Review by Art Schmidt

If I ever meet Ernest Cline in person, I will either shake his hand or give him a big, fat kiss.  Not sure which, but I’m leaning toward the kiss.  Not on the mouth, but definitely in the facial area, along with a big ol’ bear hug. And unlike Lots-o-Huggin’ Bear, I am normally not a hugger.  Not ever.

But after devouring Cline’s first novel Ready Player One, I am inclined to embrace him and accept the ridicule and possible restraining order that might follow. Because I just loved this damned book.  It’s about the dangers of introversion, addictive technology, unregulated corporations, and overpopulation.  It’s about MMORPGs, TRS-80s, Star Wars and D&D.  It’s about Tempest and Rush and Zork and Transformers.  It’s about the Internet and comic books and 1980s pop culture.

But, mostly, it’s about nerd love.

Not two nerds falling in love, though there’s a bit of that thrown in. It’s about love of being a nerd.  Read this book and revel in it.  Nerd, love thyself.

Cline has constructed what might be the boldest, funniest, and by far the coolest tribute to the nerd sub-culture of the 1980s.  His writing is clear and crisp and full of good humor, incredible detail and sharp wit. Revenge of the Nerds was good in its time, but Ready Player One is nerd-tastic.  The opening quote of the book tells you all you pretty much all you need to know:

“Being human totally sucks most of the time.  Videogames are the only thing that makes life bearable.”

That quote is from one James Halliday, eccentric software game developer and multi-billionaire in the year 2044, when the book is set. Halliday is the creator of ‘OASIS’, a Massively-Multiplayer Online (MMO) ‘game’ which is like World of Warcraft, Star Wars Online, The Sims, and Second Life all rolled into one and injected with one-point-twenty-one gigawatts of The Schwartz.  I say ‘game’ in quotes because OASIS is portrayed as much more than a simple never-ending experience point crawl; the OASIS is a refuge for hundreds of millions of people around the globe, gamers and socialites and even workaday folks, an escape from an oppressive and depressing reality full of poverty, unemployment and homelessness.  Corporations set up strip malls and call centers inside the OASIS to both cater to the users there and so their workers can telecommute daily via the interface.  Public schools are run through OASIA; there is an entire planet (a no PVP zone, of course) where schools are built across the landscape and students attend high school online.

The OASIS contains an entire universe, full of thousands of worlds, places for people to adventure, socialize, or just plain hang out.  The rights to the massive MMORPGs and popular pen-and-paper games we have today are purchased and incorporated into the OASIS so that there is a small worlds called Greyhawk, Azeroth, Toril, Dorrak, Tatooine and even a planet called Gygax (I pumped my fist in the air in honor of the late Game Master General when I read that one).  Ancient video games, such as the Zork series, the AD&D Gold Box games, and every other adventure game world you can think of are also there, tucked away in small corners of the massive virtual reality.

By the way, the OASIS is free for everyone.  Profits come from selling space to businesses and virtual real estate to users who wish to build their own clothing, bling, homes, hangouts, and fortresses inside it. Some people even have their own asteroids and small planets.  But the user community at large can access it for free.  That James Halliday is one great guy.

But sadly, James Halliday is dead, and without heirs he has a titanic fortune and his software empire up for grabs.  But he had one last message for everyone, triggered on his website when he dies: he spent the last ten years of his life devising a challenge within the OASIS, a game within a game, wherein the first person to find three keys and open three gates and solve the puzzles that lie behind said gates will inherit his fortune, his company, and sole ownership and control over the OASIS.

And so the joyride begins. And what a ride it is.

The story follows Wade Watts, named by his comic book-loving father because he thought it sounded like a super hero’s secret identity.  Wade dedicates his life to solving the riddle of Halliday’s quest before anyone else.  His adventures are the stuff of legend, going from nobody to superstar, battling the forces of evil and trying to woo the hand of the girl of his dreams.  Or is she?  This is virtual reality, after all, and no one and nothing is what it really seems…

The clues for the grand quest are immersed in the deceased software designer’s favorite things: cult movies, video games, classic rock, Japanese monster flicks, and Dungeons and Dragons.  And if you like any two of those things, you will like this book. If you like any three of them, you will love this book. And if you love four or more, you should stop reading this and run out and grab this book.  I downloaded it to my Nook one afternoon and finished it the following night.  And I had a huge grin on my face the entire time. 

Irrelevant Tangent Warning: if you don’t like any of the things I mentioned above, you should just stop reading this immediately and forget the title of the book altogether.  That way you won’t be tempted to see the movie when it comes out.  Yep, Warner Bros. snapped up the movie rights mere hours after the book rights were sold.  Cline is writing the screenplay for the movie; he’s got experience with that as he wrote the screenplay for the movie Fanboys as well.

Complicating our hero’s conquest are the other ten million people he’s competing against.  Oh, and the rival software corporation that lies, cheats and steals to win the prize so it can monetize the OASIS and crush all other competition.  Oh, and the riddles themselves.  The first one takes five years to decipher, by which time most people have given up.  Wade discovers the clues to the riddle and embarks on a quest to find the first of the three keys.  He soon discovers and then adventures through a classic D&D module, ‘Tomb of Horrors’.

Watching Wade sneak around through the dungeon, his avatar ill-equipped for such a difficult journey, while he reads through the printed version of the module in another window to avoid all of the traps and monsters is an extremely clever scene and a nerd’s delight.  So is our hero jetting around in space in a modified Firefly-class starship he christened the Vonnegut wearing a +5 vorpal sword and contemplating the best use of an artifact which allows him to turn into Ultraman once per day for three minutes.

Then again, most of the book itself is a delight.  I would highly recommend Ready Player One
to anyone.  And you don’t have to be a nerd, or a child of the 80’s, to enjoy it. You don’t have to like Japanimation or John Hughes movies or The Empire Strikes Back or Space Invaders or Duran-Duran.

You just have to like to read, and to laugh.  What are you waiting for?

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