Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One
Ernest Cline 

Random House (2011)
372 pages
Geekiest of Geekness / 80s Nostalgia / Fantasy 

Purchase it from Amazon

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?

This is quite possibly the geekiest book I have ever read. Ernest Cline is not only well-versed in every pop culture aspect of the 1980s, but obsessive about incorporating all this culture into a brand new world full of despair, poverty and artificial adventure. I can only imagine the amount of research he did to put so many minute details into every aspect of his 80s obsessed protagonist. This is very much a book written for a certain demographic and it holds that up as a badge of honor instead of trying to hide the 80s nostalgia behind updated science fiction tropes.

Main character Wade reads much younger to me than his 18 years. Despite living on his own and being hunted down by evil corporations, I kept seeing him in my head as some scrawny 14-year-old, which made some of his later adventures a little more out of left field. Perhaps it was his naiveté or that he had excessive amounts of time to dedicate to the hunt, but Wade never comes across as an adult, but more like the leader of a pack of other young teens on a daring adventure against the evil adults. It felt like the Goonies but in a VR world. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just a cognitive dissonance thing.

Despite the constant adventure, there are slow points in the story where Cline stops the plot in its tracks and provides page after page of information that, perhaps isn’t required to understand the book, but does enrich the material and gives the reader a very clear picture of Wade’s obsession with the 80s. At times I did a little tired of the constant explanations, but the narrative voice usually managed to keep things entertaining. Overall though the virtual world created by Cline and the people that inhabit it are fascinating, an eerie look at a potential life-within-a-life that could happen in the future as games become more and more complicated and tied to virtual reality.

Wil Wheaton is quite possibly the best audiobook narrator in the history of audiobook narration. I'm not familiar with any of his acting work except when he's playing "himself", but the subtle voice inflections that created the voices of different characters were distinctive without sounding silly. He even does computer voices! He was the perfect geek icon to read this incredibly geeky book. At one point there's a passing reference to Wheaton within the book itself and it sounded like he had to suppress a giggle as he went along. He was endearing and unobtrusive while embodying the material completely. I think he alone was the reason I could sit through so many long info-dumps that Cline used in his world building. Any other narrator and the long asides and segues from the plot probably would have drove me a little nuts. And now I have Wheaton's reading voice in my head no matter what I'm reading. It's kind of funny.

I can't imagine this book appealing to someone that doesn't at least have some background in 80s pop culture, particularly old video games, since the entire plot is formed from such ephemeral knowledge. All the details and explanations probably would bore those not already familiar with the topics at hand. I know there were occasions I found myself bored as Wade went on and on about this game's history or that moment in Halliday's life story, and I have fond memories of Atari games and old console games in pizza parlors.

I did enjoy Ready Player One, though it did sometime feel a bit longer than its 372 pages. It’s an entertaining romp that puts nostalgia in a form I hadn’t really considered before – in a future sense when people escape the dreariness of reality by obsessing over the past. The story was very fun to listen to and, with Wheaton as the narrator, probably my favorite audiobook I’ve listened to so far.