Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011) – Book Review
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is a novel written from the heart of a self-confessed pop culture nerd expressly for the hearts of pop culture nerds. From start to finish, Ready Player One is an action packed, fun filled, smart, funny and altogether addictive geektastic delight and one of the best books I have read in a long time. It’s so good that a day after Cline sold the book to Random House, Warner bought the film rights and secured Cline for the script.
The plot breaks down like this: in a bleak and grim future, the Internet has become a totally immersive virtual reality experience, known as The Oasis, where it’s possible to live an entire life – go to school, go to work, get married – as an avatar character, while at the same time slay a bunch of creatures, collect magical artifacts and basically live a WOW like life alongside your “normal” online existence.
When the creator of the OASIS dies, he leaves his entire fortune to whoever can unravel a series of complex clues and find the OASIS Easter eggs to complete the quest. The answers to the clues can only be figured out by those with an encyclopedic knowledge of 1980s pop culture from the major to the obscure.
Our hero, Wade Watts, a poor and ordinary kind of guy, is the first player in years to get close to the prize and so begins a story that’s part Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, part The Matrix and part something new in its own right.
With an adventure plot based on 1980s pop culture, some amount of knowledge is required to not only get what’s going on but also understand the myriad of in jokes and references. I can’t imagine anyone without this interest or knowledge would get a lot out of Ready Player One, but if retro nerd culture is your thing, then hang on because you’re in for one hell of a read.
A fair amount is dedicated to classic video and roleplaying games, and while I’m no gamer, a rudimentary knowledge of the culture was enough to get by without ruining any of the enjoyment of the book. 1980s movies take up the rest of the referential material and was where I found the greatest pleasure in the novel. Characters are constantly trying to out-know one another in their pop culture knowledge and opinion and if you lean this way, you’ve probably had a lot of these conversations yourself.
From a conversation debating the merits of Ladyhawke:
“Ladyhawke was directed by Richard fucking Donner! The Goonies? Superman: The Movie? Are you saying that guy sucks?”
“I don’t care if Spielberg directed it. It’s a chick flick disguised as a sword-and-sorcery picture. The only genre film with probably less balls is …. freakin’ Legend.”
A note – Ladyhawke was one of my favorite movies growing up and yes, I even have a soft spot for the Alan Parsons soundtrack, which also gets a jab here (best go read the book before I start transcribing pages of conversation). Legend…. not so much.
There are also a few nods to later generations of pop culture heavyweights, players in the OASIS can go to an actual Whedonverse and Firefly references abound.
While pop culture geekery is the main draw card of Ready Player One, it’s also a highly accomplished novel in its own right. The classic good guys bad guys quest narrative is well paced and flawlessly constructed. It’s interesting that Cline’s writing style frequently breaks a lot of so called fiction writing rules, mainly in his heavy use of exposition. Writers are often criticized for overusing exposition – that’s the parts of the story that fill in contextual information like background and other explanatory elements – but Ready Player One is jam packed with exposition and rather than weigh the story down, as a lot of writing “experts” tell you it will, it serves to create an infinitely detailed world that draws you in from the first to the last word.
Ready Player One is a dazzling, super fun book written with a sincere affection for its own story and context, and made all the more impressive that it is Ernest Cline’s first novel. So, if 1980s nerdgasms are your thing, then Ready Player One is a sure fire win.
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