Thursday, July 28, 2016

Ready Player One

Ready Player One
by Ernest Cline
Recommended Ages: 14+

This dystopian-future, cyberpunk novel is a pop-culture-referencing, galactic geek-out for anyone who grew up in the 1980s. It takes place mostly inside an immersive, online virtual-reality called the OASIS whose inventor, James Halliday, is exactly the same age as the author and myself. The date is approximately 2044, when the world has become a wasteland of war, plague, and famine, right on time for a large segment of the population to become a bunch of agoraphobic loners who live in one-room apartments with blacked-out windows, hooked up to a world where they can be anything they want to be. They live as digitally created avatars in a virtual universe filled with space-ships, magic, computer-generated non-player characters (NPCs), treasures, quests, and level-up opportunities.

In the real world, Wade Watts is a chubby orphan who lives with his drugged-up aunt and about two dozen other people in a double-wide, part of a high-rise stack of trailer homes on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. In OASIS, he attends a virtual high school where there is no bullying, no fighting, no cussing in class. Like thousands of other gunters - slang for "Easter egg hunters" - his dream is to solve the riddle left in Halliday's will, become the first to find the three keys hidden somewhere in the OASIS and the gates they unlock, and inherit the eccentric game designer's vast fortune - as well as full control of the OASIS and its parent company, Gregarious Simulation Systems.

But five years after the challenge was posed, no one has even found the first key; the scoreboard for Halliday's egg hunt remains blank. Meantime, an evil corporation called IOI has set its sights on taking over GSS and turning the OASIS from a free-access cyber-utopia to an elite playground and/or a fascist world empire. They have all but unlimited resources - money to buy in-game extras, an army of "Sixers" committed to finding the egg on behalf of IOI, even indentured slaves - while Wade, who has memorized reams of material about 1980s pop culture, known to be Halliday's obsession and the real key to finding the egg, cannot even afford the transport fees to leave his high school planet and look for egg clues, or at least for adventures to help his avatar, named Parzival, advance to higher levels. His only way out of a hellish existence is to find Halliday's egg, but apart from school he can't seem to get anywhere except the virtual basement rec-room where he plays vintage video games, watches old movies, and listens to 1980s pop music with his best friend Aech.

Then one day, he has an epiphany, and by the end of the day, Parzival becomes the first name to appear on the egg hunt scoreboard - quickly followed by four other gunters, including Aech and a blogger named Art3mis, on whom Wade has a secret crush - then followed, in turn, by a bunch of Sixers, whose avatar names are all six-digit IOI employee numbers. The Sixers try to recruit Wade; then they try to kill him. He has to change his identity and go into hiding to continue his search for the egg, while each step forward puts him and his four best friends (who, by the way, have never met in real life) in worse danger than ever. IOI will not hesitate to cheat, steal, or even murder to gain control of the OASIS, while gunters like Wade and friends would do anything to stop them. Just when IOI seems to have maneuvered itself into an unbeatable position, Wade plays an insanely risky gambit and puts his heart, his life, and the future of the world as he knows it into play.

This book is a gift to people of my generation who have warm memories of the popular music, teen movies, TV shows, comics, coin-operated arcade games, clunky computers and video games, role-play adventures, science fiction and fantasy books, and other sacred relics of geekdom from the 1980s and the neighboring decades. It is a treasure-trove of nostalgic references that will probably make it impenetrable to the linguists who discover it thousands of years from now among the ruins of our civilization. It is also a fast-paced thriller that creates its own bubble of immersive reality around the reader.

Ernest Cline is also the author of the novel Armada, in which Earth is invaded by video-game aliens; the screenwriter of the film Fanboys, in which a group of friends goes on a quest to ask George Lucas to let them pre-screen Star Wars Episode I before one of them dies; a spoken-word artist whose output includes an album titled Ultraman Is Airwolf; and a memoirist whose autobiography, The Importance of Being Ernest, reinforces the impression that he is actually James Halliday, except not quite as rich. Yet.

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