Jane McGonigal's recent nonfiction book Reality Is Broken argues that video games have become overwhelmingly popular because real life is so dull and awful, that by comparison the virtual world of the game is far more appealing. Ernest Cline grabs hold of that idea and runs a long way in his debut novel Ready Player One. A love letter to 1980's pop culture thinly disguised as a dystopian science-fiction novel, Ready Player One is crammed so full of references to things like Max Headroom, Pat Benatar, Back to the Future, and Monty Python that it's hard to believe it holds up as a story, let alone an enjoyable one. The near-continual 80's references may bewilder readers too young to have lived through them the first time around (or worse, infuriate those who did live through them), but once you get past the 80's fanboy love, Ready Player One is a hilarious geek adventure with a warm heart.
Like almost everyone else on earth, 18-year-old Wade Watts spends all of his waking life plugged into the OASIS, a virtual reality game so lifelike that the real world seems drab by comparision. And for good reason- The year is 2044, and the real world is a horrible place. Food is scarce, energy is ridiculously expensive, the environment is trashed, and crime and poverty are widespread. Wade lives with his aunt in a squalid trailer park so overcrowded that the trailers are stacked up by the dozens like makeshift skyscrapers. Orphaned after his mother dies of a drug overdose and his father is shot dead while looting food during a power outage, Wade escapes to the OASIS for school, recreation, and a sense of purpose: James Halliday, the creator of the OASIS, left a treasure worth 240 billion dollars hidden deep inside, locked away behind three 80's-themed puzzles so difficult that millions of players have been unable to figure out the first one after years of searching. Like the rest of humanity, Wade is on the hunt. Wade and his fellow hunters are the sworn enemies of the IOI Corporation, whose army of gamers is also on the hunt in order to take control of the OASIS for their own nefarious purposes. And then, one day, Wade finds the first key. When the rest of the world finds out, the story becomes a fast-paced treasure hunt with Wade and his nerd friends racing to find the rest of the keys before IOI does. It won't be easy, though, especially after Wade discovers that IOI won't stop at merely killing egg-hunting players in the virtual world.
Along the way, Cline gives us a few glimpses of the hellhole that the real world has become, and suggests that maybe, just maybe, we can make things better if we just step out of the game for a while. It's not a perfect book, but it's a fun book and worth reading just for the enjoyment of playing spot-the-80's-reference.
Ready player one : a novel