Every now and then, a book comes along with a great premise and solid execution that a lot of people like and recommend with great gusto. Ready Player One by Ernest Kline is such a book. And it is good — very good — except for the places where it can’t get out of its own way fast enough.
Ready Player One is the story of Parzival, aka Wade Watts, a high school senior who spends most of his time in OASIS, a fully-immersive online gaming environment that has, in the 2040s, become the cyberspace future we’ve all been hoping for for decades. As the book opens, Parzival is recounting the death of James Halliday, the man who invented OASIS and who, when he died, created a systemwide game where the prize was complete control of the entire virtual world… if only the players can solve three increasingly-complex riddles and obtain objects of power within the game. Parzival, like countless others, is a “gunter” — someone trying to win the game — although because he comes from an impoverished family, he doesn’t have the money to create a powerful avatar that can search for the answers to the riddles.
The first chapter ends with Parzival saying he was the first to solve the first riddle, so it’s not spoilers to say that he does so. As the book progresses, we find out how he did, and then what he has to do to solve the others and try to complete his quest to win the game. Along the way, he meets up with Art3mis, Aech, Shoto, and Daito — other gunters, all more powerful than him, who become his allies against IOI, a massive conglomerate that wants to win the game and turn OASIS into a corporate subsidy of IOI itself. Their players, the Sixers, use IOI’s money and resources to gain what many gunters believe is an unfair advantage.
So the ultimate plot is this: will Parzival, or one of his compatriots, win the game before IOI can do it?
Ready Player One isn’t just notable for its Headcrash-influenced (possibly) version of cyberspace but also its unapologetic homages to 1980s-era films, music, and video games. Off the top of my head, I can remember that the novel covers Ladyhawke, War Games, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Duran Duran, Pat Benatar, Pac Man, Tempest, Zork, and even Dungeons and Dragons. The references in the novel are pervasive, and they alone tell the reader that the book is intended for people who grew up in the 80s and have fond memories of that era. Which in and of itself is pretty cool, but sometimes the constant bandying about of 1980s stuff can get a little tiring. Add in SF and fantasy references from 1970 to 1979 and 1990 to 2011 as well and you just get lost in the shuffle sometimes.
The other main problem with the book is that sometimes it has trouble getting out of its own way. When it’s moving, it’s really moving; the storytelling is well-paced, the puzzles are interesting and difficult without being frustrating, the protagonists keep you rooting for them, and the antagonists keep you rooting against them. Thing is, because we’re in a near-future science-fictional world that focuses on technological advances that most of us will (hopefully) see in our lifetimes, and because the audience for the novel is intelligent and probably highly technical, the author has to make everything plausible. He does so, but in the process some of the steam is lost from the train that is the plot. It’s forgivable in the very beginning, when Parzival is recounting Halliday’s challenge and the story hasn’t really begun, but some of the technobabble in places just bogs everything down. Fortunately, it’s not a big problem near the end, which is probably the most important part of any book.
Make no mistake about it — Ready Player One is a good book. It’s a fun, fast-paced read with great characters and an idea that, while not 100% new, is handled in such a way that the reader doesn’t really care so much. I was rooting for Parzival the whole way — and to a lesser extent Art3mis and Aech — and I found myself turning pages rather quickly as the climax hit. I recommend the novel to anyone who’s a gamer, a fan of pop culture, a child of the 80s, or who just wants a good read. Just… be patient when the book stumbles. You’ll be glad you were.
Ready Player One is available at your favorite online bookseller.
Note to Parents: This book contains adult language, violence, criminal activity by the protagonist, and non-explicit discussions of adult situations. I’d rate it PG if it was a movie. Of course, you should use your own best judgment when it comes to your children.