One day last fall, I glanced over at my Twitter feed and saw that Wil Wheaton (@WilW) was in Seattle that evening for a reading at the Elliott Bay Book Company. He would join author Ernie Cline (@erniecline) to talk about Cline’s first novel -- Ready Player One. I had to go.
It was fun evening. The author Q&A was awesome.Wil did the reading and was also awesome. I bought my copy of the book and got in line for the signing at the end of the event. I chatted with Wil and Ernie about my Atari shirt and their dealings with ThinkGeek. If you get the chance to see them, I highly recommend it. And by “them” I mean Wil and Ernie. Or ThinkGeek. Either way.
Eventually, I worked through my reading queue and cracked open Ready Player One while having dinner at the Nine Fine Irishmen in Las Vegas during CES 2012. The book was quite good, but not quite as good as I hoped. There are lots of things to love about it, but the book does have some flaws. That’s even more disappointing because, given the subject matter and the author’s presence at the reading, I wanted this to be the most awesome-est book I’d seen in years. It’s not. It’s still good, just not as awesome as I had hoped.
Still, if you’re a fan of 80s Geek Culture, you’ll likely enjoy the book.
The story takes place in a dystopian future where the Earth has suffered major environmental collapse. The divide between the rich and poor is wider than ever. The most popular form of entertainment is the virtual world of the OASIS. That basic setup is nothing new; we’ve seen it from William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Melissa Scott, Richard Morgan, and more. While the basic scene may be familiar, Cline takes it in a different way.
The OASIS is the heart of the story. It is a virtual land, not unlike Second Life or World of Warcraft on a much larger scale. You have an avatar that you design, buy clothes for, equip with weapons and special gear, and then you interact with other characters on different planets and virtual locations in the OASIS. Where you are in the real world is irrelevant. You put on your goggles, headphones, gloves, and sometimes your special suit, login, and you’re walking and flying around the OASIS.
The story kicks of with the death of James Halliday, a game programmer, entrepreneur, inventory of the OASIS world, and child of the 80s.
At first, I couldn’t understand why the media was making such a big deal of the billionaire’s death. After all, the people of Planet Earth had other concerns. The ongoing energy crisis. Catastrophic climate change. Widespread famine, poverty, and disease. Half a dozen wars. You know: “dogs and cats living together . . . mass hysteria!” Normally, the newsfeeds didn’t interrupt everyone’s interactive sitcoms and soap operas unless something really major had happened. Like the outbreak of some new killer virus, or another major city vanishing in a mushroom cloud. Big stuff like that. As famous as he was, Halliday’s death should have warranted only a brief segment on the evening news, so the unwashed masses could shake their heads in envy when the newscasters announced the obscenely large amount of money that would be doled out to the rich man’s heirs.
Halliday’s death is momentous because of his will. He leaves his company shares and all his wealth to a gamer who finds the Easter Egg. Basically, he hid puzzles throughout the virtual world. The player who solves the puzzles and wins the game gets everything.
This draws individuals, teams, and organizations who all want to win the prize and control the OASIS for their own purposes. One of those egg hunters, or “Gunters” is Wade Watts (AKA Parzival) our narrator -- a poor, orphaned teenager who’d long been an OASIS denizen and is obsessed with the 80s. Halliday is his hero. He lives through the crushing depression that many teenagers face. But he takes on the quest.
He’s got the background for it because he identifies so much with Halliday. When a reporter ask Halliday’s former friend and business partner for tips, he offers this advice.
“As the person who knew James Halliday the best, do you have any advice for the millions of people who are now searching for his Easter egg? Where do you think people should start looking for it?”
“I think Jim made that pretty obvious,” Morrow replied, tapping a finger against his temple, just as Halliday had in the Anorak’s Invitation video. “Jim always wanted everyone to share his obsessions, to love the same things he loved. I think this contest is his way of giving the entire world an incentive to do just that.”
As is often the case, completing the quest isn’t what the character needs. The quest itself matters. That was certainly the case for our narrator.
Then the Hunt for Halliday’s Easter egg began. That was what saved me, I think. Suddenly I’d found something worth doing. A dream worth chasing. For the last five years, the Hunt had given me a goal and purpose. A quest to fulfill. A reason to get up in the morning. Something to look forward to.
The moment I began searching for the egg, the future no longer seemed so bleak.
Our narrator pursue the challenge like many geeky teenage boys shyly falls for a girl and rival.
This is an interesting story bit. Cline writes about these feelings in way that feels really familiar from back in those days.
I didn’t, of course. My whole relationship with Art3mis was in defiance of all common sense. But I couldn’t help falling for her. Somehow, without my realizing it, my obsession with finding Halliday’s Easter egg was gradually being supplanted by my obsession with Art3mis.
I’d heard all the cliched warnings about the perils of falling for someone you only knew online, but I ignored them. I decided that whoever Art3mis really was, I was in love with her. I could feel it, deep in the soft. chewy caramel center of my being.
And then one night, like a complete idiot, I told her how I felt.
I especially like that last line. It feels right in that context. The other interesting thing here is the way Cline tells the story. The whole book is told in flashback. Parzival tells us he’s going to tell Art3mis how he feels and that it will go badly several pages before we actually see that encounter. Going into many sections of the book, we already have a sense of what is going to happen, but Cline still builds a feeling of suspense around it.
Why does he finally tell her? Well, Cyndi Lauper has a little something to do with it.
Her avatar lost its human form and dissolved into a pulsing amorphous blob that changed its size and color in synch with the music. I selected the mirror partner option on my dance software and began to do the same. My avatar’s limbs and torso began to flow and spin like taffy, encircling Art3mis, while strange color patterns flowed and shifted across my skin. I looked like Plastic Man, if he were tripping out of his mind on LSD. Then everyone else on the dance floor also began to shape-shift, melting into prismatic blobs of light. Soon, the center of the club looked like some otherworldly lava lamp.
When the song ended, Og took a bow, then queued up a slow song. “Time after Time” by Cyndi Lauper. All around us, avatars began to pair up.
This section of the book is revealing in a number of ways. I’ve ready criticism of the book that says Cline is an immature writer and that when he writes about emotions and feelings, it all comes across as juvenile and immature. I do get that sense throughout most of the book, but I’m not sure if that a limitation of Clines skill or an example of it. The book should sound like a teenager wrote it because it’s told from a teenager’s first person point-of-view.
This section is also interesting because it plays with the OASIS world a bit. In the passage, Cline shows us just some of the things that are possible in the digital world. You can defy gravity. You’re form can convert into blobs of light. Avatars can interact in ways that would be completely impossible in the physical world. And if your avatar doesn’t know how to dance, just add some software.
The huge open space in the center of the sphere served as the club’s zero-gravity “dance floor.” You reached it simply by jumping off the ground, like Superman taking flight, and then swimming through the air, into the spherical zero-g “groove zone.”
SInce the OASIS is only 1s and 0s on servers, it can be infinitely big. Adding more space is as simple as writing some code.
Early in the Facebook days, you may remember friends giving on another virtual sheep and other goods. Users could pay for fancier ones. Games like Farmville and Pet Society let you pay real cash to get fancier farm equipment and furniture. And what do you actually get for your money? Nothing but an automated entry in a database. “Items” are simply conjured out of code, and if the game goes away so does all that merchandise.
The virtual world of the OASIS works in much the same way, and Haliday’s GSS made a fortune on it.
In addition to the billions of dollars that GSS raked in selling land that didn’t actually exist, they made a killing selling virtual objects and hides. The OASIS became such an integral part of people’s day-to-day social lives that users were more than willing to shell out real money to buy accessories for their avatars: clothing, furniture, houses, flying cars. magic swords and machine guns. These items were nothing but ones and zeros stored on the OASIS servers, but they were also status symbols. Most items only cost a few credits, but since they cost nothing for GSS to manufacture, it was all profit. Even in the throes of an ongoing economic recession, the OASIS allowed Americans to continue engaging in their favorite pastime: shopping.
There are thousands of worlds in the OASIS. The world where Parzival confesses his feeling to Art3mis is called Neo Noir.
There were hundreds of cyberpunk-themed worlds spread throughout the OASIS, but Neo Noir was one of the largest and oldest. Seen from orbit, the planet was a shiny onyx marble covered in overlapping spider- webs of pulsating light. It was always night on Neo Noir, the world over, and its surface was an uninterrupted grid of interconnected cities packed with impossibly large skyscrapers. Its skies were filled with a continuous stream of flying vehicles whirring through the vertical cityscapes, and the streets below teemed with leather-clad NPCs and mirror-shaded avatars, all sporting high-tech weaponry and subcutaneous implants as they spouted city-speak straight out of Neuromancer.
Because of the ability to equip avatars and the scope of the universe, there are still differences between the Haves and Have Nots, even in the OASIS. And early challenge for Parzival is simply to figure out how to get to different parts of the OASIS without any money.
The kids who didn’t own ships would either hitch a ride with a friend or stampede to the nearest transport terminal, headed for some offworld dance club, gaming arena, or rock concert. But not me. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was stranded on Ludus, the most boring planet in the entire OASIS.
The Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation was a big place.
So I remained stuck at school. I felt like a kid standing in the world’s greatest video arcade without any quarters, unable to do anything but walk around and watch the other kids play.
As Parzival figures out ways around the limitations, he devotes himself full time to hunting the egg. He spends more and more time in the OASIS. Aside from basic biological needs, why leave? Everything he needs can be delivered to his home. All his friends are on the OASIS, and he can even earn money there.
My apartment was on the forty-second floor, number 4211. The security lock mounted outside required another retinal scan. Then the door slid open and the interior lights switched on. There was no furniture in the cube-shaped room, and only one window. I stepped inside, closed the door, and locked it behind me. Then I made a silent vow not to go outside again until I had completed my quest. I would abandon the real world altogether until I found the egg.
Capitalism would inch forward, without my actually having to interact face-to-face with another human being. Which was exactly how I preferred it, thank you.
Cline opens one of the chapters with Groucho Marx prescient thoughts on the matter:
I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal.
One of the most popular features of the book is all the 80s and pop-culture references. Parzival has a series of videos running on his “channel” within the OASIS for others to watch.
I pulled up my programming grid and made a few changes to my evening lineup. I cleared away the episodes of Riptide and Misfits of Science I’d programmed and dropped in a few back-to-back flicks starring Gamera, my favorite giant flying turtle. I thought they should be real crowd pleasers. Then, to finish off the broadcast day, I added a few episodes of Silver spoons.
That stuff really resonates with me. Misfits of Science is where I developed my crush on Courtney Cox. I was never an A-Team fan, but I loved Riptide with its pink helicopters. I like the show even more when they added June Chadwick to the caste in the last season (I developed my crush on her during V: The Series). Gamera was always my favorite Godzilla monster. I mean, come on, he flies by pulling his legs into his shell and turning his leg holes into jet engines. That’s awesome. I was a regular Silver Spoons viewer, too, but there were no crushes involved in that.
There are other references that amused me.
I watched a lot of YouTube videos of cute geeky girls playing ‘80s cover tunes on ukuleles. Technically, this wasn’t part of my research, but I had a serious cute-geeky-girls-playing-ukuleles fetish that I can neither explain nor defend.
The only cute-geeky-girls-playing-ukuleles that I’m familiar with are of course Molly Lewis and Kate Micucci, but I haven’t delved deeply enough into their back catalogs to know if they’re the ones Cline is referring to.
The whole book is built on 80s references and deep descriptions of the movies, video games, music, games of the era. It’s clear that Cline loves this stuff, and who can blame him? They 80s were an awesome time.
Sometime the references got to be a little too much for me, though. It wasn’t their volume that got to me. It was the way Cline explained all of them in a little too much detail. I’m undecided if I consider this a flaw of the book. It may have gotten to me because it feels like he was explaining stuff that was completely obvious. The reason it’s obvious, though, is because I grew up with all this stuff. Perhaps that level of explanation is important for those who were not children of the 80s. The deep dive did take me out and make me roll my eyes a few times.
While the book may not have been as awesome as The Empire Strikes Back, is at least as awesome as Return of the Jedi. It’s a great book to read, with a few flaws, and I look forward to Cline’s next book. I also look forward to the “Ready Player One” movie, should it come out. If you’re a fan of light CyberPunk, or of 80s references, don’t miss this book.