Ready Player One: Not Just for Gamers
Adrenalin, action, avatars and acronyms, an alliterative quaternity, propel the narrative of the science fiction novel Ready Player One like the fast and unpredictable action of a video game.
Reality is suspended in this dystopic world as imagined by author Ernest Cline. Identities are hidden, motives are obscured, and everything is a puzzle to be solved.
Published in 2011, Ready Player One became a bestselling novel and subsequently a popular 2018 movie directed by Steven Spielberg. It is reasonable to say there is something in this novel for everyone—romance, action, mystery, surprise—all threaded tightly throughout and wrapped together in the geeky world of computers and gaming. The novel is a classic treasure hunt, digitized for the 21st century, haptic glove recommended.
Ready Player One
By Ernest Cline
The reclusive James Halliday, a video game designer par excellence, a nerdy rags to riches success story, has died. “He was the videogame designer responsible for creating the OASIS, a massively multiplayer online game that had gradually evolved into the globally networked virtual reality that most of humanity now used on a daily basis,” we learn in the opening of Ready Player One.
Most everything as we know it has been replaced by OASIS, an acronym for Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation. “It was the dawn of a new era, one where most of the human race now spent all of their free time inside a video game.”
Halliday leaves behind a video message after his death announcing a treasure hunt for his immense wealth: “I created my own Easter egg, and hid it somewhere inside my most popular videogame—the OASIS. The first person to find my Easter egg will inherit my entire fortune.”
The story follows teenager Wade Watts, shielding his true identity under the avatar moniker Parzival, searching for the egg and the massive fortune, studying everything he can about Halliday to unlock a succession of clues. Halliday was a child of the 1980s, and the pop culture references are ubiquitous in his computer software. Recall Dungeons & Dragons, the television show “Family Ties,” and the breakfast cereal Cap’n Crunch? They are all there and more.
Watts is penniless, parentless and homeless and has almost no chance at a comfortable life. But in the alternate reality world of OASIS, the importance of and access to education, as well as an inquiring intellect, are a consistent thread throughout the story. “Even a penniless kid like me had access to every book ever written, every song ever recorded, and every movie, television show, videogame, and piece of art ever created. The collected knowledge, art, and amusements of all human civilization were there, waiting for me,” Watts recalls.
Perhaps Cline echoes Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Library of Babel. “When it was announced the library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy. All men felt themselves the possessors of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal problem, no world problem, whose eloquent solution did not exist—somewhere in the same hexagon.” Watts, with a virtual library at his fingertips, meets every obstacle with grit and ingenuity, solving every roadblock or battle programmed into Halliday’s puzzle through copious research and an increasing base of knowledge. Of course, he must also slay several skilled warrior avatars along the way in deep dark caverns.
I try to be both conscious of and careful in setting expectations when starting a book, whether fiction or nonfiction. However, I would have shortsightedly passed on reading a novel set in a digitized alternate reality where the main characters are gamers. I grew up before the age of video games and the prevalence of computers. The Texas Instruments calculator was just invented as I sat down in my first actuarial class at Penn State. (Professor Shapiro would not allow them in the classroom.) Fortunately, I was nudged otherwise to read Ready Player One. It is never healthy to get too big for one’s literary britches.
Reading should never be in service of a particular ideology or a subjectively devised standard as to what is or is not “literature.” Yes, grammar is important, thank you Strunk and White, and consistently sloppy lapses will compel me to fling a book into a waste receptacle. Reading with a predetermined set of expectations and within your comfort zone is not reading at all and shutters any possibility of expanding your horizon. Read to find and recognize the possibility of the good. Ready Player One scores on two levels. It stimulates reflection about the society we live in today, while at the same time it is a marvelously delightful read.