Expectations and Initial Impressions
So here I am, having never heard of this book before, when I see an extremely bewildering trailer for a film packed with video game easter eggs and aesthetics with random pieces of other franchises, such as the Delorean from Back to the Future. I didn't give it much of a thought until I started hearing glowing reviews of the source book. My friend loaned it to me after recently finishing it himself so I figured I'd dig into it. As a stay-at-home dad, I finished it in about three days.
I really enjoyed my time with it. There are a couple of long stretches of not much going on and tons of references this '90s kid didn't understand, but I came away ultimately with a good experience. I'll go into more why.
In the future, the world has turned into more or less of a decaying rock. There's overpopulation, famine, constant ongoing war, and no on really shows any means of solving anything. Most of the world is plugged into the OASIS, a virtual reality space that originally started as a massively-multiplayer online game that has grown to house different businesses, affiliations, and even online schooling. The novel starts with the creator of the OASIS, James Halliday's death, an event that sparks off a massive contest within the OASIS that will reward the winner with an incredible amount of money and a controlling majority of his company, and in turn, control of the OASIS itself.
The story follows a limited first person perspective of a teenager five years after the contest has started where no one has made any reported headway.
What's So Good About It?
Of course, most of everything here on out will be subjective and may differ in your own experience. If you've grown up in the '80s or are a big fan of the subject matter created during this time, you'll have a smorgasbord of bits of fan service relating to early video games and other entertaining media. Even then if you're a '90s kid or older, there's plenty to relate to, especially if you've ever played a video game online, especially an MMO (it's also hard not to know about lightsabers, Dungeons & Dragons, and Godzilla in this world as well).
But aside the Easter eggs and name drops, there's good stuff here. One of my favorite features of the novel is the character interactions. They're full and vibrant and feel alive. The dialogue feels like things I can hear on a regular basis while hanging out with my friends. I'm not often looking forward to it, but I enjoy the longer stretches of almost complete dialogue written by Ernest Cline and I don't feel like I encounter it that much.
The worldbuilder, unironically, is pretty solid both in the "real world" and the OASIS. It leads into a sort of lukewarm ending when you think about it but on the other hand, I don't believe I've encounter a dystopic world plugged into a simulation before. It felt fresh and the OASIS itself feels like a world of untapped and unlimited potential (there's only so many places one can go in a novel). It's fascinating to read about the constructed game-space and I could always do with more of it.
What Are Some of the Negative Takeaways?
Well, I read on the back of my borrowed copy that claimed this book was "Harry Potter for Grownups." I'm not quite sure how, since it hits a lot of the same plot beats (young love, feelings of insecurity, general youth craze) without making the material more "dark" (since Harry Potter regularly dealt with death). I suppose the dystopic world is darker than that of Harry Potter but it just feels like the epitome of a young adult novel, although one that seems a little more flavorful than a handful of others. This may not necessarily be something bad about Ready Player One, but the quote gave me an expectation before reading, which irked me a little bit.
Onto more serious issues, the Easter Eggs present are annoying for someone who doesn't know them. I'm unfamiliar with Zork, most things D&D, Cowboy Bebop, Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot (as well as most of the giant fighting robot works in general), and so much more that it'd be annoying to list them all. It unfortunately pulls me out of the novel effectively which leads me to believe that a generation later who is even less familiar with the references will find it harder to enjoy. Each new generation following will effectively let this work fade more and more into obscurity until it almost has no relevance. It's dated itself so strongly and while it may have an amazing resonance now, it's far from a classic.
Another complaint I have are the two incredibly long stretches of time that passes with very little happening. First, the story takes a long time to introduce a lot of staples that really have little significance at the time, rather than introducing them as the story moves forward. I felt like it took forever before the world started moving in a new way, giving the reader an actual story to enjoy. The second stretch revolves around the aforementioned young love when it becomes particularly problematic.
While I admitted really enjoying the character interactions, most of this section was told silently from the main character's point of view. I understand it's meant to highlight his loneliness and to let the story feel like it's not taking place over just a week but it's a chore to read through and breaks up the interesting bits. Granted it may not actually be that long but I was enjoying everything before and after and just felt a bit bothered I suppose.
How "Adult" Is the Subject Matter?
There's a bit of profanity (these are high schoolers playing an online game so come on, that's a given) and violence both in the game and in the "real world." It's also a world crumbling into a complete dystopia, so there's that emotional baggage. Sexually, there really isn't much aside from half a page inserted into the story that talks about the main character's emotional response to being physical to what equates to a sex doll that honestly adds nothing to the story at all, but it's an isolated incident that doesn't appear again. It's actually pretty tame and is par for the course in regards to young adult novels, in my opinion.
An Interview With the Author Back in 2011
Despite my negative thoughts, I do recommend this book. It'll get dated much more quickly than works like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games to name a few, but that doesn't mean it's of a significantly lower quality. It's inventive and feels original and fresh, something valuable in experiencing a story. There are slow parts, true, but they only really stand up because the rest of the book has such an attractive quality to it.