A review of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Reviewed by JL Mounfield

Ready Player One
by Ernest Cline
Crown Publishers
Price: US$24.00–hardback, ISBN: 978-0-307-99743-6

While its cover barely warrants a second glance, it is hard to ignore the hype surrounding this title. The promotional material accompanying my review copy of, Ready Player One comprises no less than three foolscap pages filled with glowing endorsements from New York Times bestselling authors to Booklist and Publisher’s Weekly reviewers. Recommendations such as this one from bookseller, Jake Hallman of Oakland CA certainly shot my expectation meter through the roof:

Around the second time that I found myself carrying this book into the shower, I realized that I had a problem. I could not stop reading this book. Could. Not. Stop.

So, it was with an eager heart and open mind that I settled down in a comfy chair—armed with a roll of cling wrap, just in case I craved a shower—and prepared to have my socks blown off.

The story: The year is a few decades from our own and basically the world is a depleted, over-crowed dump. Thankfully two men named Halliday and Morrow created the OASIS, a virtual reality filled with thousands of worlds where children attend school, housewives shop and every manner of business thrives. Make no mistake, the OASIS may be a construct, but it is every bit as real as the ‘real’ world. OASIS-earned credits can be transferred into real world money and vice-versa. So, too, an education gained in the OASIS is just as valid as one gained off-line.

‘Any business that wanted to set up shop inside the OASIS had to rent or purchase virtual real estate (which Morrow dubbed, ‘surreal estate’) form GSS,’ (GSS—Gregarious Simulation Systems: Halliday’s company.)

In addition to the billions of dollars that GSS raked in selling land that didn’t actually exist, they made a killing selling virtual objects and vehicles. The OASIS became such an integral part of people’s day-to-day social lives that users were more than willing to shell out real money to buy accessories for their avatars: clothing, furniture, houses, flying cars, magic swords and machine guns. (59)

When Halliday dies, he leaves the OASIS—now entirely his after he bought out Morrow’s share—along with his vast wealth to whoever finds three hidden keys. As the emotionally crippled Halliday never quite made it out of the 1980s, the quest is chock-full of clues and challenges from this decade. Armed with the great one’s almanac, outlining every game, comic, movie and TV series Halliday admired, teenage gamer, Wade Watts is determined to stake his claim. But since every gamer on the planet is also searching, not to mention Interactive Online Industries, a mammoth conglomerate with thousands of gamers in its employ, the odds aren’t good. But incredibly, Wade is the first to score a copper key. His friends Aech and Art3mis aren’t far behind—and neither are the sixers, IOI’s gaming army.

When Wade refuses to tell IOI how to find the first key, the game becomes deadly. The trailer slum where Wade lives with his hard-hearted aunt is blown up, taking aunty with it. What follows is a race, both real and virtual, to stay alive long enough to claim all the keys and open all three gates. Forced to team up against the seemingly infinite sixer army, Wade and friends send out a call to every gamer on the planet to declare war against IOI.

Given the nature of this story and the worlds it takes place in, there is quite a lot of narrative explanation, which I found dulled my connection to the characters. At times it was akin to reading a ‘how to’ manual. To be fair, I can’t see how Cline might have avoided this—though a little pruning wouldn’t have gone astray. Overall, this is a detailed, well-written story. There wasn’t nearly enough of the ‘real’ world for my liking. The short passages Cline has included show a society teetering on the brink of total apocalypse and are far more interesting that any of Halliday’s virtual worlds.

On the subject of real versus virtual:

I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world. I didn’t know how to connect with the people there. I was afraid, for all of my life. Right up until I knew it was ending. That was when I realised, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real. (364)

I don’t understand why Cline felt the need to add this. For one thing, if true happiness can’t be found anywhere but in the so-called real world, then the OASIS wouldn’t be the massive success it obviously is. For another, it begs the question: What is reality? If reality is that which we experience through one or more of our senses then virtual reality is every bit as ‘real’ as any other.

While I didn’t find myself showering with my copy of Ready Player One, I did find it an enjoyable read. However, I feel that fans of virtual gaming will get far more from this story than I did. Young adult males, in particular, will eat this up. Ready Player One is Willy Wonka with balls; it’s Total Recall meets The Matrix meets the Mario Brothers. It’s scarily familiar and horribly possible. But most of all, it’s really good fun.

About the reviewer: JL Mounfield is the author of three novels for children and young adults as well as a number of short stories for both children’s and adult markets. Her stories, reviews and articles have appeared both in print and online.