Though I hadn’t planned it this way, I read newcomer Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One at the tail end of a long string of video game books this year: Jeff Ryan’s Super Mario, David Kushner’s Masters of Doom, and Harold Goldberg’s All Your Base Are Belong to Us. This book is, uniquely among them, a fictional narrative, but exudes every bit the same sort of geeky joy that the others did.
The book occupies a strange corner of literature (so to speak): while not published by a “Young Adult” imprint, its content and style are nonetheless solidly juvenile. I don’t mean that as a perjorative: Ready Player One has a cast of teenagers with teenage concerns, teenage emotions, and a distinct tailored-for-teens writing style that I remember very well from my years reading that kind of fiction. It’s a simple kind of writing that acts as wish-fulfillment for teenagers who want very badly to have that much excitement in their lives (and, of course, get the girl).
There is not, on the face of it, anything wrong with writing fiction for young adults. I’ve even said good things about young adult novels in the past, even read by an non-young adult1.
Ready Player One is a preponderance of references to the arcade and console culture of the early and mid 1980s, excluding even the relatively ancient Nintendo. Commodore 64, Atari, and the less glorious denizens of that epoch are, oddly, the objects of Cline’s future dystopian fantasy. More accurately, they are the abiding passion of the Cline’s teenage protagonists (and its deus ex machina), whose retro tastes in video game culture more than 60 years old just so happens to be the youthful passion of the author. In other words, the 80s schtick is so prevalent not because it makes any narrative sense, but because it’s a hobby horse of the author. There’s something flimsy about that; as much as the book might genuinely invoke some deep nostalgia for 30- and 40-somethings, the fact that it seems written for a demographic which is almost certainly unfamiliar with the subject matter.
The scene is a dystopian 2044, after the global economy has fallen to pieces and most people live in desperate poverty in stacked mobile homes. Power and wealth is concentrated in the hands few technocrats and businessmen; everyone else whiles away their time in a large-scale simulated environment called OASIS using helmets and other tactile feedback devices. OASIS is the brainchild of the deceased James Halliday, an übergeek heavily inspired by John Carmack2, whose mega-rich company built and maintains the servers that run the program. According to popular legend, Halliday hid an easter egg or series of easter eggs (an “easter egg” is video game lingo for a secret hidden by the developers) which, when found, will grant the finder control of Halliday’s game….and therefore wealth and power beyond measure.
A whole subculture of gaming has arisen to find Halliday’s Egg. Wade Watts, aka Parzival, is our protagonist, and he counts himself among the egg-seekers, even though he’s so desperately poor that he cannot afford to travel in the game world, and so his “avatar”, or in-game representation, is weak and good for very little apart from attending the virtual school.
It goes almost without saying that, even though Halliday’s Egg has gone unfound for years, mealy-mouthed Wade Watts manages to decipher the first clue, and sparks a planet-hopping adventure. Bespoke adventure pivots around not just stars of 80s arcade culture like Joust, but 80s cinema as well, like Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Ladyhawke, apparently for no particular reason other than Cline likes them, so Halliday likes (liked) them as well. Along the way, we’re introduced to the conflict between independent Egg-hunters and IOI, a stereotypical mega-corporation that wants control of OASIS, so it pours billions of dollars into finding the Egg. Surprising no one, IOI’s list of sins extends beyond mere unethical business practices into the realm of theft and even murder. Clearly, Cline wanted to raise the stakes of the narrative beyond the in-game tribulations of hardcore gamers, but I felt that the IOI subplot, or at least large portions of it, felt tacked on. If the game itself is as important as Cline insists it is, then Wade’s search for the Egg is important, too; we don’t need Wade’s well-being to be threatened in real life to understand the stakes.
The final product is a book that doesn’t understand its audience—or rather, it’s a book that is aimed at two different audiences simultaneously, without really succeeding at either. There’s too many bolted-on plot points for the sake of convention; too much glib 80s name-dropping; too much awkward, forced dialog between characters3; too much facile geek hipsterism (“I liked Atari before it was cool…”). There was a lot of potential here, but the book was ultimately underwhelming.