I'll admit it, when I first heard about Ready Player One I had absolutely ZERO interest in giving it a read. The whole virtual reality thing wore out its welcome with me years ago, and the idea of 'reading' a video game for nearly 400 pages sent me into narcoleptic shock.
And then I stumbled on a Q&A with the author, Ernest Cline, in which he discussed his love for the 80s and how that influenced the book. Suddenly I was intrigued . . . and even a little bit excited.
If you haven't stumbled across this one yet, but basic plot is pretty simple. It's the year 2044, and humanity has basically lived up to it's social, economic and environmental promises of doom. James Halliday (a reclusive legend who is equal parts Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg) has died, leaving his vast fortune, as well as control of OASIS (his fully-immersible virtual reality based role-playing, gaming, social networking environment), to whomever solves his puzzles and wins his final game.
Enter the love for the 80s.
Halliday is a self-professed 80s freak, and his final manifesto is riddled with clues relating to his pop-culture obsession. In fact, the video of his last-will-and-testament is set to the tune of Oingo Boingo's Dead Man's Party, and populated by virtual mourners digitally extracted from the John Hughes films of his (and, incidentally, my own) youth. If the gunters (the good guys) and the sixers (the bad guys) are to have any hope of finding the final Easter egg hidden in OASIS, they're going to need to be experts in the movies, television shows, cartoons, video games, and toys of that lost decade.
What follows is a well-written, remarkably well-paced read, gleefully propelled along by the self-awareness of its own novelty. Wade and company have to play their way through old text-based Tandy adventures, Atari console games, and stand-up arcade classics. They're forced to role-play their way through movies like Wargames, with points won or lost for getting lines right, delivering them with the right tone/attitude, and completing all the movements. Best of all, they get to descend into musical geekdom, playing their way through the 'concept' behind Rush's masterpiece, 2112.
As if that weren't enough, the avatars and settings of the OASIS are absolutely dripping with an 80s retro vibe. The absolute greatest pop-culture moment in the novel for me is when Wade describes his car, which is a DeLorean DMC-12, customized to be an exact copy of the Doc Brown's time machine from Back to the Future, further enhanced with a KITT artificial intelligence module and red scanner light on the hood, and then pushed over the very edge of perfection with Ghostbusters decals on either gull-wing door.
Of course, 80s pop-culture nostalgia aside, this is still (at its heart) a book about a video game. Fortunately, the characters are strong, well-rounded, and engaging, with Aech and Art3mis nicely rounding out the Wade/Parzival trilogy of game players. The sixers are an army of largely faceless goons (think Stormtroopers), but their leader, Sorrento, is a suitably over-the-top villain, obsessed with winning the game and seizing control of OASIS for nothing more than corporate greed. While the plot had a definite dry spot in the middle, it still held my attention, keeping me reading right through the end.
Had this been a story rooted in the nostalgia of any other decade, I doubt I would have found it half as enjoyable, but it must be said that Ernest does more than just pay lip service to the 80s. His love for pop-culture absolutely permeates the novel, guiding it, shaping it, and driving it, as opposed to just decorating it. All-in-all, a much better read than I anticipated . . . even if it has left me mourning my lost youth. :)