Ernest Cline’s highly popular novel, Ready Player One, has been widely acclaimed for its originality and deep immersion into the 1980s, the decade when the video-gaming as we know it today set root in the form of hugely popular video and arcade games. The readers who remember or admire this decade can get an instant boost of nostalgia while reading of the exploits of five teenage ‘gunters’ in their quest for the Easter Egg that could make one of them the sole heir to a vast fortune. The premise of the story is very intricate since it is set in the virtual reality of the Earth’s future. The book takes its title from the phrase that signaled the start of video games in the 80s, the era that the book is brimful of references to, yet, lamentably, compared to the games and films that he’s abundantly referencing, Cline’s book is but a lukewarm experience that lacks feeling and excitement.
The book’s narrator is a teenager, with an alliterative super-hero name Wade Watts, who seeks escape and comfort in the OASIS, a virtual reality platform that provides its users with everything that the depleted Earth in the year 2045, when the action takes place, cannot. However, when it comes to the means of characterisation and the depth of character portrayal, Ready Player One is more of a desert than an oasis. There is no opportunity for catharsis of any kind, since the characters do not really go through any major change until the very end of the book, where there is a vague hint at the possibility of shutting down the OASIS for the benefit of the mankind that will be forced to live in the actual time and space once again. Wade’s entire family gets killed, including the old Mrs Gilmore whom he claims he was attached to, yet we do not see any emotional breakthrough, any desire for personal vendetta, anything that might act as a further driving force for Wade. Yes, he does devote his life to the hunt for the Easter Egg, but his motivation lies somewhere entirely different – in his competitive nature of a gamer, of somebody who has a firm grasp on the virtual reality that is far better than his own sad existence, and hence refuses to let go.
The only member of the leading group, the so-called High Five, that gets killed somewhere around the middle of the book, is its most detestable member, the one that acts superior the entire time, and his death does not really cause us much grief. The exhibited lack of feeling raises the question of whether the people in 2045 mutated that much that their feelings of empathy and compassion have been muffled, or Wade is simply lacking another dimension to his personality. The five central characters are based on pure clichés, rendering them as familiar automatons. Wade is a typical geek with self-esteem issues, Aech is stereotypically poorly portrayed excessively manly lesbian, Artemis hides her barely existent confidence behind her avatar’s brusque attitude that the geeks find immensely attractive, the Japanese are all about the samurai code of honour, and the villains are completely evil and on the verge of indestructibility.
The ending, however, is the most painful disappointment, shallower than an artificial duck pond. All of the villains get what they deserve, all of the good guys get rewarded, the protagonist gets the wealth, the power, and the girl, all is well that ends well. Now, is it? There is no suspense, no food for thought in this ending (except for the aforementioned mild possibility of shutting down the OASIS), the reader is not left amazed, or in wonder, there is nothing to think about, everything gets resolved, all ends are tied, and you end up with a lukewarm clean plate.
The main redeeming point of this novel is the richly woven fabric of geeky 80s references that pull the readers in and immerse them in this fantastic retro dystopian society. Even though everything mainly revolves around video games, Cline weaves in a number of references to books, films, TV shows, music, and toys that were popular in the 80s, such as the eternal Star Wars vs. Star Trek dispute, the world of I Love Lucy and Family Ties, and, in the very end, the hilarious Monty Python and the Holy Grail that leads the players to the very end of their quest. The book is written with a deep love and admiration for its subject, and we can freely say that this novel’s protagonist is not a single character, but the 1980s as an epoch, a golden age if you wish, of creativity and imagination. Let us wait and see how well this book about games, films, songs, and TV shows adapts into a movie.
© 2017 Erna G.