Friday, June 12, 2015

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline

Ready Player One is a paean, a hymn, a loving ballad to the eighties, to geek culture, and to geeks everywhere. It's also a pretty good read. It's set in a fairly near, semi-dystopian future, where increasing numbers of people have withdrawn from `reality' in order to spend their time in a complex virtual world simulation known as `OASIS'. When one of the creators of OASIS dies, he leaves his entire fortune, and control of OASIS, to whoever manages to interpret a series of cryptic clues based around his obsessions (the eighties, and `geek' culture), and recover an `easter egg'.

One of the people looking for this `egg' is teenager Wade, whose first person perspective is the basis for the novel. Wade comes from a fairly underprivileged background in this semi-dystopian society, and finds his only escape in OASIS, hunting the `egg'.

Wade is a likable narrator, for the most part, and his wry-yet-earnest voice is consistent, and probably resonates with readers looking back on, or participating in, their teenage years. His quest for the `egg' is the underlying narrative of the novel, and it has echoes of The DaVinci Code, with cryptic riddles that both narrator and reader will struggle to find solutions to - and with solutions that, when explained, are wonderfully clear. There are some nice underlying themes in the text as well - the idea that part of the reason society has collapsed was the creation of a better society, for one, and how far we allow our interactions in a virtual world to filter our perceptions of the `real' for another. Beside this, and the adventure-quest strand, there's also the gradual growth of Wade as a character, both inside and outside of the OASIS simulation - a classic coming of age tale, pleasantly modernised.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the text is massive homage to geek culture - from Atari to Dungeons and Dragons, 80's cartoons to Star Trek - everything is here, and wonderfully used to weave the tapestry of the narrative. If you grew up in the eighties and nineties, and were a geek then (or now), many references will come across as old friends, cloaked in comforting nostalgia.

Unfortunately, this strength is also a weakness; the text depends on these references, at least somewhat, and whilst an effort is made to explain the key ones through exposition when relevant, someone coming in `cold', without knowledge of the genre, may find it something of a struggle. Similarly, the `real' world has intriguing promise as a setting, and is almost criminally underused - I'd love to see more in the same setting, but wish it had been fleshed out further to begin with. The characters outside of our narrator are also a little light, but this may come as a side-effect of the first- person narrative. This is Wade's story, but it would have been nice to see a little more personal growth from the supporting cast.

That said, the whole thing is a fast-paced quest novel. The pace is there, the action, when it occurs, is memorable and snappy. The dialogue is laced with witty references, and the quest-narrative is compulsive reading.

Overall, this is a great book for the audience it seems to have been pitched at - 80's, 90's, and today's geeks will have no trouble losing themselves in the text. It may be harder to come to if you lack those sub-cultural reference points; however, given this flaw, it remains an entertaining, rip-roaring adventure and mystery story, well worth the read.

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