I have a confession to make. Even though I review a lot of books on this blog, I don’t make the time to review EVERY book I read. Especially fiction or audiobooks, which I often don’t spend enough time with to develop reviewy thoughts. But a year ago I was looking for something fun to listen to as I walk to work, and checked out the audiobook of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (RPO), narrated by Wil Wheaton, from the library. In the last month, with the movie adaptation coming out, I also read the book in paperback. Now that I’ve gone through it twice, I’ve thought about it enough to warrant a review.
The premise of RPO is, to put it as simply as possible, “What if Willy Wonka were a video game designer?” It is a quest story set in a future in which the real world is pretty bleak, so everyone spends all their time in a virtual reality program called the OASIS. It has been five years since the death of James Halliday, the primary designer of the OASIS, who upon his death sent out a virtual announcement that he had hidden an Easter Egg somewhere in the OASIS. Those who sought the egg would along the way have to find three keys and unlock three gates, and the one who found it would get Halliday’s fortune.
The protagonist is Wade Watts, a high school student living in Oklahoma City, whose online persona is called Parzival—a variation on Percival, the Arthurian knight who quested for the Holy Grail. Even though it’s 2045, Wade’s desire to find the egg has led him to adopt Halliday’s own obsession with pop culture from the ’80s, the decade in which Halliday grew up. This allows Cline to dive deep into his own ’80s pop culture obsessions. If Wade spends hours and hours watching movies like WarGames, Ghostbusters, Real Genius, Better Off Dead, and Revenge of the Nerds, it’s not gratuitous; it’s for the egg!
I was pretty young in the ’80s, but I do have an older brother, so a good amount of the ’80s pop culture references were not lost on me. But there is also some next-level nerdery: there are not just references to mainstream pop culture like Star Wars, but more obscure things like Dungeons & Dragons modules and glitches in particular ’80s arcade games. In the context of the story, these work to show Wade’s worthiness to find the egg. He doesn’t just get mainstream references; he gets the most obscure references.
The best thing about this book is the plot, which has Wade competing against other individual hunters—his best friend Aech, his love interest Art3mis, and two Japanese avatars named Daito and Shoto—to solve clues that will help them find the egg. In both the OASIS and in real life he is also going up against the real bad guys—an evil monolithic corporation, Innovative Online Industries—who want the egg because it will allow them to seize control of the OASIS.
Your Mind Is What Matters
In spite of the engaging plot, there were a couple of things that left me unsatisfied about RPO. Most of the book pushed a kind of gnosticism, in which the real world is devalued and the only thing that matters is the mind. It is true that in the end, Wade finds out that the virtual world is not everything. He learns from Halliday’s mistakes that “as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness” (364). He has his real-world friends, and the last line of the book is about how for the first time in a long time, he didn’t feel like logging in to the OASIS.
Yet this is also a mixed message, since near the end there is also a statement that Wade and his best friend, Aech, had “known each other for years, in the most intimate way possible. We’d connected on a purely mental level” (321). The end of the book pays lip service to the idea that engaging in the real world is better than engaging in the digital world, but this rings somewhat hollow after the glorification of the mind and degradation of physical reality in the entire rest of the book.
Cline found his own Holy Grail in writing this book: a way to dive deep into his ’80s pop culture nostalgia without it being entirely gratuitous (although certain passages, like the description of Parzival’s modified DeLorean—which plays absolutely no part in the plot other than to show readers, again, how obsessed with the ’80s Wade is—do indeed tip the scales into gratuitous territory).
In the book, Halliday’s creation of the contest is driven by nostalgia. He even re-created inside the OASIS the town where he grew up, “drawing on his memories to recreate his hometown exactly as it was during his childhood” (102). Halliday goes a step further, wanting everyone else to be nostalgic for the same things he is nostalgic for. The character Ogden Morrow, who co-founded Halliday’s gaming company, said this about him: “Jim always wanted everyone to share his obsessions, to love the same things he loved. I think this contest [and for Cline, this book] is his way of giving the entire world an incentive to do just that” (122).
That sounds pretty creepy to me, especially since nostalgia itself is a kind of false remembering. Halliday couldn’t recreate his hometown “exactly as it was during his childhood,” because the real thing and his memories of it are different. Things are never as great as you remember them later. Throughout RPO, I was reminded of a quote from C. S. Lewis, from his sermon “The Weight of Glory”:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
Halliday has not only given in to the worship of his own past; he has tried to force everyone else to bow down to it as well. Trying to strong-arm other people into sharing your obsessions is a kind of megalomania, and is doomed to end in frustration.
The Poison of Pride
And speaking of megalomania, humility seems to not be a virtue in the RPO universe. Wade takes pride in his ability at games and in his ability to get an obscure reference. While their goals are different, I got the sense that Wade was every bit as arrogant and self-absorbed as the faceless corporation he was fighting against.
I get it that there is, in the world of geekdom, a resistance to shame. Other people (the jocks! The popular kids!) try to make you ashamed of being obsessed with science fiction and video games, and you respond by rejecting this shaming and becoming proud of them—by wearing the term “geek” with pride. But pride has its own pitfalls. The proper response to shame is not pride, but humility. Humility is the antidote to both shame and arrogance. By the end of RPO, Wade is virtually all-powerful. But we haven’t seen anything in him that makes us believe that he will handle power well.
As I mentioned above, I did really enjoy the plot of this book. The quest for the egg was fun and engaging, and Cline was good at keeping the pages turning. Yet ultimately I was dissatisfied with the values of the world he created, even inside the OASIS. It seems like every other utopia—attractive-looking but flawed.
Note: I received this book for review from Random House’s Blogging for Books program (RIP). I wasn’t asked to give a positive review.