Playing with Virtual Fire: a review of “Ready Player One”
By Adira Rotstein
“Ready Player One” is one of those novels that’s been making the rounds of late at the studio I work. Artists need books to listened to as audio entertainment and this one has been delivering in spades to lots of folks, so I decided to give it a try and boy was I glad I did. First of all, this book is super-addictive.
Every scene ratchets up the suspense and author Ernest Cline keeps you reading and guessing on the outcome throughout. The plot twists and turns the tale and keeps you in suspense until the very end. I literally spent an entire weekend listening to this story because I couldn’t quit until I’d made it to the finish, a sure sign of a masterfully told narrative that catches an audience member in its grip. Much like the main character entering the virtual world and forgetting about his real life responsibilities while engaged in the game, “Ready Player One” will have you missing appointments just to get to the next chapter.
The plot begins in the year 2044, and as the book jacket says at this point in time “the real world is an ugly place.” Wade Watts (love the sound of that name by the way!) is an Oklahoma teen living in “the stacks,” a building made up of trailers stacked one on top of each other with his aunt who only values him for the extra money he can tack onto her welfare check. The only thing that keeps Wade engaged in life is his work as a “gunter.” The gunter subculture is a group of teens who spend their time searching the OASIS for Halliday’s easter egg. Halliday, the deceased creator of the OASIS placed a series of puzzles in his creation to be solved upon his death. Like some crazed computerized Willy Wonka he promises to choose his heir based on whoever unlocks the all the keys to the egg first. Whoever solves all the puzzles with the most points is to be chosen as the heir to Halliday’s fortune, with a controlling interest in Gregariouis Gaming Systems, the premier OASIS company.
Although Halliday has been dead for a number of years by the start of the story, his company still controls the OASIS and keeps it free from the Sixers, a group of corporate drones who belong to the second wealthiest virtual reality company. Their leader, Sorrento, has had his eye on Halliday’s prize for years. If he were to win the contest, his company would hold a complete monopoly over all aspects of the OASIS and the people within would be at his mercy. Instead of being free to all users for the good of society, Sorrento is obsessed with “properly monetizing the product” by charging people for using every little thing in the OASIS. When Wade lucks into the first of the keys to winning the prize he becomes a target for the Sixers in the real world. This forces the previously isolated teen to reach out to a handful of other young players in order to survive. The way Cline characterizes Wade’s social isolation feels spot on and accurate. A lot of the suspense in the novel comes from our desire to see Wade emerge from behind his online avatar and make actual friends as himself. As he comes to accept himself and becomes more confident in his ability to help the other players Wade comes out of his shell more and more. Probably the most satisfying moment of the entire story from me was when he actually kissed another character outside the game in real life. For that moment to feel so powerful, when we are used to seeing characters on TV kiss all the time, is a testament to Cline’s powers of characterization. Wade and Art3mis always feel like real people, even when doing some pretty bizarre things, such as piloting giant robots against Sixer wizards! (Yeah, some pretty crazy stuff goes down in this book, for sure).
I know “dystopian” has been a rising category in young adult fiction in the past few years, (maybe as a result of all the kids who read “The Giver” in school, reaching adulthood now, who knows?), but I am growing somewhat tired of the dystopian trope. Why does the whole world have to be wrecked to make a teen’s escape and addiction to an online virtual world seem credible? The fact that both his parents have died and he is living in abject poverty with an aunt who just sees him as a food stamp voucher, that he is overweight and the subject of bullying at his regular non-OASIS school and lacks real-world social skills as a result of being raised by his drug addicted mom in an OASIS saturated environment would be enough to drive anyone to a virtual world where everything was designed to one’s own specifications and success came easily. I think the appeal of the OASIS, and Wade’s escape from his disappointing real world life into his quest for Halliday’s easter egg, doesn’t require the death of most of the people on earth. Today, even people with fairly enviable lives check out from reality on a regular basis to lose themselves in online games or fictional narratives. Part of being human is having access to that little trap door in your brain that lets you out of the stifling prosaic world, into the fresh rooftop breeze of the imagination where you can see beyond your own world. The future “real world” in the book is just too bleak to be believable at times. Two of the main teen characters, for example are orphans as a result of the social chaos caused by the great fuel shortage. One character I’d buy, but two in the same predicament, (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde), “just seems like carelessness.” What has made Wade’s world the living hell that it is, is “the great fuel shortage.” The whole world ran out of gasoline and then the world’s economies fell apart and have not recovered. I’ve seen the same reason given for the downfall of society and the dying off most of the human population in the “Uglies” books by Scott Westerfeld, (although in those it was a bacteria that actually ate gasoline, rather than humanity just using it all up) and I didn’t find it believable there either. The idea that humanity could create a whole virtual world using advanced computers and technology, but for some reason be unable to a) convert their machines to alternative fuels b) figure out how to get more power from smaller amounts of the fossil fuels they have left or c) acquire vast amounts of solar power from space seems a little strange to me. Alternatives a) and b) can already be done to a limited extent now and c) would only require the right amount of investment in such a technology. The same goes for the issue with the character who had a port wine stain birthmark on her face. Medically, it is possible to remove such a birthmark now with our limited laser technology. With the technology available at the time of the story, one assumes it would not have been a problem.
My favourite things about this book, other than the depth of character development and the deep emotional and plot payoffs I felt while reading it were the references to 1980s culture and the novel’s very realistic take on the future of computer gaming and its effects on society. Lots of us already spend most of our daily lives online and I can definitely see this going in the direction of the OASIS in the future. The design of the haptic gloves and goggles were obviously extrapolated from current cutting edge VR and internet emersion gear and I really enjoyed the tour of what a near future online environment might reasonably look like. The theme that follows through the novel is one I think we should all take to heart; that reality can be risky and scary at times, but unless we take the risk of living in the real world we will never know real pleasure and real love. The description of James Halliday, the inventor of the OASIS who basically retreated completely into his own creation acts as a cautionary tale in the story about how we use the internet to protect us from intimidating social situation, but if we rely on it too much, we may end up cut off and isolated from the rest of the world. I would love to see more about him in the next novel, if there is one. To be honest, I was expecting one of the other players to turn out to be Halliday’s brain in an android body, or some sort of human/technology hybrid example of the coming techno/human singularity, but the narrative never went in that direction. I was surprised that all the main characters turned out to be teenagers in the end, but I guess in the real world teens do tend to be the earliest adopters of any new technology. All in all I would highly recommend this book to anyone who loves geek culture and is seriously interested in the future of gaming technologies and computer assisted human interaction. I can’t wait to read more by this author!