Sunday, April 29, 2012

2011 – READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline

Yes, this review requires an '80s soundtrack.

Ernest Cline's first novel takes place in a dystopian future of economic and environmental collapse. Or, at least, that's somewhere in the background. Most of the novel takes place in a shared virtual environment called OASIS, which is basically an internet-encompassing MMORPG (or, to go to the sf roots, like Stephenson's Metaverse from Snow Crash). The creator of OASIS, James Halliday, became the richest man in the world, and, in his will, he left his vast fortune to whomever could solve a vast OASIS-spanning puzzle based on Halliday's own childhood obsessions. Since Morrow grew up in the '80s, what we get is a massive nostalgia trip that relies on '80s video games, tv, movies, music, and table-top RPGs.

Most of the book is a straightforward adventure revolving around the young orphan Wade Owen Watts and some of his friends as they try to beat an evil corporation to the prize. There is an interesting speculative idea here though - as millions of people obsessively consumed Halliday's favorite media, '80s pop culture has come to dominate the cultural landscape of 2044. People trade allusions to Star Wars, Indiana Jones, D&D, Pac-Man, Zork, and Ladyhawke (of all things) like past generations of classically-trained intellectuals bandied about Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and Shakespeare. It's a really promising idea, but Cline doesn't do much with it. There's no real sense of how these pop fossils have been reinterpreted in a very different future world, except for a few imaginative uses of the virtual OASIS environment. Instead of investigating this idea, Cline seems more interested in going to great lengths to create a world where his favorite stuff is put on a pedestal by the rest of the world. Cline is most famous for his geek movie Fanboys, and it's very clear that there's a lot of him in Halliday and young Wade. With some of his other ideas (trailer park skyscrapers, the megalopolis of Columbus, Ohio) it's hard to figure out exactly what tone the author is shooting for.

That said, if you share a lot of Cline's taste (I'm a few years younger, but if you've been following the blog, you'll know that most of this is in my wheelhouse), you can get a lot of joy out of the steady stream of references. And, the book is fun. Not only does Cline relentlessly talk about '80s adventure films and games in this book, he also does a pretty good job of re-creating their feel. They were full of plucky underdogs - kids (Goonies and others), rebels (Star Wars), nerds (John Hughes and others), losers (Ghostbusters and others), etc - who took on adult criminals or their social betters or interstellar empires or supernatural monstrosities and somehow managed to win. This didn't quite come out in my own '80s review, but the films of that decade really were optimistic. Maybe it's a Reagan thing? I love the '80s adventure film formula, and so part of me really loved this book.

On the other hand, those '80s films could be kind of shallow. Subtext is not one of George Lucas's great strengths. Or Robert Zemckis's. Or Richard Donner's. Or even John Hughes's. I wouldn't mind seeing a few more fun '80s-style adventure movies (hello, Super 8!), but I wouldn't want every film to follow that formula. And it's not really a formula I look for in award-winning novel's. On top of that, Cline is a first time novelist, and I wouldn't say that his prose really shines here. Most of the time, it's...adequate. There are probably more awkward turns of phrase than sublime ones, but there aren't many examples of either. The writing is just there.

So, while this was a nice nostalgia trip, there's not much else to this book. If you're not a fan of '80s media, you might find it downright terrible. Me? I had fun, but I can't blame Hugo nominators for passing this one by.

Grade: B


  1. I agree with you completely on this one. I was entertained but the writing was just good enough. some great ideas went unexplored and some ideas were poorly thought out in the first place. I am looking at you, trailers stacked on top of each other twenty high. A strong wind would have blown those things over. Wade knew an impossible amount of information. I mean, I don't know the dialogue to any single movie word for word, but he had to know several. I also don't think it is possible for him to have consumed that much media by the age of 18. Every movie and tv show had been watched twenty to thirty times, plus he had read all of these great authors entire libraries and some of them multiple times. All of this didn't start till he was in 5th or 6th grade. so that gives him six or seven years to do all of this.

    Sorry, I need to write my own review.

  2. I actually think it would've been better served if it'd been weirder. By trying to play the concept somewhat straight, Cline flags up the ridiculousness of some of the world-building. I think the really great version of this novel is totally absurdist.

  3. Reading this book stirred so many memories from a simpler time in my life. Every reference to classic computers, games or pop culture from the 80's made me smile. Great story line as well. This book will make a great movie. Thanks to my son for recommending it for me.
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