Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Ready Player One Visits Both the Future and the '80s in Fantastic Style

Believe it or not, I finished a book about a futuristic video game in less than two days. I, reader of southern literature and women's fiction, with a mystery thrown in here and there, loved it. You've heard me say this before (although not that often), but this is truly one of the best books of the year. It was named one of Amazon's Best Books of the Month for August 2011. The film rights were optioned by Warner Brothers before it was published. It's been reviewed in The New York Times, USA Today, and Entertainment Weekly.

Suffice it to say Ready Player One is already a hit. But it's about a virtual-reality video game -- and it's set in the future. The main character and narrator is a geeky teenage boy gamer, the kind that never leaves his console. Not even for school. In the year 2044, when the novel is set, even getting a public education is available on the internet in the virtual reality world of OASIS. So what about this novel could have possibly appealed to me? In a word: everything.

The premise of Ernest Cline's Ready Player One is every bit as geeky as it sounds. Cline is the creator and screenplay writer of 2009's ode to Star Wars geekdom, Fanboys. He spent his youth playing Atari games and fiddling with early computers. He likes to visit comic book stores while riding around in his DeLorean. And his character in Ready Player One, Wade Watts, is his (virtual) literary twin.

Main character Watts is a gamer at his best (or worst). He has few friends, save a couple he's met in OASIS. His real life is a sad series of disappointments. He lives with his aunt in "the stacks," a tenement housing nightmare in which trailers were stacked one on top of the other in order to accommodate the influx of people to larger cities. Most of his time in real life is spent in his "hideaway," hidden from the world, submerged in OASIS.

The brainchild of two children of the '80s, OASIS originally served as a temporary escape into an internet-based virtual reality. But as the world energy crisis worsened, the infrastructures of most formerly-strong countries crumbled, and wars raged, OASIS grew both in importance and in function. When the book opens, most people spend their days in the virtual world rather than the real one. The currency of OASIS is more stable than any other form of currency around the world. Earning points in OASIS translates into money in the real world, as most everything can be bought via OASIS and delivered to your home -- food, clothing, and other goods.

People create avatars that interact in OASIS, and have the ability to keep their true identity anonymous. This was of great importance to the creators, and winning a Supreme Court battle secured this right for all of mankind. Wade takes full advantage of this right, making his avatar a thinner, better-looking version of himself, with a name -- Parzival -- that has little to do with him.

When James Halliday, one of the creators of OASIS, passes away, a contest is introduced to the world. Halliday's entire billion-dollar fortune is up for grabs to the first person to "find his egg." He begins the contest by emailing a video of himself (as avatar Anorak) to every player of OASIS on the planet. The video contains a four-line verse containing a clue about the hunt. With those four lines, an international (virtual) obsession begins:
The Hunt, as the contest came to be known, quickly wove its way into global culture. Like winning the lottery, finding Halliday's Easter egg became a popular fantasy among adults and children alike. It was a game anyone could play, and at first, there seemed to be no right or wrong way to play it. The only thing Anorak's Almanac [a collection of hundreds of Halliday's undated journal entries] seemed to indicate was that a familiarity with Halliday's various obsessions would be essential to finding the egg. This led to a global fascination with 1980s pop culture. . . . A new subculture was born, composed of the millions of people who now devoted every free moment of their lives to searching for Halliday's egg." (7-8)
Four years later, the first name appears on Halliday's website, set up to mirror a 1980s video game scoreboard: Parzival. Long after the world declared the egg "impossible to find" (8), Wade Watts, "an eighteen-year-old kid living in a trailer park on the outskirts of Oklahoma City" (9), finds the first key. In doing so, he re-fuels the world's obsession with finding the egg, and sets a series of events into motion chronicled in Ready Player One.

Ernest Cline & his DeLorean
Ready Player One has all the elements necessary for a successful novel: interesting characters with whom readers can sympathize, an action-packed and fast-moving plot, and an incredibly detailed setting (actually two, if you take into account both Cline's descriptions of earth in 2044 and the richly-described virtual OASIS world).

The constant stream of allusions to 1980s pop culture enrich the novel in ways I'm sure I don't completely understand after a single reading. Several chapters in, I had to resist the urge to start over and keep a list of all the references so that I could look them up later. While many of these are gamer-related, just as many have nothing at all to do with video games and everything to do with being a child of the '80s. Cline mixes Dungeons & Dragons with Family Ties and Rush.

Wade Watts is a memorable character who I hope to read more about in future Cline novels. As I mentioned above, Ready Player One is reportedly in the hands of Warner Brothers to develop into a film. Although recreating the rich virtual worlds of OASIS will be challenging, I look forward to seeing the adaptation in theaters.

Ernest Cline has in incredibly interesting website, which I got lost on for an hour or so before returning to finish this post. He includes everything from the inception of the movie Fanboys to a hilarious account of his childhood. Cline also writes a blog that goes back several years. The book itself also has a Tumblr blog with updates and excerpts from the novel, as well as clips and photos from some of the '80s references in the novel.

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