The genius of Ready Player One, the new Sci-fi novel by Ernest Cline, is not its technological development or even its imaginative setting. Its genius is based solely on the decade of the ‘Me Generation’; the 1980s.
The ‘80’s changed a lot of things, and saw the beginnings of many new ideas and ideals that we now take for granted. The development of music videos, video games, internet, email, electronica, the end of Communism and it provided the setting for the formative years of the children of Baby Boomers. These facts and the effect of the social media of that time, video games, movies and music, form the backdrop and become a character in Cline’s masterpiece.
It is the year 2045, and Wade Owen Watts, our hero, is an expert on the entire decade of the 80’s. Everything from pop music to movies, from television to comic books to video games; especially video games Wade knows, even though he was not alive then. He knows, because James Halliday, his hero and the creator of the virtual reality world called OASIS, a massive immersive multiplayer video game, grew up during the ‘80’s and those years influenced everything he ever did.
Now, the Great Recession has plunged the entire world into turmoil, and most people either work or go to school in the OASIS, which has always been free.
Wade also knows, now that Halliday has died, only a sure knowledge of that decade will win the ultimate prize, an Easter Egg of huge proportions that Halliday placed deep in the universe of the OASIS. This prize is Halliday’s fortune, and complete control of the OASIS.
However, Halliday’s death, and the quest for the Easter Egg has flooded the OASIS with searchers, called ‘gunters’. Among these searchers is one group working for a private technology company called IOI who, by winning would secure the OASIS as a purchase only system. And, they will stop at nothing to do so. Only Wade Watts, known by his avatar’s nickname Parzival, and his friends Aech, Art3mis, Diato and Shoto, can stop them.
Although the book is full of exposition and explaining the setting and filling in the backstory takes up the first third of the book, it is impossible to put down from the onset. Cline’s style is elegant and precise if not a bit wordy.
The characters are likable and thoroughly developed and easy to root for. They are complex and well written. Even ‘Sorrento’ the CEO of IOI and main antagonist of Wade/Parzival and his gunters, is perfectly hateable.
The book contains many, many references to the entire decade of the ‘80’s, and even someone who grew up during that time may find it necessary to do a little research.
Overall, Clines’ work is imaginative and thoroughly enjoyable. Much like writers from the late Victorian period, even in the two years since its first publishing, Ready Player One seems prophetic. Our addiction to modern social media seem like an embryonic stage, which will ultimately mature to a ‘full immersion’ internet realm.
While Cline’s book is in many ways a story of a nerdy boy who winds up being the king, a stereotypical storyline as old as the legend of King Arthur, it is also a cautionary tale. It takes one possible outcome of our current and recent history, and rolls it out before us, to show where it is we’ve failed. Like all Science-Fiction and indeed all fantasy, this fiction serves as a social commentary, not on what the future holds so much as what the outcome of our current state of affairs can be.