What if Willy Wonka created video games and was obsessed with the 80s? That seems to be the question asked by Ernest Cline’s first novel, Ready Player One. In this novel, James Halliday, creator of the most popular video game in the world, the OASIS, has died with no heirs. Rather than allow the company to be broken up or sold, Halliday created a contest within the virtual reality of the OASIS, with the winner becoming sole heir to Halliday’s billions of dollars and the most successful video game company in history. This contest takes the form of an easter egg hunt, with the participants, known as gunters (short for egg hunters), searching for puzzles within the simulation. After a brief and entertaining exposition (ed. Like this one?), our story picks up with a gunter named Wade Watts, better known by his online handle, Parzival, five years after Halliday’s death. No one has beaten the contest; in fact, no one has found the first piece of the puzzle. Parzival and a small group of friends (if not quite allies) each try to outwit each other and stay ahead of the evil corporation, IOI, an oligarchical media company, which aims to win Halliday’s hunt by any means necessary.
Ready Player One is as much a love letter to geek culture and the 80s as it is a novel, with throwaway references and inside jokes littering the story. The egg hunt is full of clues relating to the movies, video games, and music of the 80s, with a few references to D&D thrown in for good measure. This is the result of Halliday’s obsession with the decade, and this becomes the shared obsession of every aspiring gunter.
This is a well-crafted puzzle of a novel. In every case, the reader is shown the clues needed to at least get the reference, if not actually solve the puzzle. There is a lot of humor and some really fun action in this book. There is the obligatory romance, which is interestingly done, and the personal growth we all want to see. The writing is sharp and decidedly un-florid. The strength of the writing is in how easily it calms down and gets out of the way of the story. The story is the real star of the book, and something I don’t want to spoil for anybody. Let me just say that it is funny, puzzling, clever, touching, and action-packed. I read the entire book in one sitting, while flying from LA to (Crom, help me) Newark. About a week later, I read it again in two days. I told myself that I was doing it for this review, but that’s not really true at all. After finishing the Harry Potter series and The Hunger Games trilogy, I think this is my personal favorite young-ish adult book. It doesn’t quite have the sense of wonder that Harry Potter brings us, and it doesn’t offer the sense of striking back at a larger-than-life villain that The Hunger Games does. It is, however, incredibly well-paced, with a compelling protagonist and a real sense of discovery.