Book Review: ‘Ready Player One’ by Ernest Cline [SPOILERS]
I just finished reading Ready Player One for the third time (first read-through was in 2013) and figured it was about time to review the damn thing. The impending release of the movie adaptation on March 29th is also a good reason to formally extract my thoughts. I think it says enough that I’ve even read this book so many times, but for this most recent read-through I tried to be more critical of it rather than enjoy it for the crazy, fun ride that it is. I won’t spend too much time explaining what the book is actually about. This review assumes you are at the least familiar with the fact that this is a sci-fi book about virtual reality (VR), the 1980’s, and takes place in the year 2045. There ya go, I summarized it for you.
I’ll start with everything I love about this book. There’s a reason why everyone who reads it suddenly becomes evangelical about it. It’s fast-paced and fun; never a dull moment. It’s also extremely accessible despite being a sci-fi novel strongly based around video games. I got my girlfriend to read it (go me!) and she enjoyed it even though this was the first sci-fi book she’s ever read, and she’s by no means a gamer. The author Ernest Cline takes his time to explain certain gaming terminology such as ‘PvP’ and ‘NPC’, even though this may be obvious to his core audience, which is most likely comprised of casual and hardcore gamers. Still, the time he takes to explain certain geeky concepts does not over-inflate the story in any way. He only explains what is absolutely necessary for the continuation of the plot. I found this annoying at first, but quickly got over it as I progressed through the book, because it was a very minor annoyance when compared to the overall story. Ultimately I think that is what will make the book a classic: the fact that it treads so heavily in esoteric ‘geekdom’ yet remains accessible.
One of the more unique characteristics of this book is that it is based almost entirely on 80’s pop-culture despite taking place in the year 2045. It is basically an encyclopedia of 80’s movies, TV shows, music, and video games. Ernest Cline clearly wants his readers to appreciate many of the works that he must have enjoyed during the 80’s (much like James Halliday’s almanac in the actual story). In that sense, the book feels like a list of suggestions subtly forced upon us, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I will admit that at least half of the references mentioned in this book I had either never heard of or had never watched, read, or listened to. But because they were all so central to this book, I’ve taken the time to explore many of them in my free time. Since reading RPO I have undoubtedly gained a greater appreciation of the 80’s. I was born in the 90’s and missed out on a lot of that stuff. Overall, it’s safe to say that I attribute much of my newfound appreciation of the 80’s to this book alone. But while this book may introduce readers to many classic works of art, Cline’s fixation on the 80’s is also what I consider one of the negatives to this book. I will explain why later.
Aside from being an encyclopedia of 80’s pop-culture references, RPO is a great work of science fiction that very convincingly imagines a not-so-distant future where VR is advanced and ubiquitous. If nothing else, RPO is a compelling showcase of VR possibilities. Being a future-minded technophile myself, I’ve been well aware of the advent of VR technology and how it could revolutionize gaming and storytelling. What this book showed me however is how VR could possibly revolutionize all sectors of society, not just gaming and movies. This is what mostly excites me about the release of the movie adaptation. If done right, I think it will show people how VR could impact the world outside of video games alone. Widespread adoption of VR will open endless possibilities in terms collaboration and entertainment, and will further enhance communication and connectivity between people all over the planet. It should be remembered however that like with all technology, VR’s detriments are almost equal to its benefits. It will just depend on how it’s used. Humans are flawed and tend to be excessive. The book does explore this duality in detail.
In addition to exploring VR possibilities, the RPO universe features many other interesting and familiar technological ideas that you may have encountered in other sci-fi books. Published in 2011, RPO does not attempt to depict the distant future, so technologies like fully electric cars and even VR itself will not seem too outlandish.
Now I will discuss the downsides of this novel. I had briefly mentioned that Cline’s fixation on the 80’s is also his undoing. RPO is clearly a reflection of Cline’s own obsession with the 80’s, and by writing this book he hopes that the reader also develops this obsession. The character of James Halliday is the vector that Cline uses to carry out this task. The problem is that this gets exhausting for someone like me who just isn’t that into the 80’s. At some point during the book, I yearned to learn anything else about the current trends of the RPO universe other than that of the “gunters” and their fascination with the Easter egg hunt. With all of this awesome VR tech, what were the vast majority of people in the world using it for? The main character Parzival/Wade does mention that James Halliday’s death sparked an immense 80’s revival, but I highly doubt the entire human population picked up on it, much less the entire gaming population. That being said, it really felt like Cline gave it his all in creating a novel that relied heavily on 80’s pop culture. The undoing that I speak of is that I doubt he will ever be able to create any other type of novel again. He may have just revealed himself to be a one-trick pony. The average reviews for his second book Armada back this notion that RPO may remain his greatest work. To be fair though, this was indeed one great piece of work.
The book also had its awkward moments. One such moment for me was the initial chat room session between Parzival and Art3mis. I didn’t think much of it when I first read the book, but by my third read-through I found it to be mostly cringe-worthy filler material. It might’ve been my increase in maturity over the years that caused me to suddenly find Parzival and Art3mis’ love interest distasteful when compared to my thoughts the first time around. What irked me was Parzival’s desperation. For one, I’ve seen enough episodes of MTV’s Catfish to know that desperately pursuing and falling in love with someone you’ve only met online usually doesn’t end well. His persistence was also a bit off-putting, but what really got me was when Art3mis actually caved and became receptive to these creepy advances all within the same chat session. It struck me as unrealistic. Given the reputation creepy men have online I would’ve assumed that Art3mis would show more resistance, and would wait for more definitive proof that Parzival wasn’t really the proverbial 40-year-old man in his mom’s basement. But alas, this is a fictional story, and it miraculously works out in the end. I just couldn’t help but be reminded that Parzival/Wade is a character who is most likely based on Cline’s own personality type, and that writing Art3mis’ responses to Parzival was based on his own fantasies or expectations with this kind of interaction. It is at this point in the story that I began to see Parzival/Wade as the emotionally unintelligent person that he is, and he suddenly seems like such a kid to me throughout the rest of the story.
Not only does Parzival/Wade become less likable, but I begin to wish the story was instead told from Art3mis’ perspective entirely. All things considered, she was actually the smartest of the top gunters. She found most of the keys and gates herself well before anyone else did. The only thing she lacked were certain skills to complete the challenges, but Cline could’ve easily written this in for her character. It would’ve been interesting to see her knowledge-base and how she arrived at certain revelations. She is also a blogger, so that would’ve been a good opportunity for Cline to add some epistolary material that could’ve allowed Art3mis’ character to shine through her writing. Given the unrealistic nature of Art3mis however, it seems that Cline may just lack the ability to write female characters. And that’s okay! I am in no position to claim that someone should create their work a certain way. It is just my opinion that the story would’ve been much better (and socially progressive) if Art3mis was the main protagonist and was more realistic.
There was one last notable flaw in the book that I found to be a little irritating. It may seem nit-picky, but as an African-American myself I found the lack of references to black works to be a bit annoying. For one, there is no mention of any rap/hip-hop works. The 80’s was the dawn of rap/hip-hop, and by the 90’s this movement was fully realized. From this inception also came new art forms like graffiti, DJing, and break dancing. There is no mention of Public Enemy, N.W.A., Run DMC, or even the Beastie Boys! And aside from music I don’t remember any mention of black TV shows or movies. But maybe I was not paying close enough attention and missed the one or two references there may have been. It’s really not that big of a deal, but would’ve been nice. The reveal of Aech as a lesbian African-American was indeed a welcome surprise. I’ll take what I can get.
When all is said and done, RPO actually has very few flaws in the face of its energetic, nostalgic, and forward-thinking plot. It is a classic rags to riches tale that makes me believe anything is possible with the right amount of passion and dedication. The biggest takeaway for me may have been the notion that knowledge is power, even if that knowledge is seemingly useless facts about the things that greatly interest me. RPO is also great for its exploration of VR technology and how it may profoundly impact society. As I write this, VR is just on the verge of widespread adoption. Currently it is relatively crude and is mostly relegated to a small list of video games, TV shows and movies. But to reiterate — if done right, the movie adaptation of RPO may be the final kick that will make people realize the vast potential of VR. Like mentioned before, I think that this book will become a classic a few decades from now and may even make appearances in English literature classes around the world.