Ready Player One: The best 80s gamer geek trivia romp yet written

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Ready Player One by Ernest Cline science fiction book reviewsReady Player One by Ernest Cline

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsWere you a hard-core nerd or geek in junior high and high school in the 80s? You know, the ones who clustered at the library or at benches far from the jocks and cheerleaders, who thrilled at quoting lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, War Games, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Short Circuit, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Blade Runner, Legend, Dark Crystal, Krull, Star Trek, Conan the Barbarian, etc. The nerdy, awkward, pimply guys with the Members Only jackets and calculator watches whose closest contact with girls was ogling female goddesses in the Deities and Demigods Handbook. Or worse, an uber-nerd who was so uncool that even the other D&D guys wouldn’t accept you – not ME, of course, but A FRIEND, you know. Or perhaps you were a girl equally into the same pop references. I’m sure you knew the kids who were so good at arcade games that they could win them on a single quarter (I mastered both Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace to the point I would go through the moves in the car on the way to the arcade with my eyes closed). Yeah, I’m talking to you, now in your late 30s and early 40s, who have grown into upstanding citizens with real jobs and responsibilities. This book is especially for you, so set aside those income taxes and yard work and read something fun!

The story revolves around Wade Watts, a teenager living in a resource-depleted dystopian future in which the impoverished masses retreat into the giant shared virtual-reality called OASIS, much of which is devoted to enshrining all those precious geek moments from the 1980s. It seems a bit implausible that a virtual-reality MMORG in the year 2044 would feature many planets devoted largely to obscure 80s game trivia (like whole worlds devoted to games like Centipede or Joust, or Flock of Seagulls music videos), but that’s because the creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, was a huge devotee of 80s pop culture. It’s also true that with infinite virtual real estate, no matter how obscure the subculture or reference, you can find enough devotees to create an online community. The more I think about it, the more it sounds like the otaku subculture that Japan is famous for. But seriously, if you question the central conceit of the story, then it just doesn’t hold up. So it’s better to just go along with Ernest Cline, because he will not disappoint.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsWade Watts spends all his time in OASIS and barely cares about the real world, so he’s a bit overweight and out of shape. But in the OASIS, he has a cool avatar and is a well-respected “gunter,” or “egg hunter,” one of millions who make it a full-time pursuit to discover the Easter Eggs planted by Halliday throughout the OASIS. Halliday has declared that he will bequeath his entire estate, including the OASIS itself, to whoever can find the Easter Egg (i.e. Holy Grail) he has planted, but only by following a series of ever more obscure keys to unlock it. Gunters have been feverishly searching for years, but when Wade becomes the first to discover the first three keys, this brings him to the attention of the Nolan Sorrento, an executive of an evil multinational that wants to control the OASIS for profit. Initially he approaches Wade with offers of riches and fame, but when this is rebuffed, he turns into a classic villain stereotype and tries to wipe out Wade.

This triggers a lightning-paced adventure as Wade and his gamer friends race from one key to the next, each one increasingly difficult, trying to stay ahead of Sorrento and his army of corporate minions who imitate his every move and have huge financial resources at the their disposal, while Wade and his crew have to keep one step ahead in the physical world as well. Each key gets more and more difficult, which allows Cline to drop increasingly obscure and hilarious 80s geek trivia into the story. The book’s pace never really lets up, and is entertaining up to the very end, which is fairly rare for the typical door-stoppers written these days.

Is it plausible as a likely future outcome? Not really. Is it incredibly entertaining and addictive? Absolutely. If you lived through those times, you will enjoy this book like none other. Every time you think he can’t possibly come up with another, more obscure reference that only you could possibly remember, he drops a name (Zork and Battlezone come to mind) that even I had forgotten the existence of for almost three decades. Ernest Cline is an expert on 80s nostalgia, but what can he do for an encore? Is he a one-trick pony? We’ll find out very soon since his new novel Armada is coming in July, and is supposedly based on The Last Starfighter.

I listened to the audibook narrated by Wil Wheaton, fondly remembered as Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He is absolutely perfect for this book, with that knowing fanboy voice. I can’t imagine anymore more suited to read it, and he actually gets a little shout-out in the book if you’re listening carefully.

BTW, I’d like to ask our readers in their teens and 20s who’ve read Ready Player One: not having lived through the 80s, did you find these pop references interesting or not? I’d think full enjoyment really hinges on that, but would like to hear your opinions.

~Stuart Starosta


Ready Player One by Ernest Cline fantasy book reviewsReady Player One: *tries to insert obscure 80s reference and fails miserably*

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsMy childhood consisted largely of wizarding duels and Pokemon battles (sometimes both at once), so I was a little dubious about picking up Ready Player One, a nostalgia fest about pop-culture in the 1980s. What’s more, gaming culture is at the heart of the novel. The closest I got to videogames was playing Solitaire on my dad’s computer, and I’m not even sure that counts. I was more than a little bit ambivalent about the book…

Wade Watts (alliteratively named in the hope he’ll turn out like a superhero) has a dreary life. He lives in the stacks — Ernest Cline’s futuristic interpretation of a trailer park, in which trailers are stacked on top of each other in towers — with his aunt and her knucklehead boyfriend. He spends his days plugged into the OASIS, a virtual reality full of thousands of planets, spaceships and avatars, each representing the millions of other people who live their lives out in the computer world.

James Halliday, founder of OASIS, has just died, leaving the key to his unimaginable fortune hidden somewhere in his creation. He has left a trail of clues based on 80s pop culture, and it is now up to the millions of gunters (“egg hunters”) to complete a sprawling treasure hunt through virtual reality. Finding this prize is Wade’s only hope of escaping his depressing life and he becomes obsessed with Halliday’s quest.

The concept of Ready Player One is a really cool one (despite being poached off The Matrix). The whole world is plugged into the OASIS. Kids go to school there and people have relationships in virtual reality without ever meeting. It’s not that far removed from our current reality. But the long diatribes about gaming graphics, album covers, song lyrics, and TV shows were just unnecessary. I don’t even think it’s an issue with age (though at times the novel definitely felt like it was written by a middle-aged white guy for middle-aged white guys). The lengthy expositions just felt overindulgent, and there were times when the whole book could’ve just done with a good editing.

At one point, Cline must’ve twigged that he should try and broaden his target audience and inject some diversity, and if you want to read the spoiler, highlight starting here: reveals that Aech, Wade’s best friend in OASIS, turns out to be an African-American, lesbian female. You couldn’t possibly fit another cliché into one character, though I wouldn’t put it past Cline to try. [end spoiler]

Criticism aside, Ready Player One was actually one of my most enjoyable reads of the year so far. Wade is the underdog of all underdogs, and you can’t help but root for him. He’s massively likeable in a self-deprecating sort of way, and the rat race for Halliday’s fortune makes a hugely compulsive read. He’s got a voice that will ring true with the YA audience the book has been marketed at, with a kind of Holden Caulfield-esque flavour.

You don’t need to be a connoisseur of 80s pop culture to enjoy this book, you just need stamina during the info-dumps. You don’t even need to be a gamer — my own videogame knowledge extends no further than Tetris. Ready Player One is definitely a read I’d recommend, and with a movie directed by Steven Spielberg in the pipeline, I’ve no doubt that Cline is about to become a household name.

~Rachael McKenzie


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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart’s reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle’s 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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RACHAEL “RAY” MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well — a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette — those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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17 comments

  1. I am in the middle of this now and it is SO MUCH FUN!

  2. GETTING THIS NOW!
    I am totally a product of the 80s. I’m sure I’ll love this book. Maybe my husband will even read it with me.

  3. Maybe I’ll use my ticket stub for the Flock of Seagulls/Police outdoor concert at the local stadium that was razed decades ago, like apparently most of my references . . .

  4. Kevin /

    There aren’t many books I would describe as “fun” but this is one of them. I was a teenager in the late 70s and early 80s, and this book brought back so many fun memories. The pop culture references in Ready Player One reminded me of computers, games, and music that I had long forgotten. GREAT book!!

  5. It’s a great book, so I’m really looking forward to Armada and hope he can deliver the goods again!

  6. Rob Rhodes /

    Thanks for tipping me off about this one! Really enjoyed it. I hear Spielberg is directing the movie. Should be a blast.

    Spoilers
    In hindsight, Wade’s a bit of a Mary Sue, and I don’t think his available hours to spend mastering so many things add up. The end is crying out for an epilogue, or sequel!, to see if he can also save the real world. And on a purely subjective note, no mentions of Reagan or (more surprisingly, given the subject) Bard’s Tale or Midnight Madness! Fun ride, though.

    • Hi Rob!! Nice to hear from you! (Stuart, Rob is one of our retired reviewers. He’s also a writer.)

    • I thought he was a bit of a Mary Sue also, but then, you know, Aech or Art3mis would do something awesome and I would forget.

      About Reagan — I realized that this is part of the point of the book (I think– maybe Cline just isn’t old enough to remember Reagan). For teens during the 80s, the nascent online world was a sanctuary and escape from things like Reagan and “Reagonomics.” The eccentric developer billionaire would not have left clues about the Reagan administration because that was one of the things he was trying to escape.(Of course the endless research about movies, music, sitcoms, etc would have yielded some references.)

  7. I completely agree with you on the diatribes and info-dumps, Rachael–they absolutely decreased my enjoyment of the book. But the concept was a lot of fun!

  8. I agree the info-dumps and diatribes about 80s pop culture and icons are wasted on younger readers, since they directly pander to middle-aged white guys who were nerdy teens back in the 1980s. I pity such people ;-)

    • I too was a nerdy teen! (and remain a nerdy adult), and have utmost respect for all the nerdy teens out there. But from a literary and editorial point of view, the novel felt like it sometimes prioritised nostalgia where it should’ve considered pacing instead.

      • Agreed completely! I have very fond memories of being a nerd in the 1980s (and obviously not much has changed, other than my height), and the content of the info-dumps didn’t bother me at all. I just felt that the way the information was presented could have been a little more tightly crafted.

      • I think this was his first novel, and his previous experience was screenwriting, which is a very different experience. We’ll see if he gets the pacing issue under control in ARMADA.

        • I can completely understand how transitioning from screenwriting to novel-writing would be difficult. I hope you’re right and that Armada‘s pacing is better!

  9. Did the diversity injection also have a wooden leg? Because, if not…

  10. I loved the “stacks.” That was a wild visual.

  11. I wasn't a teen in the 80s. I was working for IBM. But I saw Real Genius in the theatre and remember my date. I think I found the movie funnier than she did. But the "Real World" of RP1 is just as important as the OASIS. Is that what we are going to get regardless of all of the science fiction and fantasy? Maybe I should say what the kids are going to get. I may not be here in 2044.

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