Orphan teenager Wade Watts escapes the mundane horrors of his life—a neglectful-to-abusive aunt and uncle, a slum consisting of trailers stacked one atop the other, abject poverty, and a dying planet—by spending most of his time in a massive full-immersion online game called the OASIS. In 2044 the OASIS isn’t just a game, but a place where kids go to school, business is conducted, and even poor players can build fantasy lives for themselves. Like many others, Wade is consumed with the hunt for “Halliday’s Easter Egg,” the reward for a series of puzzles coded into the game by its eccentric designer James Halliday. Halliday’s mass-broadcasted video will promised his estate, including ownership of the OASIS itself, to the first player to find the egg. But when he becomes the first to unlock the beginning piece of the puzzle, which has eluded other egg hunters for years, Wade’s life is suddenly turned upside down by fame—and the danger that comes with it. There are other forces who would like to take control of the OASIS and the world that has come to rely on it, and they won’t hesitate to get rid of Wade and any others who stand in their way.
Ready Player One is a largely enjoyable dystopian sci-fi adventure, although it has its issues. Wade as a character is interesting and ultimately endearing, but makes a frequently bland narrator. At times it feels like the author’s reason for telling the story in first person is to preach directly at the reader. The upside is that these moments are few and far between, especially after the first few chapters. This book is bursting at the seams with 80s (and occasionally 90s) pop-culture references and gamer jokes, as well as the odd nod to anime popular around those time periods; some readers will love it, some will not. You don’t need to be an eighties enthusiast, nerd, or gamer to get most of them—key plot points don’t rely on anything that isn’t explained—but it will probably enrich the experience.
The premise of the story is quite solid and surprisingly plausible. I tend to be skeptical of plots that hinge on the whole world relying on a virtual reality, but it’s fairly well supported in Ready Player One. Between the cheapness of access to the game, the draw of finding Halliday’s Egg, and the temptation to escape the inevitable crumbling of the world, it’s asking little of the reader to accept the setting the story puts forward. (It’s a little less believable that 80s entertainment would make such a roaring comeback, no matter the incentive to consume it.) Given the extent to which many people today withdraw into a digital life of gaming, social networks, or other escapism, a future in which most of the population lives more in a man-made existence than the real world is not so far-fetched as to be laughable. Wade’s withdrawal from personal contact and single-minded devotion to the Egg hunt will likely try a reader’s patience over the course of the story, but it’s difficult to really fault him for it. (The one thing I can’t bring myself to overlook is that he managed to snag the screenname Parzival. I don’t care if it’s an “uncommon spelling,” any variation of the name of a character from Arthurian legend should have been snapped up years before Wade created his avatar. )
Aech and Art3mis, two other Egg hunters (“gunters”) with whom Wade forms friendships (and tenuous alliances), make up the majority of the supporting cast and do a good job of it. (They also may make the reader wish to spend parts of the story in other places than Wade’s head—another reason first-person may not have been the best form of narration for this story.) Art3mis, object of Wade’s affections even before he actually gets to know her, is well-written and manages to have “nerd girl” appeal without coming off as a stereotype or cheap wish fulfillment. Aech is an elite gunter, friend to Wade even while their in-game levels and prestige are vastly different, and provider of wise-cracking banter—a nice break for the reader from Wade’s cynicism and dark sense of humor. Aech is also not everything he seems, which still manages to be a decent twist even after repeated hints are dropped throughout the story. Unfortunately, Cline felt the need to round out this cast with two puzzlingly stereotypical Japanese characters, “brothers” Shoto and Daito. (I kept waiting for them to be revealed as a couple of American nerds obsessed with Japanese culture and entertainment. Minor spoiler: it doesn’t happen.) The rather unique ability of MMORPGs to foster friendships between players from different countries and cultures is a great element for a gaming-centered novel to touch on, but not if the characters portrayed are practically cardboard cutouts.
Overall, this book certainly has its flaws, but would still be worth picking up for most fans of light sci-fi, and obviously for gamers. Wade is a kid with some issues, to put it lightly, and while he may put readers off at first, he’ll have you rooting for him by the latter part of the book. (You may also feel the compulsion to kick any young relatives or friends off their gaming consoles or computers and send them outside for a walk and some fresh air.) If you can overlook a smattering of forced references, one or two decisions by characters that may provoke exclamations of “Really?” out loud, and the occasional segue into moralistic cautionary tale territory, Ready Player One makes for an entertaining and (almost in spite of itself) thought-provoking way to spend a few days’ worth of reading time.
Awards: 2012 Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) Alex Award
“A smart, funny thriller that both celebrates and critiques online culture…Layered with inside jokes and sly references.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“An exuberantly realized, exciting, and sweet-natured cyber-quest. Cline’s imaginative and rollicking coming-of-age geek saga has a smash-hit vibe.” —Booklist (starred review)
Book groups or essays might discuss topics such as Internet access being a right or a privilege, corporate monopolies, escapism, gaming and social media obsession or addiction, and first world poverty. The story raises interesting questions about what would happen if the entire world essentially moved into a virtual reality, with millions of people building their lives more in it than the physical world. What would the benefits of a network like the OASIS be? What would be the risks?
Kostick, Conor. Epic. 2008. Firebird. 9780142411599
submitted by Rachel C.