James Halliday is dead. The Willy Wonka-esque creator of the world’s most popular Massively Multiplayer Online game, OASIS, which serves as an escape for many of the Earth’s citizens after the collapse of civilization, has sent out a riddle regarding three keys. The one who can collect these three items will receive the reclusive Halliday’s massive $250 billion fortune and full access to the virtual kingdom he created. The first key is found by Wade, a kid connecting to OASIS out of a dreadful trailer park in Oklahoma. Little does he realize how much is life is going to change.
If you’re a child of the 90s, then all of the internet references are going to make sense. OASIS users wear full haptic suits and visors to simulate its virtual environment. They gather in private chat rooms, send e-mails, and work on quests together. When Wade suddenly find his life in danger, he holes up in a secure hotel and disappears off the grid entirely. It’s from this lonely compartment, where he doesn’t make contact with physical people for months at a time, that he takes his gear and dives into an expansive virtual universe, sectored off in a Rubick’s-arranged cube with thousands of worlds and millions of players. Wade (known as Parzival in the game, after the Arthur-ian knight that finds the holy grail) must quickly gather a handful of acquaintances to try and find the remaining two keys before the evil IOI corporation does and turns the game into Project Ten Dollar.
If you’re a child of the 80s, then the slathering of pop culture references are going to make sense. To a fault. From the dialogue to the virtual settings, Ready Player One bathes the reader in more Reagan-era references than you can shake a stick at. In fact, I almost stopped reading the book entirely early on when Wade and friend Aech sit in the latter’s virtual basement and rattle off nuggets of Atari trivia one after the other. While it’s charming in most spots, like reading about a DeLorean in the same scene as a Battlestar Galactica Viper, when Cline pours it on, it feels like gloating. Obviously, this is to set some atmosphere as the world is built on Halliday’s imagination, but it’s laid on so thick in spots that this mostly-trivial content becomes offensive.
If you can get past the the first few chapters, you’re in for an adventure, but even that feels fangless at times. Whenever a challenge arises, Wade has already thought of it. He memorizes Halliday’s favorite movies, music, and TV shows and is ready to recite them at will. WarGames? He’s seen it three dozen times. Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail? Seven dozen times. The lyrics to Halliday’s favorite Rush album? Memorized fifty times over. A perfect play-through of <insert any Atari-era game here>? Easy. I’m exaggerating, but only slightly, and Wade’s mastery of everything sucks much of the tension straight out.
Ready Player One is a fun book, but it works so hard to be a fan of 80s nerd culture that it doesn’t seem worth following on its own.
Image credit: Ain’t It Cool News