Early word on Ernest Cline’s debut novel, Ready Player One (Crown, August 16), says it’s a nerd’s delight, being full of 1980s pop culture references, so how could I not read it? My husband also grew up in the ’80s and eagerly read it, too. We ended up with different reactions so I thought we’d do a conversation about it, giving you two reviews for the price of one.
First, a synopsis: Eccentric multibillionaire James Halliday dies and leaves his entire fortune to whoever can complete a difficult quest in the virtual world he created called OASIS. The winner must find three keys ultimately leading to a hidden Easter egg and the clues all involve Halliday’s obsession with ’80s culture, which provided fond childhood memories for him.
The action takes place in 2044, and lonely high schooler Wade Watts becomes the first player to find the first key after a five-year search. His archest enemy is Sorrento, who works for the evil corporation known as IOI, which wants control of OASIS for its own greedy purposes. The race becomes a Goliathan struggle between Wade, a poor orphan with a few virtual friends, going up against Sorrento and all of IOI’s resources. And though the competition takes place online, the results will have real-world ramifications.
Pop Culture Nerd: There are aspects of the novel I really enjoyed but I also struggled through sections of it. I have a feeling this is the rare book that will be better as a movie [Warner Bros. bought the rights] because as Wade visits each new sector or planet in the OASIS, we’d be able to see it right away, eliminating the need for three pages of narrative to set up those worlds for us. I wanted to get to the action faster and thought some descriptions could have been revealed within the action instead of being all front-loaded.
Mr. Pop Culture Nerd: I didn’t have that problem. Once you get into the first section of the book, called Level One, I was with Wade, loved the OASIS worlds the author created. As far-out as they may seem, the reasons they exist are grounded in the reality of what’s going on now. I think this is where the real world is heading: the almost complete exhaustion of fossil fuels, our educational system becoming more virtual (which would solve the bullying problem, if you ask me), brick and mortar companies not being able to stay in business because they can’t compete with online juggernauts. It’s a smart novel.
PCN: You might make some people think this is a political, message-heavy book when that’s just a subtle undercurrent. The best sci-fi should be rooted in reality. I got the feeling Cline wrote this more as a valentine to his geek obsessions. His love for ’80s pop culture comes through clearly. I got a kick out of the Star Wars and Blade Runner and Indiana Jones mentions—it’s funny how he disowned Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and all future Indy movies! And I used to watch Ultraman every day after school but have never met another person who has seen or even knows who he is so I completely nerded out every time there was an Ultraman reference.
Mr. PCN: I liked how Cline incorporated movie references, like Monty Python and WarGames, ’80s music and arcade game mentions into the quest.
PCN: I did, too, but I wonder if those mentions will mean anything to readers who didn’t grow up in that time period. Will a 25-year-old care about Rush or Pac-Man?
Mr. PCN: Maybe not, but most people will relate to the escapism, the desire to spend time in a virtual world where you can experience things that you can’t in an increasingly bleak real world, to create an avatar to look and be anything you want it to be.
PCN: Which brings us to the characters and their avatars. Wade is a sweet, resourceful kid, and his virtual friends Aech and Shoto are also interesting characters. But I didn’t care for Art3mis so much. Wade sets her up as being a cool chick, with her blog and self-deprecation, but she turns grumpy for the second half of the book. I understood her reasons but she just wasn’t fun to be around, with all her sarcasm and anger.
Mr. PCN: I disagree. I felt her behavior was reasonable.
PCN: Whenever Wade got sidetracked by his obsession with her, the book dragged for me. I was only engaged whenever he was on the quest.
Mr. PCN: But Wade isn’t a well-adjusted adult male (if there are any). This is a teenager who has a major crush on someone.
PCN: I can understand a teenage boy’s crush on a girl; I just didn’t feel Art3mis was deserving of it.
Mr. PCN: What did you think of Sorrento? I thought he was pure evil, which made him fun to hate. You have to respect a villain who’s that formidable.
PCN: Yeah, anytime I hate a character so much I want him to die a violent, fiery death, I know the author has done his job.
Nerd verdict: PCN—Player is fun but flawed; Mr. PCN—High score for Player One.