Friday, April 13, 2012

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline ★★★

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
You know that thing, the thing that everyone else thinks makes you the nerdiest nerd to ever nerd? That thing is what this book is all about, and it's awesome.

Mostly awesome.

This book celebrates the geekdom of the 80s. The music, the movies, the books, but especially the games and technology. Because the 80s were full to the gills of new technology that allowed games to move from boards to computers and game consoles. It allowed awesomeness like this to exist:

Announcer: Are you tired of dad?
Boy: Dad, no one wants to hear your stupid Vietnam stories!
Announcer: Are you tired of mom?
Mom: Hi angel, do you want to read a book or go outside?
Boy: No!


Announcer: The arcade comes to your living room, only without the creepy guys offering to show you puppies.
Boys: Awesome!
Announcer: With the Degenatron, you can play video games just like you are in the arcade!
Kids: Excellent!


Announcer: The Degenatron gaming system plays three exciting games including Defender of the Faith where you save the green dots with your fantastic flying red square.
Boys: Cool!
Announcer: Monkey's Paradise where you swing from green dot to green dot with your red square monkey.
Boys: That's rad!
Announcer: And Penatrator where you smash the green dots deep inside the mysterious red square.
Boys: WOW!
Announcer: The Degenatron brings arcade realism to your living room. It can even take quarters and a strange sweaty man comes by to empty the machine on Fridays.


Announcer: Degenatron, fighting the evil of boredom.

Boys: I'll never go to school again!

If you're not familiar with this, it's a fake commercial played on one of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City's in-game radio stations. GTA Vice City is set in 1986, and there are tons of references contained therein... Mostly of the 'did-they-really-just-say-that?' variety. The one above is a reference to the awful graphics of 80s computer and console games, and the creepy guys usually found around arcades. Speaking of which, anyone looking for a puppy? I know a guy...

Anyway. This book is exactly what GTA:VC isn't. It doesn't make fun of the atrocious 80s... it celebrates it. It celebrates the huge amount of innovation and change that occurred in that decade, and the huge amount of geekdom that fueled those changes. This book celebrates all that the D&D players have always dreamed... that they can do exactly what they love and hit it big by doing so.

That's what James Halliday did. He took his love of 80s pop culture and made it into the Moste Epice Queste EVAR before he died. He created the world's first truly immersive virtual reality game and free education system that is as vast as imagination itself, The Oasis, and promised to leave it and his megabillions (really) to the first person who successfully completes his quest: Find 3 keys, go through their respective gates, and then find the egg.

Enter 'Parzival' aka Wade Watts, 18 year old orphan (does one still count as an orphan once they've hit their majority?) who is obsessed with finding the egg and winning the ultimate prize. But maybe more than the desire to win is the desire to prevent the Sixers from winning. The Sixers are employees of The Oasis's rival corporation, who would love nothing more to win the Oasis cash cow and then start milking it dry. Instead of free use (services, such as transportation, is paid for in the Oasis, but logging in is free), there'd be a monthly fee, higher fees for everything and ads galore, which in the hard times of economic collapse shown in the book would reduce the availability to only those rich enough to pay. In other words, they'd ruin the only sanctuary that millions of people have from their hard day to day lives.

The first 3rd of this book was AWESOME. The parts of the book pertaining to quest and battles were awesome. The concept and the detailing and the story was all awesome. There were some parts that were so exciting I couldn't put the book down, but then there were others that were a bit frustrating or (dare I say it?) boring. So brace yourselves... I'm about to start inventorying my complaints.

This book seemed to go in waves. Something thrilling would happen, and then it would shift to very not thrilling. Then after a while, it'd start to build momentum again, and then the same thing again. So it was a little hard to keep my interest going the whole time, because I don't think that I need to know every single detail of the components of Wade's apartment or his gear for logging in and using The Oasis. I don't know what any of it means anyway, though I can guess it's pretty cool. It just got a little tedious and I got impatient to get back to the quest.

Likewise with the romance. Let me just say up front that I know Wade is 18, and has never really interacted with girls before, let alone an awesomely popular famous hottie girl who just HAPPENS to have all of his same interests and hobbies and whatnot in common with him, so I know it is unfair and unrealistic of me to get irritated by the romance element to this story... but I did. I just didn't much care. Just ONCE I'd like to read a story with a young adult protagonist that doesn't have a romantic theme, or at least not an insta-love one. It just got a little tedious and I got impatient to get back to the quest... again.

Then, the dialog. Oh goodness. It was awkward. It FELT awkward. Too forced and too "hip" and too everything, especially Aech's slang, and it felt fake. Didn't work for me there.

Finally, we come to the issue of death. I feel like the way death was portrayed in this book was somewhat ridiculous. First, let me say that there were two kinds of death: avatar death and real world death. Avatar death means that your Oasis character dies, you lose all your stuff (status, inventory, credits/money), and you start over from no0b status. Real world death means you, the person who exists in the real world, actually die, for realzies, no do-overs, no resets, no reloads, you're just dead. D-E-D, dead, as my daddy would say.

Now, there were a couple of RW deaths, and it was one of these where I couldn't put the book down. It was crazy intense and I just had to know what was gonna happen next. But for all the intensity, it didn't seem to register much on Wade's "Oh Shit!" scale, at least not when it came to avatar death. There's a scene where a big battle is going down, and avatars are rushing in to do battle without hesitation, knowing that it could mean their death, and it was portrayed as really brave and harrowing. And I wondered to myself... So what? Why the dire reaction? It's just some data in a server somewhere that would be zeroed out and that person could create a new one. It's not a real life-or-death situation, so I don't really feel like it was all that brave.

But then on the other side of the coin is the fact that the bad guys could go after Oasis players and Real World kill them. Yet at the end, there's no tension around this possibility, because deus ex machina arrived to provide the way, or it was just conveniently forgotten that the real world existed in the heat of battle... or probably both.

So... While I really did enjoy this one, obviously I had some pretty large issues with it. It was a fun story, and I have already recommended it to a few of my friends that I think would enjoy it, but I admit that I wish I'd enjoyed it even more than I did.

I'm very curious to see where Cline goes from here though. I'd definitely pick up his next book, and in the end, that's really all that matters, isn't it?

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  1. I've heard some really mixed reviews of this book -- many of them saying that if you're not a gamer than you won't appreciate the book at all. I'm still on the fence about purchasing it even though your review was very helpful :) I'm going to check out another review that is being aired tomorrow on this AM radio show I like to follow called The Book Report. I found it by accident when I was visiting Boston last year on one of their local stations and I was so happy when I got back to Atlanta and found that The Book Report has a great website -- it lists all the cities that carry the show as well as the upcoming scheludes. I noticed 'Player' was up for this week so I'm making an effort to tune in.

  2. Ready Player One is a geektastic novel that invokes a nostalgic feeling for 80s geek culture. The 80s was, in many ways, the birthplace of the modern geek culture. Between video games, amazing geek-centric movies, the popularity and damning of role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons and the rise of progressive bands like Rush, much of what constitutes geek culture in the 2000s can trace its roots back to the 1980s. Author Ernest Cline obviously has a fondness for the time period and knows his stuff as he fills Ready Player One to the brim with pop cultural nods and firmly ties the 80s the entire plot of the novel.