Ready Player One: the cover has all the makings of an awesome, mind-bending dystopian fiction that makes 1984 look outdated, the Mockingjay series look naive, and Tron not very inventive. Ernest Cline, too, has all the makings of an awesome hey-this-guy-is-our-age-and-speaks-to-our-experience top tier author; with just enough millennial/Gen-X nostalgia to really make it mainstream. This book should have been eerie; a sort of cyber-punk, reality questioning, death-match in layers of computer games.
Ready Player One is none of those things. This might be a solid contribution to the young-adult fiction genre, but does not qualify as serious literature. As much as I might be putting my snobbery on display for all to see here, I think I can justify it. Here’s the scene: it is about 30 years in the future, and the world is dying under global warming, endless wars, famine, disease, etc. Pretty much the future we are hurtling towards right now. In this dark future, a Gen-X reclusive genius computer programer creates OASIS, a totally immersive, massive computer game. It quickly turns into more then the only real outlet of escapism; the creator of OASIS built some basic “public good” devices into the system (like no monthly entry fee or monthly fee to play). OASIS therefore quickly becomes much more than simply a game; it becomes the glue that hold humanity together (it even has a free and functioning public school system. Yes, this really is fiction).
So far so good, right?
And it ends there. Cline seems both unwilling and unable to following up on the potential of this universe. The dystopian landscape described above is more or less a vehicle for Cline’s real interest: 1980’s nostalgia obsession. The music, the style, but especially the early arcade games are painstakingly on display. In some respects, this book is almost a history of early computer games. Beyond that, the plot is conventional – childishly so – the bad guys are profoundly cliche, the hero saves the day, wins the big prize and gets the (very) attractive girl. Liberal use of deus ex machine makes sure of this.
The initial idea for the book must have been the idea of easter eggs in computer games and people’s obsession with finding them. You know: the designers code a complicated, almost invisible puzzle that, if solved, reveals something like the developer’s name, or gives a special power, etc.
So why didn’t Cline go for a story plot along the lines of: in the future, humanity more or less lives inside of an immersive computer simulation that enslaves us all. However, the original coder and developer left the Ultimate Easter Egg: a way out, a glitch, a chance to escape, opt out, or destroy the system. The digital appeal of Tron/video games with the overall plot of George Lucas’ early movie THX-1181. That’s my idea anyway.
Probably a solid entry for young adults.