The year is 2044 and mankind is, well, a little broken. The last reserves of oil dried up long ago and society crumbled in their absence. Huge swathes of America's population now resides in trailer stacks; skyscrapers formed by literally stacking RVs one on top of another in precarious structures, a desperate attempt to be close to the major cities and their erratic supplies of solar electricity. Humanity's refuge, the only escape from the truly dismal real world, is The Oasis. Brainchild of reclusive genius James Halliday, aka Anorak, The Oasis started life as the most advanced MMORPG the world had ever seen, before evolving into a true alternate reality where people meet, play, do business, even attend school. Plugging into this world (rendered in absolutely realistic graphics) via simple goggles, haptic gloves or even entire body suits depending on your wealth, frees mankind from the prison which the world has become.
It's in this setting that we meet Wade
Watts (alliteratively named by his father to evoke a superhero's alter-ego), a bullied, hermetic orphan living in his abusive aunt and uncle's trailer stack. Wade is a Gunter (or egg-hunter), meaning he's searching for an elusive and almost mythological Easter egg hidden within The Oasis. At the book's outset we discover that Halliday/Anorak died some years ago and bequeathed his fortune, the largest on the planet by some margin, to whoever could solve three puzzles and thereby pass through three gates hidden within the game, leaving clues in an obsessively viewed film called Anorak's Invitation. Wade, like other Gunters, spends every spare minute trying to get inside the mind of Anorak by immersing himself in the period in which Halliday spent his formative years - namely 80's geek culture. Repeated viewings of John Hughes' repertoire, memorising Duran Duran lyrics and perfecting every level of every classic coin-op game from Pac-Man to Ghosts And Goblins are the order of the day. Years have passed since the initial excitement at the announcement of the competition and many now even doubt the existence of the gates - until Wade has a brainstorm allowing him to solve the first clue and place his name on the fabled leader-board. Suddenly he is the most famous person in both the real and virtual worlds and some people, particularly the notorious Sixers, will do anything to get their hands on him.
Ernest Cline wastes little time cutting to the chase in his debut novel, with a brief and enjoyable bit of scene-setting soon launching us into the thick of the action. One of the first things to strike you is just how well-crafted The Oasis is as a concept and how easily you slip into it yourself. Although comprising of countless worlds that include perfect imitations of real locations, recreations of videogames and movies and entirely novel, user-created areas it never seems daunting or confusing. Despite Cline's description of the in-game graphics being as near to reality as you can get my mind's eye still saw it as a game, with cartoonish avatars and scenery straight out of World Of Warcraft. I suppose this absorption may vary depending on the saturation level of gaming in your childhood but I couldn't help but be bewitched by The Oasis, using the rare occasions I could force myself to put the book down to take a daydreaming wander through its skilfully constructed locales. As a teacher, the description of schooling in such a malleable universe had me drooling; students glued to their seats and silenced by the rules of the program, yet held in rapt attention by immersive tours through pyramids and fly-bys by warplanes? Sign me up!
The other unmissable aspect of the book, and a key to the game, the clues and the entire universe, is the endless stream of references to the TV shows, movies and videogames of my generation's youth. When inside The Oasis you are bombarded from all sides - every planet, every ship, every building, has some nod to the 80s or early 90s from the ever present John Hughes to Blade Runner, from Duran Duran to Joust. Every reference to geek icons like Gary Gygax and Cory Doctorow had me grinning from ear to ear and each time I spotted a more obscure reference I was jumping up and down, itching to tell someone just how clever I was before realising it just made me a bit of a geek. The combination of the nostalgia trip with such a well-researched and conceived universe leaves a tangible trace of Cline's enthusiasm for his creation on every page. That he can also craft a fast-paced, accessible and enjoyable thriller around it without sacrificing readability or sounding contrived is a quite the achievement.
That said, the book is not perfect. While I lapped up every single mention of old Atari consoles I couldn't help but realise that not everyone is going to be in on the joke. Ready Player One unapologetically has a very specific target market and I imagine that it may come across as a tad silly to anyone who's not in the geek camp. In fact some portions of the book will be utterly meaningless unless you have already watched the movies or played the games which are being relived. Since reading it I've been recommending it to everyone who'll listen but always having to qualify it with "as long as you love games and the 80s..." The other downside is that the obsessive attention to detail within the game universe means that the secondary characters seem to have been left as an afterthought. While we become well-acquainted with Wade, his fellow Gunters Aech and Art3mis seem a little one-dimensional despite being central to the progress of the story. Perhaps ditching a few of the more self-indulgent nostalgia trips in favour of character development would have led to a more balanced novel, although I must admit that this was a minor gripe.
Despite these reservations I enjoyed Ready Player One more than any book I've read for some months. The infectiousness of Cline's love for his subject matter, the dedication of his world-building and the warm familiarity of The Oasis make for a hugely enjoyable modern take on the David and Goliath story (and often read like a cyberpunk John Hughes story). If like me you belong to Cline's tribe of 80s refugees and wasted your childhood hanging around dingy arcades pumping coin after coin into Galaga and Operation Wolf then this book was made for you. However, even if you're not part of this demographic there's still a worthy story and a beautifully described universe to dig into, something that will be worth a look for younger videogame fans and devotees of near-future sci-fi alike. If this is what Cline can do with a first novel then his subsequent titles will definitely be worth keeping tabs on.
This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. Ready Player One is available in paperback now as well as on a rather spectacular audiobook read by none other than Wil Wheaton (who receives, as is only proper, a decent shout out in the text himself).