A YA book that made a lot of fuss in recent years, especially after Steven Spielberg announced that he would direct the movie adaptation (production is supposed to begin in spring this year). The book received the Alex Award and 2012 Prometheus Award, and was praised by many as the ultimate geek novel.
I admit I find it difficult to rate a novel like this. Ready Player One is undeniably YA; more YA than most YA novels I’ve read, Robin McKinley’s works included. My awareness of this fact pushes me toward applying a different set of rules to my rating than I would otherwise do – and that’s not something I want. I don’t think YA literature should be viewed as inherently worse or limited; though, undeniably, some themes usually are portrayed in a simplistic way and others are entirely missing. That’s perfectly understandable but doesn’t help in the least in solving my quandary.
So, after this rather lengthy disclaimer… What the fuss is really about?
Ready Player One is a dystopia/adventure novel set up in near future where virtual reality became the only reality worth living in, as the Earth is plagued by hunger, lack of energy sources and deep political rifts. And the universal, deeply depressing conviction that there’s no bright future for humankind. But we don’t really learn much about the world outside; the whole book is dedicated to show the world inside – the all-encompassing virtual reality called OASIS. OASIS was created by two geeks, James Halliday and Ogden Morrow (closely resembling certain famous inventors) who allowed everyone a free access to their universe. Upon Halliday’s death every user around the world learns that the creator of OASIS had some hidden Willy Wonka-like qualities: mainly, he ceded all his rights to OASIS and his sizeable fortune to the one person who would find his Easter Egg hidden somewhere within the virtual universe. The great hunt begins. But the reality being what it is, not every contender has the good of OASIS in their hearts; and evil multinational corporation IOI wants to lay their hands on the unending supply of money they plan to change OASIS into, effectively barring most of the people from its use.
But Halliday made the game extremely difficult. For years “gunters” (“egg hunters”) prowled the worlds of OASIS in search for the clues, and found nothing. Until one day a poor, obese orphan from Oklahoma City slum, Wade Owen Watts (if the name rings any bells, good) alias Parzival (if that name doesn’t ring any bells, bad!) finds the first clue. A fight between a lone, weak individual and an evil, powerful corporation begins, with all props necessary: threats, embezzling, murder, blackmail and cheating. And friends, for some measure of equilibrium.
Hmm. I read what I wrote and it does sound silly. And terribly repetitive. And it is, have no illusions. But it still reads well, a light, fast read full of – both witty and silly – references to the pop culture of late 70’s and the glorious decade of 80’s. It’s a gaming book: it takes place in a pure, proper virtual reality, a huge part of the Halliday’s contest consists of old computer games, such as Joust or Black Tiger or even Pac-Man, and the majority of the rest is pure and simple MMORPG. Plus, let us not forget Star Wars. And obscure Japanese pop culture. And Godzilla. And Ultraman. Lots of that in there.
The premise is very basic and very simple, the plot line straight as an arrow, or maybe more like a Prince of Persia platform game… There are tasks that need to be done, there are obstacles that need to be overcome, enemies to be vanquished, friends to be had, there are also the mandatory unseen complications and all the traditional rest. There’s also the mind-boggling treasure and the princess to be won, rest assured.
At the same time the novel, purportedly a dystopia, says almost nothing about the outside world. The solutions to the constant energy and food crisis proposed by the main characters seem completely outlandish, and I’m not entirely sure that was by design. Let’s use Halliday’s money to feed the hungry people! Ugh. I think the novel would have been better if the author either paid more attention to the real world, or less. As it is now, the effort seems halfway aborted, as if Cline planned the book as dystopia but arrived at a geeky paean instead. It should have been boring, but it wasn’t. Frankly, I quite enjoyed this book. A fanboy poem to the years gone by, to a forgotten age of arcade games and a reality that seemed much simpler and sweeter than what we have now.
Cline writes with deftness, keeping his pace fast and his characters engaging. Even if the biggest surprises were not surprising at all and the bows to ever-present political correctness to deep for my liking, even if the Deus ex machina plot device was too damn obvious and set my teeth on edge, I still liked Ready Player One. It’s one of those silly, feel-good books that you read and enjoy despite all their flaws, however pronounced. It’s not an opus magnum, an ingenious work of art. Absolutely not. But it is unabashedly geeky (Will Wheaton being a vice-president of OASIS!), mixing seriousness with tongue-in-the-cheek, intentional foolishness.