Reading Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is like hunting through a futuristic virtual Chocolate Factory from Willy Wonka.
Dystopian novels each have their own commentary on society. 1984 focused on the power of words and the fragile nature of truth. The Hunger Games highlighted the dangers of consumerism in a culture that favors the elite while exploiting the poor. Fahrenheit 451 cautioned against abandoning intellectual pursuits in favor of constant superficial entertainment stimulation. In each of these novels, the government is seen as an antagonist. Ready Player One is different in that regard. No menacing Big Brother has doomed the human race in this universe, just the inaction of the people – fueled by the ability to escape to a world that is in every way better than reality.
In Ready Player One, an incredible invention has captivated all of society. The Oasis is a virtual reality platform unlike any other. In it, players can go to school, work, and live out fantasies. Anything is possible, from becoming a wizard to owning a X-Wing. Not X-Wing knock-off, actual X-Wing; Ready Player One is rife with product and franchise placement, most of it from the 1980’s.
This is because the Oasis’ creator, James Donovan Halliday, was a real geek/nerd/whatever the word is for it these days. To help put it in perspective, Halliday is more commonly known as Anorak within the simulation, a name straight out of Dungeons & Dragons.
To amplify the nostalgia, protagonist Wade Watts lives and breathes 80’s nostalgia. Despite being a young man in 2044, Watts would feel more at home alongside Marty in 1983. He’s a man out-of-time. His obsession comes from a desire to emulate Halliday – to think exactly the creator of the Oasis did.
This ties back into the story’s main plot. Halliday has died – in fact, he dies some five years before the action of the story takes place. Being a kindly old eccentric, he decided to leave his fortune to a worthy soul (see the Willy Wonka coming in). To determine said soul, Halliday hid an Easter Egg inside the Oasis code. Whoever can decipher the riddles and claim the Egg first gets the fortune, control of Oasis, pretty much godhood.
The hunt is on.
While Halliday drives the nostalgia in the book, Ernest Cline is clearly the nut for the past here. Good writers always put a bit of themselves in everything they create – intentionally or not. Cline’s love of Atari, his passion for the early days of video games and video game culture, are in every paragraph of text. It’s not just the games, it is the culture. Every person who ever grew up feeling like a geeky outcast in the 80’s or 90’s is going to be able to relate to what is in these pages.
What makes Ready Player One succeed far better than something like Stranger Things, however, is its ability to go beyond feeling derivative of what came before. The novel does feel like a hodgepodge of outdated character tropes and plot elements. Instead, it has an awareness. While Cline is a fan, he is certainly critiquing the culture he loves.
This ties back into the dystopian element. Wade Watts lives in a world where people have been obsessing about the past so much that they have forgotten their future. Energy crisis, overpopulation, pollution – who cares when there’s a shiny new toy? Watts’ character growth is a battle between choosing easy acceptance and actually trying to make a difference. His home is the Oasis and he must choose whether or not he wants to leave it (in some ways, this reminded me of the humans in Wall-E).
Ready Player One is a fantastic story, if a tad predictable. It brims with believable characters and uses its virtual reality setting for twists and turns not possible in normal science fiction. Like many dystopian novels, it comes with a warning and a hope. Virtual reality will be the future, but please not at the expense of actual reality.