When I first read the reviews for Ready Player One, I thought it sounded like too precious a love letter to ’80s nostalgia and nerd-boy fantasy in-jokes. I’m always skeptical of someone else’s nostalgia. My memories of The Way Things Were are precious and specific. Agree with me and we’re members of the same secret handshake society. Tarnish my memory and you may as well have insulted my mother. This is especially true in book form where I can’t challenge the author’s recollection or make the case for mine.
Perhaps because I was a teenager at the time, I’ve found the past several years’ worth of nostalgia for the Reagan era particularly irksome. Then again, when I survey the current pop culture, I can understand why any era but now looks infinitely better. Was Debbie Gibson better than Justin Bieber? No, but I’d take the worst pop music of the ’80s over the best pop music of today. The key for me, and part of the reason I think Ready Player One is successful, is that back then, there was still an underground, a counterculture, something beyond what was on Top 40 radio and MTV. Even though MTV grudgingly gave over 120 Minutes a week to play “underground” music back then, there was no such thing as “geek chic” or “cool nerdyness.” If you were a nerd, skater, punk rocker or new waver, you were weird. An outcast. It was as much a badge of honor as it was a source of pain.
So after my initial trepidation, I succumbed to the novel’s intriguing premise and used a precious Audible credit. Set in the post-collapse era of the 2040s in an America devastated by decades of recession, where trailer parks have become sprawling suburban ghettos with trailers stacked several stories on top of each other, a revolutionary game maker has just died and left his vast fortune inside the virtual world he created. But there’s a catch– the fortune can only be found by means of an elaborate scavenger hunt, which sets off a worldwide craze that has everyone researching every aspect of James Halliday, the game’s notoriously ’80s-obsessed, super geek creator.
Halliday was one of the earliest game designers. He came of age in the 80s, programmed many successful video games, made huge piles of cash, and then disappeared. He emerged many years later with his newest invention, the OASIS– a virtual universe with thousands of planets which are accessed via immersion rigs the player uses to interact with his environment. Though it started as an MMORPG, gradually people began to live their lives in the OASIS, going to school, working and socializing virtually. For most people, life inside the OASIS is infinitely better than reality.
The virtual world here will be nothing new to readers of William Gibson or Neal Stephenson. In fact, with millions of people playing games like World of Warcraft and and living a virtual Second Life, the OASIS doesn’t sound far-fetched at all. Cline does introduce interesting ideas about what getting a virtual education could be like. But Ready Player One is more interested in furthering a story than introducing new ideas. And the story here is the age-old story of the young man on a quest.
Our hero, Wade Watts, is a high school kid who lives in one of the aforementioned trailer park stacks and has, like everyone else in the world, become consumed with Haliday and the hunt for his fortune. The scavenger hunt involves a riddle that, five years after Haliday’s death, no one has been able to solve. Many people have even begun to speculate it was an elaborate ruse, but Watts, via his OASIS avatar, Parzival, persists. And what do you know? All that ’80s research pays off and Parzival finds the first clue, setting off the worldwide craze anew.
The rest of the novel is Parzival’s quest to unlock the three gates that will lead to Haliday’s riches. In the grand tradition of all great quests, he gets by with a little help from some friends and danger lurks around every corner in the form of a mega corporation that wants to turn the OASIS into a commercialized hellscape against Haliday’s wishes.
With such a simple and proven premise, it would be tempting to think Ready Player One would appeal to a wide audience. But, like the games and stories it’s so in love with, its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. If you are not familiar with ’80s culture, and to some extent ’80s subculture, you will miss all the best references, get few of the jokes, and generally be made to feel how those of us who loved this stuff back in the day felt– not invited to the cool kids’ party. Ready Player One is the ultimate Revenge of the Nerds. This one is for us, the ones who were hassled by the jocks and called fags because we dressed funny and had weird hair. And though it is far from perfect, there is much here to revel in.
The story is good, solidly written and well-told. It’s not laugh out loud funny, but it is filled with knowing grin moments. But there is one reason I believe you should get the audiobook version. Wil Wheaton. The story is told from Parzival’s perspective and Wil Wheaton positively is Wade Watts. He owns the performance and comes across as intimate and believable. Wheaton even gets a shout-out in the story, which I did laugh out loud at. I give the narration hefty weight when reviewing audiobooks and I would say Wheaton’s performance may even actually elevate the material here. He suits the book perfectly.
Overall, it’s a fun listen. You know how it’s going to end, but the ride is entertaining. Especially when that ride is a DeLorean spaceship.