A Future Wrapped in 1980s Culture
Click here to find “Ready Player One” in print, e-content, and video.
By Janet Maslin AUG. 14, 2011
Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One” is a book filled with references to video games, virtual reality, ’80s pop-culture trivia, geek heroes like E. Gary Gygax, and funny-sounding cult items like Frobozz and Raaka-Tu. Yet it works for people who like books without pictures too.
Mr. Cline is photographed on the jacket standing in front of an open-flapped DeLorean, like the one in “Back to the Future.” He looks a bit like the filmmaker Kevin Smith, one of the few people on the planet who may be capable of catching all of Mr. Cline’s geekoid references. (Mr. Cline himself wrote the screenplay for the 2009 film “Fanboys,” about unusually fanatical “Star Wars” devotees.) Another is the science-fiction writer John Scalzi, who has aptly referred to “Ready Player One” as a“nerdgasm.” There can be no better one-word description of this ardent fantasy artifact about fantasy culture.
With its Pac-Man-style cover graphic sand vintage Atari mind-set “Ready Player One” certainly looks like a genre item. But Mr. Cline is able to incorporate his favorite toys and games into a perfectly accessible narrative. He sets it in 2044, when there aren’t many original Duran Duran fans still afoot, and most students of 1980s trivia are zealous kids. They are interested in that time period because a billionaire inventor, James Halliday, died and left behind a mischievous legacy. Whoever first cracks Halliday’s series of ’80s-related riddles, clues and puzzles that are included in a film called “Anorak’s Invitation” will inherit his fortune.
Halliday was “the video-game designer responsible for creating the Oasis, a massively multiplayer online game that had gradually evolved into the globally networked virtual reality most of humanity now used on a daily basis,” Mr. Cline writes. Part of what has made Oasis so attractive is that real life on an impoverished, resource-depleted Earth has grown increasingly grim. So the characters in “Ready Player One” spend their time as avatars bewitched by online role playing. They live as shut-ins and don’t know one another in the flesh. Art3mis, the hot-looking blogger and warrior who becomes the novel’s heroine, may actually be an overweight middle-aged guy named Chuck.
The book’s narrator is a school kid named Wade Watts, whose parents at least had the foresight to give him the alliterative name of a superhero. But Wade’s real circumstances are not exciting. He lives in a tall block of stacked mobile homes and escapes to an abandoned van to adopt his online persona. He goes to school because he has to;his video console and virtual-reality visor will be taken away if he flunks out. But his school avatar is often seen slumped at its desk, sleeping. That’s because Wade is busy being an alter ego called Parzival. Like Art3mis he spells his name funny because the other spellings are already taken.
Wade is obsessed with “Anorak’s Invitation,” not least because there’s something fishy about it: the extras seen with Halliday have been digitally borrowed from old John Hughes films. There’s no knowing what actually happened to Halliday. But Halliday’s knowledge of 1980s trivia was so thorough that Wade is determined to match it. (As a full-time gamer he is competitive by nature. And what else has he got to do?) So he knows everything about every episode of “Family Ties” and every coin-operated arcade game. “Ready Player One” takes its title, sentimentally, from the phrase that signaled the start of games from that era.
In “Anorak’s Invitation” Halliday mentions one of his sentimental favorites, the Atari game Adventure, and the Easter egg that its creator, Warren Robinett, incorporated into it. And now it’s time to start looking things up, if you are hooked by Mr. Cline’s premise but unfamiliar with his huge frame of reference. An Easter egg is a secret sign or clue or whatnot that may be embedded in a game, and Halliday has deliberately created an occasion for egg hunting. A great many egg hunters, known as “gunters” for short, do nothing but try to find Halliday’s eggs. Reader, ask yourself: Would you be interested in Wade’s story if you weren’t sure he was smarter than all the other guys?
Because Wade needs at least a few friends, he bonds with Art3mis and three other avatars. They become known as the High Five when they start racking up high numbers on the cosmic scoreboard. Mr. Cline describes their progress with a winking appreciation of the culture clash that ensues when Wade, a humble schoolboy, reaches the Tomb of Horrors to lock antlers with Acererack the Demi-Lich from Dungeons & Dragons. But “Ready Player One” crosses a line here, when its virtual-reality fetish leads it into Dungeons & Dragons for real.
The book gets off to a witty start,with Wade and his cronies slinging insults about one another’s knowledge of fantasy films and using ’80s-vintage movie quips like “Don’t call me Shirley.” (From “Airplane!” of course.) And if they are capable of arguing endlessly about “Star Wars” trivia, they’re also living in a 27-sector virtual-reality world arranged like a Rubik’s Cube and where the “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” realms are right next door to each other. (See “nerdgasm,” above.) So the breadth and cleverness of Mr. Cline’s imagination gets this daydream pretty far. But there comes a point when it’s clear that Wade lacks at least one dimension, and that gaming has overwhelmed everything else about this book.
READY PLAYER ONE
By Ernest Cline