Ready Player One, Ernest Cline. New York: Broadway Press, 2012.
Summary: A virtual world quest created as the last act of a gaming programmer in which a real prize of $240 billion is at stake pits Wade Watts and a rag tag group of “gunters” against a ruthless corporation.
I might be one of the last people to come to this ten year old story since made into a motion picture. I have to admit, dystopian novels with a gaming theme are not my thing. If it weren’t for the fact that the author was born in Ohio, I may not have given it a second thought. But as a lifelong Buckeye, Ohio authors, whether they still live here or not, are my thing. So here goes.
It’s 2044. Climate change and the attendant breakdown of civil society has rendered much of the planet, and much of the United States a dangerous wasteland. Wade Watts lives in a ghetto in Oklahoma, consisting of trailers “stacked” on scaffolding. While he lives with his aunt, he spends most of his time in a secret hideaway in which he has connected his computer rig and “haptic” gear, in a virtual world called OASIS, created by perhaps the greatest of all game programmers, James Halliday. He attends virtual school here, and when not in school pursues a quest that not everyone thinks is real. He is a “gunter,” a serious gamer looking for the “egg” Halliday left behind as his last bequest five years ago. The prize? $240 billion in real world currency. The quest involves obtaining finding three keys, entering three gates, and successfully competing three contests. No one has even found the first key.
Wade, whose avatar is Parzifal, has spent the past five years immersing himself in everything he can learn about Halliday, all the games he created and played, the movies he loved, the places he lived, the music he listened to, to try to even find a clue to where the first key is located. The ‘Bible’ of the gunters is The Almanac. Wade discovers the first clue by noticing 112 notched letters that give him the information he needs to find the first key. And that leads to him being the first to complete the first challenge, beating a formidable foe, at an ancient arcade game. But he wasn’t the first to find the key. Another avatar, a female, Art3mis, was there first, but Wade won first. And in the informal code of gamers, he gives her a clue that helps her win and be the second to have collected the first key and pass through the first gate.
He’s not the only one in the small group of rivals. There is his best online friend “Aech” (pronounced “H”), and later Daito and Shoto, who become the fourth and fifth to pass the first gate after Parzifal, Art3mis, and Aech. Each is working on their own to win. Yet each will come to depend more and more on the others. And Wade as Parzifal and Art3mis (“Samantha” in the real world) develop an interest in each other–at least as they get to know one another through their avatars.
Parzifal becomes instantly famous in the gunter world. The treasures he wins afford him the chance to “level” up and acquire even more. The endorsements he acquires gives him real world funds. He will need them. The gunters aren’t the only ones after the Egg. So is a group called Innovative Online Industries who not only want to win the Egg, but gain control of the OASIS. They are known as the “sixers” for the six digit employee numbers that identify them. The chief of these is Nolan Sorrento, who tries to lure Parzifal to work with them. When lures fail, he resorts to threats to blow up Wade’s stack and kill him. Wade considers it a bluff, and were it not for his hideaway, he would have been. The stack where his aunt lives is bombed. It’s not a game anymore, and more people will die before it is over.
Wade uses his endorsement money to move from Oklahoma to Columbus, Ohio to be near where the main OASIS servers are and creates a state of the art setup to pursue the quest. The remainder of the book describes the pursuit of the second and third keys and gates, the tension between rivalry and friendship with his small circle of “gunters” who have to outwit the massive resources of the sixers.
The book is full of gamers lore, from Dungeons and Dragons and some of the earliest computer games to the highest tech in a virtual reality world. A non-gamer like me could have done with a bit less. But the plot is twisty enough to keep it interesting, with moments where it looks like all was lost, and then other surprises we would not have anticipated, and of course, the resourcefulness of Parzifal and the other gunters.
The backdrop to this plot is interesting as well. The immersive experience of this virtual world becomes the place where everyone spends time, because of OASIS, which facilitates education and commerce as well as massive multi-player online role playing games. It is a world with its own politics as well as actors who want to dominate the environment for their own profit. It sounds eerily like what Facebook’s re-branding as Meta would like to do.
As Cline’s plot unfolds, his characters begin to face the question of whether there might be more to the relationships they have and maybe the life they live in the “real” world, as dystopian as it is, than they have considered so far. Yet the irony is that all of these are formed online in a far more attractive world. Real neighboring in the stacks, except for passing conversations, is dead. If the eco-disasters and breakdowns in public order that some foresee come to pass, the book raises the interesting question of whether the resilience will be left to resist and try to restore or preserve the best of our culture or whether most will opt for escape to some virtual “oasis.”
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