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Ready Player One

by Ernest Cline

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Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
© Crown
Crown, August 2011

In a 21st Century ravaged by ongoing energy crisis, climate change, and three decades of recession, the only reality worth hanging around in is the virtual one afforded by the OASIS, an expansive virtual univese in which users can truly create their own world and define who they are.

Our hero, Wade Watts, is an overweight teen whose real world existence is a bit of a downer. He lives in "the stacks," a nightmarish vision of suburban sprawl gone horribly wrong composed of actual stacks of mobile homes piled one atop the other - hundreds of them, some twenty mobile homes high, all connected by a makeshift network of recycled construction materials. Wade lives in a trailer belonging to his aunt, "a malnourished harpy in a housecoat," but is more readily found in his hideout, a burnt-out van hidden amongst the rubble, where he can safely jack into the OASIS, attend school and, more importantly, hunt for the ultimate lottery ticket - James Halliday's Easter egg.
On the day he died, billionaire software developer James Hlliday, the inventor of the OASIS, set into motion the largest video game contest ever by challenging every OASIS user to be the first to find the Easter egg hidden within his creation's thousands of planets, and in so doing, inherit his massive fortune. Halliday was an uber-geek, who came of age during the 1980s and as such was obsessed with the pop culture from that decade. Consequently, clues to the egg's whereabouts peppered throughout the OASIS are all rooted in 1980s pop culture, a phenomenon that has created a population of young people in the 21st century - egg hunters, or "gunters" - who embrace, study, and are obsessed with the music, movies, books, and video games that Halliday loved. Wade is one such gunter.

Wade's online personality - or avatar - is a taller and more handsome version of himself named Parzival, after the Knight of the Round Table who devoted his life to seeking the Holy Grail. Wade similarly exhibits monk-like devotion to Anorak's Almanac, Halliday's stream-of-consciousness observations on tv, movies, music, comic books, and video games from the 1980s. He has downloaded and watched every
single movie, tv show, and cartoon mentioned in Anorak's Almanac (including all 180 episodes of the sitcom Family Ties) multiple times. He plays Joust, reads the early novels of William Gibson, and has more than a passsing familiarity with the 2112 album by Canadian rockers Rush, and he will need every bit of this arcane knowledge and then some as he races against thousands of other gunters in the hunt.
By setting Ready Player One inside of a video game, Ernest Cline gives himself unlimited opportunity with his pop culture references. In one scene, Parzival arrives at a party in a tricked-out DeLorean (won completing a Back to the Future quest on the planet Zemeckis) with an onboard computer named KITT (Knight Rider) and Ghostbuster stickers on each of the doors. Once inside, he orders a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster (The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy) and dances to New Order's "Blue Monday," as mixed by the opening DJ, who is none other than R2-D2. Yes, it's over the top, but what did you expect? The novel takes place inside of a video game.

Built on a dystopic cyberpunk framework reminiscent of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, and driven by the ultimate contest, ala Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Ready Player One is a page-turner of a novel, guaranteed to entertain. If you've ever rolled a 20-sided die, had your initials up on a Pac Man (or Tempest, Galaga or Joust) scoreboard, or memorized lines from The Breakfast Club, you will likely enjoy losing yourself in Ernest Cline's debut as much as I did.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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