Ready Player One is the first-person narrative of Wade, a geek, a predictably disaffected young man who spends most of his life under the pseudonym Parzival. (Rest assured, no spoilers will be given away here.) Who is Parzival? He’s an avatar inside the virtual meta-MMO named OASIS. Wade named his character for the Grail knight Percival, but that name was taken long before Wade signed into the reality where he truly lives. And why wouldn’t Wade abandon reality? Ernest Cline’s remarkably prescient world of 2045 is an absolute mess: a world in apocalyptic economic decline, in a decades-long Great Recession coupled with a post-energy crisis economy. America’s trailers parks have grown so overpopulated with food ration-book dependent denizens that the doublewides now sprout upwards in stacks reminiscent of San Paolo and Mumbai slums. Hence Wade, and much of the world’s population, escape to a better, wholly virtual, existence. The only other option is to embrace wageslavery or fall into debt-based corporate indentured servitude, with all of the privacy-denying electronic monitoring that would delight Orwell.
Meanwhile, the virtual escape offers a cornucopia of delights that his characters and I find irresistible. Somehow escaping a host of impossible-to-solve legal issues, OASIS includes every intellectual property (film, music, and video game) that has ever existed. For OASIS is an MMO, certainly, with classes, levels, AI monsters, and experience points. Yet it includes and exceeds every definition of what we would call a single game. With time or money, you can engage in every activity you can imagine, be it economic, political, creative, or sexual. An absolute virtual reality. PvP can be enjoyed in the right (or wrong) zones, though you should be careful. OASIS is a permadeath server; once you die, it’s time to make a new character.
More important to Ready Player One’s reader, inside OASIS you can find a re-creation of every fantasy world ever conceived (Tattoine, Middle Earth, Norrath, Azeroth, Greyhawk, Vulcan, etc.). You can play any video game ever made, from Tempest in coin-op to Yars’ Revenge on the 2600. You can watch any movie or TV show. Or hell, you can dive into Wargames and play it as David Lightman. You can listen to any song. It’s this breadth and depth that makes the Cline’s book so damnably fun to read. I counted more than two dozen cultural allusions in the first chapter alone, and I’m sure that I missed some. Cline’s novel embraces geek culture, especially 1980s geek culture in a way that only Stephenson’s Snow Crash with its Metaverse came close to approaching.
If you know me, you know I love Snow Crash. It blew my 20-year-old mind, and I still love it to this day. Ready Player One did something a little different. It kept me in a smile for a solid couple days. It tickled my funny bone. I laughed out loud, repeatedly to the annoyance of a girlfriend trying to sleep. Finally, it made proud to be a geek, and ridiculously and overly proud to have grown up a child of the 80s. If you’re anything at all like me… you will totally enjoy it.