Ready Player One
To get the most out of this book, you need to:
(a) have lived through the 80s and absorbed a hella lot of 80s culture, and
(b) be an avid gamer.
Unfortunately, while I technically lived during the 80s, my vocabulary at the time consisted mainly of "waaaa","mama", and "no," and my total gaming experience consists of an addiction to spider solitaire, a past obsession with Myst and its successors, and a tendency to hand the controls over to my sister whenever the game required motor skills. In short, basically every single reference in this book passed me by.
Denuded of its nostalgic charm, the book is still entertaining, but not precisely brilliant. Wade Watts is a teenager living in the 2040s, in a world in which war and excess have devastated the planet, decimated the supply of petroleum and energy sources, and amped global warming to dangerous levels. Like many of his peers, Wade ignores his dismal reality by escaping to the virtual reality world of OASIS and hunting for an easter egg left by the creator that would win him a fortune. When Wade finally picks up on a clue that leads him past the first step on the quest for the easter egg, he is catapulted into notoriety and a race to the finish in which his gaming skills and knowledge of 80s trivia are tested to their limits. To me, the references were as irritating as they were ubiquitous. My knowledge of 80s popular culture is sketchy enough that I don't even know which of the games, movies, songs, actors, etc, were references and which (if any) were invention--I didn't even know what the title referenced. The book's true value lies in its nostalgic recreation of 80s pop-culture, as its more serious themes are as unsubtle as they are superficial. We have the woo-woo-big-evil corporations (Wade refers to them repeatedly as "fascist," as he apparently has no clue as to what the term means), the standard Colfer-style lecture on global warming and conservation, the typical Potteresque evil family paired with Charlie-and-the-Chocolate-Factory poverty, plus some holes in the worldbuilding that I could drive an eighteen-wheeler through. And seriously--you have a simulation world of infinite possibilities, and you use it to simulate yourself playing low-end ancient games?? Colour me flummoxed. The story introduces some potentially interesting questions involving identity and reality, but Cline chose to skate around these topics.
And then you've got the cardboard-cutout stereotypes. I'm not entirely sure how it would be possible to create more paper-thin, cheaply stereotyped Japanese characters, but I'm sure the author is open to suggestions. For example, try to tell me something about the pair's personality that isn't your standard American anime-flat stereotype of the Japanese. Defining identity via Japanese swords? Check. Polite, reserved, and enigmatic? Check. Reverence of culture and revenge as main motivations? Check. Gratuitous use of incorrectly applied Japanese honorifics? In spades. I was rolling with it, assuming that the reason for the borderline offensive characterization was that the real people were actually American or something, but apparently that was too optimistic.] And apparently, it's a man's world in 2040. I found the depiction of women in the novel interesting, but the complex aspects can't be discussed without spoilers. On the more superficial end, Wade's mother and aunt are described and denigrated as sluts. One of the only other females mentioned, the wife of one of the creators of OASIS, is described as being the "perfect geek girl," obsessed with the same things the tech nerds are obsessed with, incredibly beautiful, and fully willing to reciprocate their affections. Oh, and she ends up in the proper place for a girl in a tech company: the art department. The main female character, Art3mis, is fun, but she displays the same male-geek-fantasy-stereotypes. Sure, she's intelligent, capable, and interested in all the right geeky things, but we can't have a girl actually programming, so her offline interests lie in art, poetry, and writing. Her avatar is to-fantasize over, yet she displays standard female insecurity over her appearance. Our male character spends a lot of time protesting that he doesn't care, but his fixation on discovering her true appearance tells a different story. (Don't believe me? Just go back and compare the amount of time he spends wondering and obsessing over her true appearance versus the amount of time he spends wondering what she'll think of him. Do the same for her. Now tell me there isn't a problem. No, say it with a straight face.) I spent the whole book hoping that he would find that she was not particularly lovely and didn't care, but I was forced to accept the inevitable reveal of the very pretty girl who falls for the very geeky guy. I do, however, appreciate the fact that she is somewhere between chunky and overweight rather than the standard gorgeously stick-thin-model girl geek.
H was more interesting. I loved the reveal, and it also meant that we had more than the standard single token female character. I also found the point about her decision to be a white male online--so that she could be treated as a human being--to be both accurate and disturbing. However, I don't think he really explored the real tragedy there. Wade rightly accepts H's decision without judging it in any way, treating it as a reasonable solution. H herself comments that the internet was the 'best thing to happen' for women and POC. However, I don't agree. OASIS allows everyone an ability to conform to a social norm that is denied IRL, but this also means that the social mores that make white males supreme in the world are never challenged. An online avatar should allow one to create the identity that one wants to be rather than the identity that one has to be.
For all that, I enjoyed the very few references I caught; for example, I had to chuckle when we learn that Cory Doctorow is president of OASIS and when indentured servants are referred to as "human resources." I was also amused by the chat conversations between Art3mis and Wade. There's also a big homage to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and not only did I get that one, but it got the song stuck in my head for a couple of hours. I'm not a gamer so I knew little and cared less about the various games that Wade has to work his way through, but I think if your interests are in that direction, those scenes could be a lot of fun. Overall, I think the book is very entrenched in a very specific subculture. If you're well-versed in the norms and inside jokes of 80s geek life, then Ready Player One will be an entertaining read.
Warning, however: this song may get stuck in your head.