Book Review: Ready Player One
YES I KNOW I'M BEHIND THE TIMES, THANK YOU. But I've been hearing about this book for ages, and I finally decided to pick it up because it's about one of my favorite things: video games.*
Set in a slightly dystopian future Earth, Ready Player One follows Wade Watts / Parzival, a young boy. The creator of the OASIS, the virtual reality that permeates this future Earth, has died, leaving his fortune to the first person who can solve the puzzle he embedded in the OASIS and find his hidden Easter egg. After years of no progress, Wade stumbles upon the first key - and suddenly the hunt is on in earnest. Wade struggles against other "gunters" and a sinister corporation intent on monetizing the OASIS in a race to the final gate and the treasure it hides.
In my opinion, the reason this book has garnered as much attention and praise as it has comes down to one thing: a really kick-ass premise. The blurb on the cover calls it Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets The Matrix, and that's really the best way to describe it. The OASIS is a super cool invention - imagine every fictional world you've ever watched on TV or read about, and then imagine you could experience that in virtual reality. On top of that, the constant untangling of puzzles and clues makes the plot zoom forward and keeps the pacing lean and mean.
Cline also shows good attention to the world. Given how monumentally influential a free VR system like the OASIS would be, there's a huge domino effect to be explored. Cline has clearly thought it through. Public schools have migrated into the OASIS, for example, and money in the OASIS is worth about the same as real-world money. People use it constantly as a means to escape an increasingly dangerous and hostile world, and they care more about who's running the organizations within the OASIS than they do the actual country.
But this book has some gaping, major flaws.
To start, the characters are meh. None of them have strong personalities. None of them have personality flaws or quirks that make them interesting. They share the same motive (finding the Easter egg and winning the money), even if they want to do different things with prize.
Our main character, Wade/Parzival, is an underdog, so we automatically root for him, but otherwise there's little reason to do so. He's a flat character, who doesn't really grow as a person at all. He has no internal conflict, only his desire to find the egg. If you asked me to describe his personality, I'm not sure I could give you any adjectives because we rarely see his emotions (other than his constant mooning over Art3mis). As an example of what I mean, when Wade's family is killed early in the book, he barely reacts. There's no grief period (and he really ought to grieve a little, even if his family is shitty). He barely even acknowledges the death of the woman in his stack that he liked.
That same flatness extends to the book's other characters. Art3mis is a stereotypical love interest, girl next door fantasy. Aech is marginally more interesting for the reveal of his identity, but only marginally - personality wise, he too doesn't grow at all. The Japanese gunters are just kind of...there, and the death of one mid-way through the novel falls flat when I haven't been given a reason to care about them. Meanwhile, IOI (the organization trying to win and monetize the OASIS) is comically supervillain-esque, to the point of ridiculousness.
At the end of the day, this book isn't about its characters. It's about the puzzle - and therein lies another of the book's flaws. Look, I love me some nerd references. I understood a large portion of the ones here (and I particularly enjoyed the Monty Python bit at the end). But there is SO MUCH TELLING AND INFO DUMPING. It's EVERYWHERE. This book is an excuse for Cline to trot out every bit of trivia he knows about the 80s, and it's cute for the first few chapters. Then it gets old. If you have to constantly explain your jokes and references, it's not funny or clever anymore, and the story gets bogged down in explaining these bits of trivia.
It's particularly annoying when it comes to the puzzles. I love solving puzzles, and one of the appeals of any book featuring puzzles and riddles is figuring them out with the characters. But there's no way to do that with the puzzles here because of the ridiculously obscure knowledge needed to solve them, so it just becomes Cline lecturing us on why the solution is X. It loses the joy of discovery I wanted to find in this book.
Ready Player One scores as high as it does because of the killer idea that forms its premise, after losing a lot of points for having cardboard cutout characters that I didn't care about and 80s references in every sentence that got annoying fast. I really wish the execution on this one had been stronger, because I wanted to love it, but instead I'm just kind of meh.
*I was actually unaware of the movie adaptation until I started reading the book. But good timing, I suppose.