I knew Ready Player One would be a geek’s Holy Grail of cultural references, the ultimate homage to all things nerdy. I knew the plot involved an elaborate, online, virtual reality game, and because of that I have to admit I didn’t expect for it to be that interesting to me.
You see, I am a child of the '80s and '90s, but I missed out on much of the pop culture that Cline is so worshipfully addressing in Ready Player One. I completely missed out on early computer and arcade gaming. I haven’t seen Back to the Future, never played an RPG, or watch very many Saturday morning cartoons. (I HAVE seen WarGames and felt a serious sense of accomplishment as I read through that particular section of the book.) There is such a massive amount of cultural references (Seriously, it’s mind-boggling.) in the book, however, that there will end up being some very personal connection for almost everyone.
And, you can’t help but respond to the unbridled affection Cline weaves into almost every moment of the Ready Player One world.
My own moment came when one character exclaimed during a critical battle sequence, “IT IS ON, LIKE RED DAWN!” Red Dawn was, and still is, one of my most favorite movies from the era. I watched it for the first time in my early 20s, more than a decade after it was in theaters. I have since watched it over and over and over and will continue to do so, my love for it ever undiminished. With that glorious utterance, Ready Player One became my story, and therein lies Cline’s genius.
Regardless of the connection you feel to the specific subject matter, I defy you to not get completely caught up in the almost unbearable level of tension as the main character, Wade, plays through the levels of the game. Little, non-gamer me got completely caught up in playing the game to the extent that it became exasperating to get through the sections of the story taking place in “real life” (which fits in very nicely with Cline’s commentary at the end of the book about the unhealthy aspects of staying immersed in a virtual reality). At any lull in the action, I wanted to yell at the characters to get a move on, get back in the game, and find a solution.
I usually separate my review of the audiobook, but in this case, I think that Wil Wheaton’s narration is such an integral part of my experience that I’m going to address it right here. Wheaton absolutely embodies Cline’s love of the culture, of gaming, and everything that entails. I’ve been a huge fan of Wheaton’s Tabletop series on the Geek & Sundry YouTube channel, and you can hear that same enthusiasm in his reading of this book. Wheaton completely embodies Wade’s character, achievinga pitch-perfect, youthful quality that was a joy to listen to. This was one of those rare audiobook listens that forced me into walking around the house with my earbuds in so I could keep going . . . while I vacuumed, loaded the dishwasher . . .
For all its strengths, and the unmeasured delight I took in it, this isn’t a plot without some problems. Wade exhibits some truly naïve thinking that doesn’t feel particularly true to his character or intelligence, especially in terms of being concerned about the safety of his co-players and himself. It is demonstrated very early on that the villain will go to extreme lengths to stop Wade and his friends from progressing in the game. This danger is as present in real life as it is in the virtual reality they spend most of their time in. I expected Wade to react more viscerally to this threat much earlier on in the plot.
Later, as Wade gets caught up in his romance with Art3mis, the story veers away from its previously relentless movement forward through the course of the game. Cline does a fair, if not completely convincing, job of tying this to a normal teenager’s inability to control his emotional life. The essential problem for me, however, was that every minute Wade spent away from some kind of active attempt to solve the game should have been matched by a growing fear that he and his friends would be found and taken out by the enemy. And, I just couldn’t quite forgive anything that took me away from the game, as much as I approved of the romantic storyline.
Finally, Cline relies too frequently on Wade’s serendipitously having already acquired a needed item or bit of knowledge that can then be brought out at just the right moment. While this makes some sense in the context of Wade’s vast research of Halliday and the game, as well as his general hacker tendencies, the frequency with which it is employed starts to border on being a lazy plot device to help the players over hurdles.
All that being said, I still count this book as one of the more enjoyable experiences I’ve had in a long while. Ready Player One is a truly lovely marriage of riveting tension, fascinating science fiction world-building, and nostalgic connection for pretty much anyone of my generation. I am exceedingly excited for Cline’s next book, Armada, to hit the shelves this July . . . and for the audiobook, read again by the wonderful Mr. Wheaton, to hit my playlist.
“IT IS ON, LIKE RED DAWN!”