core story was fun, albeit predictable, but I found the pure escapist enjoyment a little lacking. To give me escape, a book has to transport me. I too often found myself distracted by the pop-culture references, thin character development, and obvious mechanisms of storytelling. I also didn’t come away feeling at all enlightened or inspired; the morals of the story — seek satisfaction in reality-prime, true beauty lies within, and we nerds should get outside more — all felt rather tacked on. I understand that this book wasn’t meant to change my life, but I love it when a light read turns out to give me a surprisingly inspiring little push. (Neverwhere comes to mind.)

Ready Player One is a good example of the increasing overlap between sci-fi and fantasy. The use of v-worlds in sci-fi allows the writer to incorporate fantasy elements into a story that’s ultimately grounded in reality-prime. I did a fair amount of this in my own novel, Upload, but I always tried to keep it relevant to the speculative heart of science fiction. In Ready Player One, I didn’t find much to chew on in terms of ideas and questions about the future. It felt heavy on the fantasy, light on the sci-fi. Which is great — just don’t pick up Ready Player One expecting a lot of thought-provoking speculation on where we humans are headed. Think “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”, not I, Robot.

Kirkus recommends Upload as similar to Ready Player One. I was downright ecstatic when I saw my book placed alongside such a popular title, and I do think someone who liked Ready Player One will probably enjoy Upload, but the two books are very different in feel. Ready Player One is fun and pretty fluffy, and felt to me like it was written for a teen audience — and for children-of-the-80s looking for a little nostalgia. Upload is a good deal more intense, more noir, more adult. In both, the hero had a difficult childhood and received much of their “parenting” in virtual reality. Both stories also have the hero on the run. But in Upload there’s a lot more internal struggle, meatier relationship issues, more focus on science, and serious questions about where technology is taking us.

For me, Ready Player One gets three stars. Would I recommend it? To a trivia hound or 80s pop-culture fanatic, yes. Otherwise, no, because I think there are lots of books equally as fun but with more artistry, more charm, richer characters, or a more compelling world.

(Verbatim copy of my Goodreads review.)

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