|Earl in the 80s, when video games were loud and shirts were louder.|
Cline's novel is set in the near future, but draws upon all the 80s touchstones I listed above - and more - to form its nostalgic narrative. In the year 2044, most of humanity lives in poverty. Both the environment and the economy are a catastrophic mess. Many people, at least in the developed nations, have just enough money to lose themselves in the OASIS, a kind of super-Internet virtual reality system that serves as both promising educational tool and dangerous diversion for the lower classes (and in this future, virtually everyone belongs to the lower class). OASIS creator James Halliday, a sort of Bill Gates/Steve Jobs amalgam, dies and leaves his vast estate to whoever can solve the ultimate video game, an epic adventure that requires contestants to navigate a perilous virtual world.
Wade Watts is a plucky but poor adventurer, an orphan with nothing to his name but a cheap virtual reality rig, a few credits and an encyclopedic knowledge of 80s pop culture - and lucky for him, too, for Halliday, like me, was a teen in the 80s and was profoundly influenced by the pop culture of the era. With no realistic options for improving his lot in life, Watts joins the great game and through a combination of research, skill and luck manages to uncover the first clue to unlocking the mystery of the game. But doing so puts him at odds with a sinister multinational corporation bent on subverting OASIS for its own greedy ends, and they'll stop at nothing - not even murder - to be first to complete Halliday's quest...
Cline's novel is really a tale of two worlds: the technological video-game utopia of OASIS and the run-down urban nightmare of 2044. With money and net access, people can enjoy wonders such as flying their own X-Wing fighter to new worlds or transforming into a giant robot to fight other giant robots. You can even attend a first-class virtual public school, thanks to Halliday's generosity and vision. But what you can't do is help change the real world, a world that is winding down in the background as people devote more and more of their lives to the facile pursuits of a virtual world. While most of the action occurs in the OASIS, important segments of the narrative thrust Watts back into the real world, and each visit heightens the stakes of Wade's virtual actions. If he doesn't win the game, he'll live out his life as a poverty-stricken fugitive with no hope for a better life. But even if he does win...what then?
Ready Player One doesn't answer that particular question, implying that even a nest egg of billions and a pure heart full of good intentions may not be enough to repair the damage humans have wreaked upon the world. But it is, nonetheless, a novel full of hope. While there are antagonists, most of the characters, even the rich ones, are good people trying to do the right thing; it's the situation that's bad, not the actors. Thus there is a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, there's a chance the world can be redeemed. There's even a teenage romance echoing the themes of those old John Hughes movies.
More than a simple 80s homage or adventure story, Ready Player One asks important questions about personal responsibility, self-image and identity and all the possibilities, both good and bad, open to an evolving human culture. Highly recommended.