Ernest Cline’s 2011 début novel, ‘Ready Player One’ is, at its heart, a love letter to an affectionately remembered past, and a thinly-veiled declaration that no era since the one in which he spent his childhood has ever been quite so good. Perhaps he’s right.
In some ways, I find it amusing that the 80s – for that is the decade in question – are making a big comeback, in terms of music and fashion in particular, but in another way it’s not surprising at all. People my age (and up to about five years older) would have been young during the 1980s, and so as we’ve begun to reach the age of ‘maturity’ – settling down, getting a bit of cash behind us, that sort of thing – we’ve started to want to relive the cartoons and movies and music that we grew up with.
But what about the 1980s was so amazing?
It’s no wonder that so many survivors of the 80s grew up to be nerds – it was the era when computers, outside of government facilities and academic institutions, really began to take off. Space travel cropped up in kids’ movies – Explorers and Flight of the Navigator, anyone? – and movies like D.A.R.Y.L., about a cyborg child, were memorable for their treatment of technology as something which had limitless possibility, but which might also exact a massive price. Video games were everywhere. I remember, from my own tastes in movies and cartoons, that the idea of exploration and potential was ubiquitous, computers – if you knew how to master them – could do anything, and space was only a step away.
This feeling – based more in nostalgia than reality, I suspect – suffuses ‘Ready Player One.’ The book is set in the year 2044, when the energy crisis and collapsing economies have forced much of the world to live in poverty and darkness. One thing they do have, though, is OASIS, a giant online MMPORPG (Massively MultiPlayer Online Role-Playing Game), which acts as a sort of drug. It keeps people sane, and takes them out of the minutiae of their own hardscrabble existence. Everything is done in OASIS – people, like our protagonist Wade, even attend school there in a sort of Second Life scenario, where you can be who you want – and absolutely everyone is connected to the network. James Halliday, the man who invented OASIS, died about five years before the book begins, and it’s rumoured that, somewhere in the workings of OASIS, there is hidden a huge prize – his fortune, and control of his company.
The only problem is that there are loads of clues to follow if you want to find the prize, and – so far – nobody’s been able to get beyond even the first of them.
Halliday was obsessed with the era of his youth – the 1980s – and because of this, millions of people have taken on a level of familiarity with that decade that most of those who lived through it couldn’t have matched. This is because the clues to Halliday’s ‘easter egg’, or the prize within his game, all relate to 1980s movies, books, video games, pop culture references, and so on (and, if you have any familiarity with the 1980s, these little gems and in-jokes pepper the book in such a glee-making way that I can’t even find a word for it.) Despite the fact that, over the years, most people have given up on the search for clues, one day our hero Wade unlocks the first one – and his name springs to the top of a global leaderboard, just like it would in an arcade game.
And that brings out all the people who’ve been quietly beavering away in the years since Halliday’s death, trying to work out the clues. And then, the race begins.
It’s a very visual book, and as I read I was imagining it like a movie or a video game. You can’t really help it – everything about the story and the 80s references naturally draws your mind back to the movies and games of that era, and the book lends itself to being seen, rather than being read. It doesn’t surprise me that a movie is in production.
There’s so much to like about this book. It’s huge fun, for a start. It also deals with ideas like internet freedom and free speech, as well as the possibility of reforging your identity in a world where everyone and everything is online, 24/7. It’s a scary, but shockingly plausible, vision of the future. It tackles questions of humanity, and how we’ll keep a hold on it as we drift further and further away from a flesh-and-blood existence. It deals with the nature of greed and whether idealism and equality wouldn’t be a better way of doing things. I loved it.
Having said that, it might not appeal to people who are either too young or not quite young enough to remember the 1980s, or who weren’t into the pop culture of that era. I was, just a little, but a little is enough. There’s loads in this book which I didn’t understand – but I didn’t need to. You get swept away by the action and even if you don’t get the in-jokes when Wade and his friends are doing digital battle, you care enough about them to make the battle important. It does escalate up into a rather ridiculous-seeming conclusion, but even then I found myself cheering the heroes on, while just enjoying the story.
In short, I’d say this one is worth a try. If you’re anything like me, you’ll love it. Hopefully.