The IGN podcasts were recently airing ads for Auidble.com, and they’ve been using the book Ready Player One as a “must buy” example of the service. Last week, someone I work with lent me Ready Player One in the audiobook format because reality is nothing more than my mindfueled coma dream and none of you all exist. Or it was a coincidence; either way, I listened to the book.
Ready Player One by Earnest Cline is a first-person past dystopian novel that takes place in 2044. As one would expect of a dystopia, the world has gone to hell and ruin, so everyone spends their time playing a virtual reality game called the OASIS as a cheap and easy form of escapism. But when James Halliday, inventor of the OASIS and resident billionaire, dies, he decides to hold a contest. Whoever finds a special egg hidden within the OASIS’s many worlds will win all of his money and his stock in Gregarious Games, the company that published the virtual reality simulator. Of course this turns out to be no ordinary egg hunt.
Our “hero” is Wade, a misanthropic teenager who attends high school in the OASIS. He opens up talking about how awful the world is and how it’s terrible that adults lie to their kids about religion and the ideas of happy endings, and he’s really quite overbearing. He’s an obsessive individual who spends almost all of his time in the OASIS; this makes him difficult to like as it’s hard to sympathize with a kid who spends literally all of his time playing video games and watching movies. But this is his story, and his obsession with the OASIS and James Halliday make him a prime hunter for Halliday’s egg.
To be perfectly honest, I’m not really sure what kind of novel Ready Player One is. It tries on quite a few hats, taking turns at success and failure, but at the end of the day, it’s just a gimmicky young adult novel with some serious writing problems.
Everything about Ready Player One hinges on the OASIS virtual reality video game and the 1980s. Both start off as reasonable ideas, but both ideas grow old quite quickly.
Almost everything within the book takes place within the OASIS game console, which is interesting at first until you remember it’s a video game and not actually happening. The OASIS is huge, spanning hundreds of virtual worlds based off of whatever the creators fancy; from medieval settings to science fiction settings to steampunk settings to a gravity free dance club, anything seems possible. As a writing tool, giving your characters a literal limitless amount of places to visit is great, but as a storytelling tool, it just throws continuity out the window. Each new world tires to one-up the last, but the fact that they are all video game simulations takes away any of the real wonder behind them. It all winds up feeling trite.
James Halliday was an obsessive man, and his obsession was the 1980s. When he first starts the contest and releases his Almanac, everyone—rightfully—assumes his obsessions will be key to solving his elaborate treasure hunt. This yields a 2044 culture that highly fixates on the 1980s, and those hunting for the egg become just as obsessed with the decade as Halliday himself. It’s a concept that’s amusing at first, and then two chapters in Wade is making fun of another character for not knowing enough obscure 80’s trivia and then goes on to quote passages from a movie I’ve never heard of while others around him give him high fives and call him “the man” for being so smart.
The funny concept quickly grows aggravating.
But the 1980’s obsession doesn’t end there. It continues on, spanning the entirety of the book. Almost all of the worlds Wade and his company go to are themed after something that happened in the 1980s; the same can be said of their character’s equipment and means of transportation. Wade likes to fly around in a DeLorean with Ghost Busters stickers, but he also has an X-Wing and some other ship from an 80’s cartoon I’ve never heard of. Cline has created a world that’s built around things that already exist; he doesn’t actually have to create anything when he can simply describe something that fiction has already created, such as a spaceship, a weapon, or a building. It’s lazy and soulless writing.
Ready Player One poses an interesting world, one that is near collapse, yet every person on the Earth seems to have easy access to the OASIS, and the OASIS is often described as a utopia. A utopia built inside a dystopia is a brilliant idea, but Ready Player One rarely dwells on this, if at all. Wade spends all of six of the 40 chapters in the real world, which is a shame as I really wanted more of the contrast. Cline had the seeds to grow something interesting, but he forwent such plans in place of more character action in the OASIS, action that never really happens.
The Earth of 2044 is built around the inclusion of the OASIS. It’s a tool that everyone owns, replacing the desktop computer, and it’s a tool that allows high levels of interaction between users. People in 2013 already use the Internet as a means of meeting new people and even dating, so you’d think a 2044 with virtual reality would have a new definition of character interaction. This winds up not being the case, and Wade stresses over wanting to virtually date a girl and always qualifies his friendship with, “I’ve never met him in person.” Cline’s future is oddly stuck in the past, and it breaks immersion.
On top of that, there is a certain plot hole to Halliday’s game. When I used to play World of Warcraft, every patch came with a large level of community involvement. Players much smarter than myself would go through the game’s files to find all of the new weapons and abilities, and they’d post this information on the Internet for everyone to look at. It made finding specific items easier. So why no one decides to parse the files of Halliday’s game to find out where the egg is hidden makes no sense to me. Wade does some general hacking, so how come no one thinks to hack in and look at the numerous files that make up the OASIS? Even if this weren’t feasible, it’s never brought up.
Since the OASIS is a virtual reality video game with no real rules, the game can spit out random items called Artifacts that can do whatever Cline needs them to do. This winds up being a cheap way to advance the plot when needed; though to his credit, Cline does bring up certain items long before they are used (though this makes the ending quite predictable).
I have issues with first person narration, and Cline uses it to almost create moments of brilliant writing. But then he backs away at the last second. There’s a hypocrisy to Wade; he hates religion and the Bible but worships Halliday and Halliday’s Almanac as if they were holy, and he considers the OASIS more real than the real world despite his misanthropic views on humanity. It’s good writing until Wade has uncharacteristic moments of self awareness and sees himself for what he is and the OASIS for what it is.
These moments completely subvert what could have been interesting points about human perception and reality vs. virtual reality, and it’s extremely frustrating to see such potential thrown away for fear the audience might not get what’s going on. Every time Wade explained himself, it felt like Cline thought me too stupid to understand the points he was trying to make, even if I picked up on them chapters before Wade did.
And for a character who openly admits the OASIS is more real than the real world and threatens suicide if the evil corporation wins the treasure hunt and ruins his video game, Wade always manages to refer to Parzival as “my avatar” instead of “I.” It’s quite awkward, breaks character, and makes for wordy sentences.
The first person narration also makes for boring action. When Wade is talking about other people’s fights, the detail is fine and even enjoyable, but when Wade is discussing his own fights within the OASIS, they are short and to the point, often using references to action scenes from movies as description instead of actually building a picture. It’s lazy writing and hinges on the fact that the reader knows the specific movie being referenced.
Ready Player One is also in need of an editor. The first ten or so chapters drag on, spending too much time on the world and Halliday when the world is rarely visited and all of the information on Halliday was already given, is repeated, and can easily be inferred. There are also sections of the book that could have been trimmed or completely removed altogether.
The book also contains some of the worst dialogue I’ve ran into in quite some time, being both cringe worthy and unbelievable. Some of the teenagers mesh in 80’s lingo and Internet jargon, but even the adults who don’t do this utter some awful sentences. The first teen romance scene (thankfully there are only two and they are both short) was especially bad, though the almost emotional scene where Wade gives away a sword as an, “I’m sorry for your loss” present and ends with “It’s a +5 Vorpal Blade” deserves an honorable mention. The upside is there isn’t much dialogue to be found in the book, and Wade handles the narration quite well and never breaks character.
Other than some fairly notable problems, Ready Player One handles the first-person past perspective reasonably well. Cline fails on some accounts, but the book always feels as if it’s Wade doing the speaking, and the amount of commentary and description are believable. And other than the dialogue and content of the book, the actual writing is pretty solid (though I suppose that doesn’t leave much left).
Ready Player One isn’t a good book. It is an entertaining book though, and despite all of the gripes, I had some fun with it. It’s just so frustrating to see a book with good ideas squander away its own potential.
As a free audiobook with an Audible account, I don’t recommend it. Grab something better and longer; get more bang for your buck. I’ve yet to run into a bad Stephen King audiobook, and I’ve listened to ten or so of them. The Game of Thrones books are also wise choices, as is anything by Neil Gaiman.
As a book, I still don’t recommend Ready Player One. It has good ideas, but it never sees them through and it’s just too unpolished and annoying to be worth your time.