Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Book Review: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

There are no words to adequately express how entertaining and fun Ready Player One (RP1) is to read. The setup: after reinventing the internet into an MMORPG, an eccentric gazillionare plants a treasure hunt within said online world and then dies. The prize for being the first to solve the treasure hunt is, you inherit his gazillions and a controlling share of his company. Our unlikely hero, a trailer kid, relies on his wits and obsession to solve the puzzle before an evil army of corporate-owned thugs do (and thus gain control of said online world, in order to monetize it with lame ads and user fees).

An engrossing geekfest awash in 80s pop culture and scif-fi magic, the novel ratchets one suspension upon another so that your eyes are laser-riveted to the page. I read this book in two days, and it would have been more like most of one day if I didn't have to eat, sleep, and work. The best I can compare it to is the final Harry Potter book: while reading the latter right after it came out, I responded to requests for my time with statements like "But there's goblins!"

Actually, we can probably squeeze a lot of juice out of that comparison. RP1 is remarkably similar to Harry Potter, but in a different setting and compressed into one novel.

Like Harry Potter (and Luke Skywalker, and King Arthur, and Charlie Bucket, and Superman), RP1's protagonist Wade Watts is a bereft orphan. Rather than a room under the stairs in the British suburbs, he occupies the laundry room of a high-rise trailer in pre-apocalyptic Kentucky. Wade's aunt, like Harry's, is equal parts hateful and pitiful. Like Harry, he's isolated, peerless, filled with self-doubt, and longs to escape his blandly crippling surroundings.

Unlike Harry (and Luke and Neo and Arthur and Superman and Jesus), Wade is not destined for heroic greatness. No elderly mage shows up on his doorstep and announces, "You're the one!" Wade's protagonism is the result of his own choice: pursuing the puzzle gives meaning to his otherwise horrifically banal life, and so he spends years pouring over available clues. This is a significant departure from the formula that this novel generally follows: conventionally, the hero has to 1) receive the call to adventure, 2) reject the call to adventure, and 3) be persuaded by circumstances to change his mind and accept the call to adventure. Remember in A New Hope when Obi-Wan's all like, "There is great juju in you, Luke" and Luke's like "Aw, I can't be a Jedi, I have to go tend the farm" and then they find Luke's ENTIRE FAMILY SLAUGHTERED BY A PLOT DEVICE? Or when Neo refuses to venture out onto the skyscraper ledge 'cause he's scared, but then later finally jumps into his destiny? Or when Bilbo's like "I'm just a little hobbit, I can't go on an adventure!" Or when, later on, Aragorn abandons his crown to live the simple life of a ranger, only to, uh, "Return (as) the King?" Or when (sorry if you actually watched this movie) the guy who plays Legolas starred in Kingdom of Heaven, and Liam Neeson was all like "You are my son. Join me in the Crusades" and Legolas was all like "No way, dude. I'm not an adventurer. I'm just going to sob on my wife's heathen corpse" and then Legolas BARBECUES HIS PRIEST WITH A FIRESWORD and flees town to catch up with Neesen et al? Or (in a much better film by the same director) Maximus gets asked by Marcus Aurelius to become the new leader of Rome, and Maximus is like "I just want to go home to my wife and kids, I don't want to rule" and then Marcus Aurelius also gets slaughtered by a patricidal plot device? I'm not making this up, dude: the hero is supposed to reject the Call before he accepts it. Throughout his entire series, Harry Potter struggles with the demands and expectations that his legacy puts upon him; one could even claim that he continuously rejects the call to adventure until the last book, when he's finally like "Fuck it, let's find and kill Voldemort. I'm tired of this shit."

But not Wade. Wade's interest and success in the treasure hunt (which they call an "egg hunt," by the way, 'cause the clues are hidden like easter eggs) are heavily influenced by fate and circumstance, yes: he was just the right age at just the right time in history to become infatuated with the egg hunt, and (PLOT SPOILER) he's able to find the first egg because of his rather specific circumstances as a dirt-poor schoolchild.BUT! It was never fated that he specifically would find the first clue. Any number of other dirt-poor schoolchildren might have. And Wade never rejects the call: he never says, "No, no, I can't pursue a series of hidden easter eggs across the virtual universe. I have to tend my garden." From page one, Wade is committed to winning the hunt, period.

Also like Harry Potter, Wade inhabits a more-or-less magical world. For Wade, this takes the form of virtual reality rather than an alternate reality, but the function is the same: there's a second, better world for the reader to explore via the protagonist's journey, filled with interesting characters and locales. What makes RP1 exceptionally cool is that Wade's magical world is an amalgamation of dozens of cool worlds we've already known and loved. Here's how it works: the MMORPG (which is called "the OASIS," by the way) was designed by future-Steve-Jobs (who is named James Halliday, by the way). Halliday is your standard autistic genius: brilliant at computers, terrible at social interaction. Halliday also happens to be obsessed with 80s pop culture, because that was the decade of his adolescence, and he works his obsession with the 80s into the easter egg hunt. Because the hunt requires players to be deeply versed in 80s pop culture, and because the hunt is itself a big world event circa 2040, 80s pop culture makes a huge comeback. Add to this the fact that Halliday built various worlds from 80s pop culture into the OASIS (e.g. the metropolis from Blade Runner, the cyberpunk cities from William Gibson novels, etc.), and you've got a novel which allows the reader to simultaneously explore a magical new world and recognize it. So, for example, we get to see flying robots from late 70s Japanese cartoons amass alongside a World of Warcraft-type army outside a Dungeons and Dragons-type castle, with spacecraft from Star Wars and Firefly and Battlestar Galactica whizzing overhead. Nerdgasm!

Two last observations to add: first, Cline is just one hell of a writer. There is not a boring moment in this book, nor is there a single moment of incoherent action. Everything that happens is an engrossing step toward the climax; there isn't, say, a three-chapter stretch in the middle where the protagonist goes on some action-packed sub-quest that turns out to relate in no way to the rest of the novel. Keeping a novel moving without losing any elegance is a hard trick to pull off, and I applaud Cline for managing it.

Second, Cline's not writing pure escapist fiction. Remember when (I think it was in book #5 or #6?) Harry encounters the Ministry of Magic's penchant for torturing suspected Voldemortists? That was pretty obvious (and effective) social commentary on the corrosive influence of real-world torture in the "War on Terror." Well, RP1 is concerned with environmental collapse, loss of social security nets, and the concentration of private wealth. Here's an excerpt from p. 1:

At first, I couldn't understand why the media was making such a big deal of the billionaire's death. After all, the people of Planet Earth had other concerns. The ongoing energy crisis. Catastrophic climate change. Widespread famine, poverty, and disease. Half a dozen wars...Normally, the newsfeeds didn't interrupt everyone's interactive sitcoms and soap operas unless something really major had happened. Like the outbreak of some new killer virus, or another major city vanishing in a mushroom cloud. Big stuff like that.

The fallout of environmental and social collapse is evident throughout the novel: the protagonist's "hideout" is (SPOILER ALERT) located inside a massive pile of automobiles that were abandoned by their owners when the gasoline ran out. When he buses across a few states, his Greyhound has a squad of armed guards to fight off any road bandits they might encounter. Plus keep in mind that the villain in this novel is an evil corporation, and their evil plan is to basically monetize the internet (a timely social concern if ever there was one). Interestingly (SPOILER ALERT), neither the problem of environmental/social collapse nor the evil corporation get dealt with within the story, even though they're the backdrop and engine for most of what happens. Wade wins the contest and saves the OASIS, but the bigger problems remain. Is this Cline's way of acknowledging the perennial nature of evil? Or of nodding to us, as if to say, "Wade didn't fix it. So what are you going to do?"

I could keep going about all the cool stuff in RP1--the Orwellian interlude in Act III, the wonderful atheist rant in chapter one, the extensive use of Wargames and Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail, the respectful  worship of Pac Man and Joust--but that would only serve to further blunt the delightful surprises that this book holds in store for you. I cannot recommend Ready Player One strongly enough. It is the most fun I've had in a book in years.

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