book reviews by Althea

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline ****

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I enjoyed this book a lot. That said, I feel like it has a very narrow audience; a reader much younger (or older) than me would probably miss a lot, and a reader geekier than I would probably like it even more. But if you were around for 80s pop culture, you’ll get something out of this.

In the near future, a virtual reality world has taken over pop culture. Gaming, socializing, even school classes take place in this MMO environment. It only adds to the popularity when the fabulously wealthy designer of this interface dies – and leaves his entire fortune to the person who follows the clues and wins the secret video game he’s hidden in easter eggs in his virtual world.

The deceased programmer was a child of the 80s, so his clues are all based in 80s video games, movies, music and other pop culture references – which spawns a massive cultural retro fad for all things 80s, which creates an odd veneer on this dystopian future landscape (things aren’t doing too well, out IRL.) Communities of people devoted to playing the game spring up – but, with that much money at stake, evil corporate interests also have an eye toward winning.

Wade (known as Parzival online), a poor but fully geeky boy, becomes one of the leading players of the game, hoping to leverage his videogame skills and his in-depth knowledge of 80s trivia into success. With the help of his friends – whom he’s never actually met – he goes up against the Borg-like Sixers (paid corporate hackers) – and soon gets in deeper than he’d expected.

The book’s a fun adventure, but it also has a lot to say about both the good and the bad aspects of today’s increasingly wired environment; the pitfalls and the benefits of online identities, and how the ‘virtual’ can also be quite real.

One thing that struck me while reading the book, however, which wasn’t really discussed as deeply as it could’ve been, is the limitations inherent in fandom. The author is clearly, as we could say himself, a ‘fanboy,’ as are his characters. However, the author has now created his own art, in the form of this book, and his other creative output. However, his characters don’t. They spend hours obsessing over and memorizing trivia. The can play pre-programmed video game routines flawlessly. They can recite all the dialogue to movies that others created, lyrics to songs others wrote. They immerse themselves in virtual worlds that others designed. This may apply to today’s ‘geeks’ as well, but in the book it’s much more glaring because for these characters it’s practically ancient history, decades removed – their grandfather’s pop culture. Not much new and creative seems to be going on at all; the world is kind of falling apart, while people escape into VR. There’s a fun, rich aspect to this fandom – but also a desperation, and a stagnant, stifling side.

I forgot to mention: the ‘armchair treasure hunt’ aspect to the video game contest made me remember the book, ‘Masquerade’ from my childhood:…. I thought it was funny that the book didn’t make even a passing mention of book-oriented puzzles of this sort, that were very popular in the 80s.


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