Wednesday 4 January 2012

Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

It’s the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place.

Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets.

And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune—and remarkable power—to whoever can unlock them.

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday’s riddles are based in the pop culture he loved—that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday’s icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes’s oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.

And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.

Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt—among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life—and love—in the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

A world at stake.
A quest for the ultimate prize.
Are you ready?

Department 19 by Will Hill was The Book Zone Book of the year 2011. It was the book that I wanted to give to every teen boy that I know. As I said in my Book of the Year blog post, I had decided very early on that it would take a damn fine book to beat Department 19 to that top spot, it really is that good, and it wasn't until more than twelve months later when I read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline that I found a book to match it.

Before I say any more I would like to ask you a handful of questions:

Do you enjoy games, either of the video or role playing variety?
Do you enjoy richly imagined dystopian stories?
Were you a teen in the 1980s?
Do you love 80s films?
Do you love 80s music?
Do you love 80s TV?
Do you consider yourself to be a geek, either wholly or partly?

If your answer to any or all of these questions is yes then you have to get your hands on a copy of this book. Ready Player One is now the book that I want to give to every guy who like me had their teenage years in the 1980s, every guy, whatever their age, who loves gaming, be it computer or RPG, and every guy who considers themselves even just a little bit of a geek. It was written for the adult market, but is perfectly suitable for boys of 15+, especially those who are into gaming, comics, and general geekiness.

I read this book during the recent Christmas break when we visited friends in Canada. On the flight across the Atlantic I was very privileged to be able to read The Rising, Will Hill’s sequel to last year’s Department 19. I read it cover to cover during the flight from London to Chicago (it was brilliant btw), and I was then left with the dilemma of what to read next. Surely anything else would seem dull and boring in comparison? For some reason I turned to Ready Player One, a book I had downloaded to my kindle on impulse – I can’t remember how I heard about it, but the blurb (and the 100s of five star reviews) made it sound a little different from my usual fare.

I was hooked from the first chapter – it felt as if this was the book I had been waiting for all my adult life! OK, that is a little melodramatic, but Cline’s story gelled with me in a way that few books have. In fact, I am struggling to find the words to explain just how great I think this book is, and for this reason I apologise in advance if this review comes across as a little less coherent that normal. It didn’t pip Department 19 to the Book of the Year title as I have read D19 several times and it is just as good each time. I can’t say this about Ready Player One, although I have a strong feeling that its appeal is more likely to increase on further readings. Only time and multiple readings will tell. It could well squeeze its way into my list of all time favourite books.

I am proud to be a geek, even though I probably sit much further down the scale than many other guys. It shames me to admit that I have never played an RPG like D&D, I didn’t spend my teenage years playing on arcade machines (although I do still have my ZX Spectrum on which I must have logged thousands of hours throughout the 80s), and my knowledge of the early home computers is fairly limited. But I do love the music and films of that decade, I love gaming on my PS3, and I still have many of the action figures I collected back then. Ready Player One tapped into every single nostalgic cell in my brain and had me grinning from ear to ear as I read it.

The story is set in the not-too-distant future in a society where the environment has pretty much collapsed and there is wide-spread poverty, disease and famine. Yes dystopia fans, this book is for you as well! To escape the day-to-day bleakness that surrounds them people jack into the OASIS in their millions. OASIS is a huge online world where, if you can afford it and/or have the skills to 'level up' you can be or do just about anything. Hero of the story, Wade Watts, is a typical geek - overweight, low self-esteem, self-deprecating - who has grown up loving and living the OASIS. He doesn't even need to attend his regular school as he was academically able enough to ditch that and be educated at one of the OASIS schools.

The story starts five years after techno genius and creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, passed away, leaving a huge surprise in his last will and testament: his complete  fortune and control of the OASIS would go to the first person who could solve his puzzle. It is the ultimate contest, where winner takes all, and as such Wade and everyone of his generation became totally obsessed with solving the puzzles and finding Halliday's Easter egg. And five years on nobody has come even close.... until Wade Watts has a flash of brilliance whilst daydreaming during his online Latin class. From this moment the race for the prize is on, with Wade competing against some of the most famous egg hunters (or 'gunter's' as they become known) in the world.

Of course, no dystopian novel would be complete without a particularly nasty villain and in Ready Player One this takes the form of IOI, a huge corporation that seeks to control the OASIS and start charging users, thereby shattering the lives of the many poor and needy that rely on it to escape from their terrible real lives. With this in mind, IOI employ huge teams of players, known as sixers, who work full time to try to solve the various puzzles that emerge as the story unfolds. For IOI the end completely justifies the means, and they will stop at nothing if it means they win control of the OASIS. Even mass murder.

For me, this book has everything. I love quest novels - it has a grand quest. I love action and adventure - it has these in abundance. I love ordinary heroes who are flawed, and can easily be identified with - Wade Watts is one such guy. And I so, so love the 80s: the TV (just got the complete MacGyver DVD box set for Christmas); the movies (Ferris, Breakfast Club, Goonies, Wargames to name but a tiny few); the cartoons (He-Man, Transformers); the list goes on and one and this book bundles all of these elements together in the perfect story.

Whatever your level of geekness, and whatever your age, from teen upwards there will be something for you in Ready Player One. Yes, it is full of 80s references and terminology, and therefore those alive during this time will get the most out of it. But there were many references that were totally new to me, and far from causing problems, this just made the book even more fascinating. It made me want to read it all again, with a PC close at hand so that I could look up many of the games, machines, films and music mentioned in the story. After all, films such as Wargames and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and TV shows such as Ultraman, are readily available on DVD, Rush’s 2112 can be listened to on youtube, and also thanks to the internet you too can play early 80s arcade games such as Joust and Black Tiger. This book is written for every geek out there, and I am sure will go down a storm with some of the 15+ boys at school.


  1. When I first heard about this book, the first thing I thought of was the old William Gibson novels I used to read back in the 90s - now this novel seems great for me son :) I'm checking out several reviews to make sure that it's not too advanced for him -- I'm even making sure to catch up with a literary, AM radio show that my sister listens to called The Book Report - she listens in Miami, but I think its also aired here in Boston as well. I've checked their website and made the book is being reviewed this week and I also noticed The Book Report streams parts of their shows -- a huge plus!

  2. Growing up in the 70's and 80's. I was the first person in my high school to code on an Atari 400. I could relate to everything in this book.This book played all the right notes.

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