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Ready Player One - Ernest Cline

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Monday, August 15, 2011

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline

I had a feeling when I finished Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline that my review was going to be a personal one.  This can happen when the protagonist has a painful resemblance to my teenage self.  It's common for me to connect with a book on an emotional level or an intellectual one, but personal?  That's pretty rare.  Cline's novel really hit home with me and I don't know how to talk about without talking about myself - weird that.

Ready Player One is all about a teenager named Wade, although to everyone he knows he's Parzival, a level 3 warrior in OASIS.  OASIS is something akin to World of Warcraft meets Second Life meets Windows.  It's equal parts game, alternate reality, and operating system.  As far as Wade is concerned it's his entire world.

Set in a dystopian Earth some thirty years in the future, OASIS has become the primary means by which the population interacts with one another.  When not working or consuming food, nearly everyone puts on their gloves and goggles to disappear into a virtual world that outshines the slowly dying world around them.

When OASIS founder James Halliday dies, he initiates a contest to determine the heir to his fortune and ownership of OASIS.  The contest, to find an Easter Egg within the game, will require an intimate knowledge of Halliday and his passions - the 1980's and 8-bit video games.  Parzival is a gunter (egg hunter) and might be the preeminent expert on 80's culture.  For the last five years he's done nothing but study hoping to uncover the meaning of the Halliday's first clue:
Three hidden keys open three secret gates
Wherein the errant will be tested for Worthy traits
And those with the skill to survive these traits
Will reach The End where the prize awaits.
Now he's decoded it and the race is on to find the egg with the future of OASIS at stake.

Ready Player One is Wade's coming of age story, a frequent and not unexpected character arc.  He is a social pariah - poor, unattractive, out of shape - and an orphan with little to no prospects of future employment.  His only escape from this miserable existence is OASIS which he accesses through a scavenged laptop and his school issued gloves and goggles.  In OASIS, Wade is Parzival and all the things that make him awkward in the real world allow him to stand out in OASIS.

Given today's obsession with World of Warcraft in the U.S. and China, Everquest in Korea, and the soon to be release Star Wars: The Old Republic there isn't a great deal of imagination required to make the leap to what Cline portrays in Ready Player One.  What's special about the novel is his treatment of Parzival/Wade.  Written in the first person, Cline takes us inside the head of a young man suffering from a host of disorders - social anxiety, depression, agoraphobia, and paranoia (not all at once of course, poor kid isn't certifiable!).  This introspective look connected with me in a way I never expected.  I saw myself in Wade, identified with him, and wanted for him the same conclusions that I came to myself as I grew up.

I still don't know why the ladies
weren't all over this!  That sweater
kicks ass. (Click to make bigger, it's
worth it!)
By the end of the novel, I had relived my teenage years and admittedly a few years there in my early 20's.  I suppose this is something every young person goes through to some extent as they try to find a niche.  Like Wade I turned to the internet although in my day AOL Wheel of Time message boards, MUDs, and Air Warrior On-line weren't quite as sexy as OASIS.

I never wanted to be someone else, not really.  Rather I was trying to show the parts of me that I was proud of and stick the rest of them in a box that didn't have a modem.  The fact that I was overweight, awkward, and painfully shy around girls was completely inconsequential on-line.  I could be witty and smart.  I could place at the top of the leader boards for kills or run a MUD and ban people that pissed me off. And more importantly, for a 16 year old boy, I could talk to girls and be charming (they were girls, ok?)

As I moved from high school to college I started to notice there would be some of my peers who wouldn't leave this phase.  On-line without the judgement of the "real world" was too easy.  They made a choice.  Most of them didn't finish college or never got there in the first place, and who knows where they are now?  I found my escape (from my escape, oh the irony) in fitness.  Much like a smoker gives up cigarettes only to transfer their addiction to food, I channeled my energy into a new endeavor and soon reality was easier (and c'mon, like I gave up geeking out?).

In Ready Player One, Wade/Parzival has to make that same choice albeit his impetus to do so is significantly more robust than my own.  That's really what the book's all about.  He, and his friends, come to a point where to win they have to break down the barriers they walled themselves inside.  It's touching and given the heart underlying all of it I can only imagine that Cline himself has some experience (according to his website he too once wore "husky" jeans).  Through his characters he leads us to recognize that the excuses we use to hold us back - weight, skin color, gender, unfortunately placed birthmarks, acne, questionable hygiene (ok, maybe not that one) - are just that, excuses.  Sure living in a fake reality is easy, but nothing good should be that easy.

So in all that crap, I may have made Cline's novel sound a little sappy.  It's not.  That's entirely my own filter.  What Ready Player One has going for it is gobs and gobs of fun.  To anyone alive in the 80's or who's spent some time in syndicated television, this novel is a pneumatic piston of awesome.  It reminds us of Family Ties, Back to the Future, Pac-Man, text based adventure games, and Duran Duran (curiously Super Mario Bros. is conspicuously absent, copyright issue?).  Even to a younger generation the adventure aspect of the story is equally as appealing.  The film rights have already been purchased by Warner Brothers and that's not surprising. The whole thing reads like some amazing concoction of The WizardTron, and Stand By Me.  Puzzle solving, giant robot battles, exploding trailers, and indentured servitude as a customer service representative, it has everything someone could want from their friendly neighborhood best-selling adventure novel.

To be fair, I have a sneaking suspicion that Ernest Cline's novel had a larger impact on me as an individual than it may have on the general reading populace (especially the high school bullies, assholes, like any of them read anyway).  Still, I would bet that among video gamers and the Science Fiction community at large there are more than a few who had similar paths to adulthood.  To those I say - read Ready Player One, you won't be sorry.  For everyone else, if you don't want to read it (you still should), buy it for your kids.  There's a lot to learn here and who knows?  Maybe they'll start asking questions about the 80's.  Safety Dance is looking for the next generation of fans.

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