Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Ready, Player One?

Just about a year ago, I got an email from a former coworker of mine.  He just wanted to say hi and catch up, but he also asked if I’d read a book called Ready Player One.  I trust his opinion about books, but I am not one to go out and buy books generally, so I requested it on my local library website, and was a bit bummed out to learn that I was in spot number 152 on the list.  Oh well.  I basically forgot about it until I was notified about a week ago that it was my turn!

After picking it up from the library, I dug right in.  Of all the books I’ve ever read, this book is probably the one that I finished most quickly.  Three days after starting this book, I had read the whole thing.  I’m sure that’s not impressive to some people, but I’m quite a slow reader, which means that I put a lot of time during those three days into reading this book.  I really couldn’t put it down.

[Note: this review contains general spoilers about the ending]

RPO is a cyberpunk novel that begins in the year 2044..  The video game development arena of 2044 is dominated by a company called Gregarious Simulation Systems (GSS), a company founded by the ingenious and reclusive James Halliday and the much more personable Ogden Morrow.  GSS developed an MMO (massively-multiplayer online game) called OASIS, which is played using a console, 3D goggles and haptic gloves, which allow a player to experience the sense of touch.  If a person has the money he or she can augment this equipment with a haptic body suit and a smell generator.  Once appropriately geared, a person can live nearly an entire alternate life inside this ‘game’ -- in fact, there are public schools and museums in the OASIS universe, in addition to fantasy and science fiction settings.  One can buy a spaceship (or a fleet of them!) to travel from world to world.  A huge portion of the world’s population participates in this online world and so each person has a ‘real’ name along with an online avatar character

At the beginning of the novel, James Halliday dies, leaving a video will that describes the existence of an ‘Easter Egg’ hidden in OASIS, along with several clues about how to find it.  The first person to find the Easter Egg will inherit the GSS company as well as Halliday’s fortune.  Halliday had grown up during the 1980s and had been fixated on ‘80s culture.  The will, combined with the clues, spawned a subculture of people who called themselves Egg Hunters or eventually just ‘gunters.  The book describes the search of one ‘gunter named Wade Owen Watts (aka Parzival) who struggles to unravel Halliday’s riddles and find the ultimate Easter Egg.

Part of what appealed to me about RPO was its focus on the future of MMOs.  The MMO genre is one that I identify myself with.  Currently, MMOs are the one genre that I actively avoid because I feel like I’d like to get stuff done in the real world, but a world in which MMOs are pervasive really appeals to me.  I was very impressed by how Cline was able to convincingly build upon and include current-day MMOs inside his OASIS. It was also impressive to me how he was able to expand on the concept of our current day MMOs in a way that felt reasonable.

Cline’s novel was intellectually stimulating, as well.  For starters, I was amazed by the amount of research that Cline did to write this book.  I consider myself to be reasonably versed in 80s nerd culture, but the incredible density of facts and trivia in this novel is remarkable.  It really made me want to go back and do some reading (or playing) of my own.  The puzzles that Wade must solve to find the Easter Egg are also a great feature of the book.  Each involved complex references to 80s culture, as well as links to Halliday’s own life.  Cline does a good job of presenting the details about Halliday in such a way that a hardcore fan of the 80s would be able to solve the riddles along with Wade--though that certainly wasn’t the case for me!

The only part of the novel that I thought was a little disappointing was the ending.  This felt to me like a cyberpunk novel about a world gone wrong, but at the end basically everything was righted.  The hero got the girl.  The good guy won.  The poor people got money and the huge mega-corporation got the shaft.  Bad people died, good people survived.  Everyone learned valuable life lessons.  I certainly understand how tempting it might be to end a novel this way, and at first blush the ending felt pleasant but after further consideration it felt like a cop-out and not a good fit with the rest of the book.

Overall, I found Ready Player One to be a fantastic novel.  I thought it was totally immersive and fun.  And if I ever see a game called OASIS on the shelves of my local video game store, you can bet that I’ll give it a shot!

By Adam Miller