The future depicted in Ready Player One is quite possibly the bleakest one an author has ever devised. Mind-blowing virtual reality is more common than toasters, but guess what our protagonist and everyone else in the story spends every waking moment of their lives doing? Watching Alf reruns. Playing Frogger. Listening to Duran Duran. Sitting through Crocodile Dundee and Tron. That’s right, in thirty or so years, it will be the 80’s again. Why is everyone so obsessed with the 80’s?
The inventor of the fantastical million-world virtual reality has passed away, and decided to leave his extraordinary fortune to the one who first succeeds at a ridiculous easter egg hunt. Since this Steve Jobs-like figure was a complete nerd obsessed with the 80’s, the only way to find this hidden egg is to catch references to Bon Jovi hits, be really good at Dig Dug, and be able to quote Willow front to back. Find the three keys, unlock the three doors, and pass the three tests. Works well enough for a three-act storyline.
It takes years for our nerdiest-of-nerd protagonist Wade to get things rolling when he is the first to find key #1, and then it’s a race with a bunch of nerds to see who can work out the next dozen Dungeons and Dragons references the quickest. The villain is, of course, the corporate big-wig (SEE: the “we’ve got to have… money!” guy for a picture of him) who will stop at nothing to take down VR net neutrality and Ad Blocker, and will gladly resort to murdering legions of 4channers if that’s what it takes to win the contest. If analyzing the plot for this book, it’s extremely straightforward. A nerdy girl is introduced early on? Of course she’s the love interest. Needless squabble with jivin’ best friend character? Don’t worry, they’ll make up. The story’s pacing is all right, but it’s also quite repetitive and by-the-numbers.
Repetitive and by-the-numbers can be all right. Hell, that’s what we all gladly pay for each time we go to the movie theater. It’s basic entertainment, and if you’re in the mood for a geeky adventure story filled to the brim with obscure references to equally geeky things, then this is definitely the book for you. I personally got tired of the constant stream of references pretty quick though. When I say there’s a bunch of references made nearly every page, I quite mean it. The narrative never lets up on the name-dropping, and nearly every page features some new Smash Brothers “joins the fight!“, be it R2-D2, the Delorian, some PC text adventure game, a Gundam, or a Captain Crunch toy. When this story becomes a movie, it’s going to make bank. Everyone’s going to cheer the same way everyone cheered for Nintendo’s lineup of cheap plastic figurines sold as DLC (an announcement I assumed was from the Onion at first).
While I like the basic premise of this story, I don’t feel it was really utilized in a way that I could consider… thoughtful? We have a setting where everyone has decided to ignore all of the dreary real world’s problems in favor of the diversionary Disneyland of virtual reality. Clearly there’s social commentary to be had here–not to mention a sort of warning to where technology may lead us in a decade or two. (It’s certainly a timely novel, considering the VR gaming tech that is set to release in the near-future.) But unfortunately, I don’t feel this novel really scratches past the surface for any of this. Is the VR world better than the real world? It is portrayed as such from start to finish–the outdoors is a complete crapsack Detroit-like world, while the thousands of virtual reality worlds let everyone live however they could possibly wish. And yet this book still tries to shoehorn an Aesop at the very end. The real world is what really matters apparently… but the story doesn’t offer any suggestions for how anyone can begin attempting to make the real world not completely suck.
Bottom Line: Come for the 80’s references, stay for the 80’s references. If you’re cool with that?