Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Synopsis from Goodreads:
In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade’s devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world’s digital confines, puzzles that are based on their creator’s obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them. When Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade’s going to survive, he’ll have to win—and confront the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.
WARNING: THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW!! NO, REALLY, I WILL DISCUSS A LOT OF PLOT POINTS, INCLUDING END-GAME THINGS!
Still reading? Okay, you’ve been warned.
(And sorry this is rambly – I took notes as I read, which is not common for me, but there were so many things I wanted to say that I didn’t want to forget about, so this is my notes turned somewhat coherent)
Let me start this off by saying that I sped through this. It was a quick book, although not hard to walk away from. And part of my speeding through this might have been due to my frustrations with the book.
I didn’t believe the high stakes. Part of this was because Wade didn’t seem too broken up or scared by the explosion – there were no long-term repercussions for him, especially since he kept going out, doing missions and then going to Ogden Morrow’s birthday party. I mean, yes, we find out later that the scoreboard shows if an avatar dies, but it wasn’t his avatar that was killed, so if only the person dies, would that get represented on the scoreboard? Also, they didn’t know that at the time, and Wade acts like he thinks Sorrento thinks he’s dead, so…. Shouldn’t he care more about them finding out he’s still alive? And even after the explosion he never acts like his life is in any danger. I mean, yes, he says he thinks it is, but that doesn’t get reflected in his actions.
On the other hand, Wade is an 18-year-old boy, and they’re notoriously stupid (so are 18-year-old girls, for that matter). Most of them live to grow out of it (same with the 18-year-old girls), but Wade just feels like more of an idiot than most 18-year-old boys I knew. It’s possible this is because everything he knows is basically the OASIS, where you can always start over and death isn’t permanent (although it’s not exactly cheap). So I guess in that context some of his stupidity makes sense, but it was still very frustrating.
Especially in conjunction with the romantic plot tumor. And I never thought I would write that sentence in a review of a novel with a male protagonist that feels geared towards males. But there is such a romantic plot tumor. Everything in the middle part felt like a waste of time for both characters. They should have been focusing on the quest, especially since at that point they know how far the Sixers are willing to go to get the egg, but no, they waste time ‘dating except no we’re not really dating even though we’ve kissed’. Talk about mixed signals, especially on her part, and him trying to ‘win her back’ read like even more wasted time. Seriously, no wonder she ended up beating him to the second key. I guess him focusing on A Girl is supposed to show character development and that he’s ‘growing up’, and in some books that would work, but not in this one!
However unexpected the romantic plot tumor, it does tie in with the main feel of the rest of the book: stereotypical (post-)adolescent geek boy’s fantasy. Not all geek boys, thankfully, as I know and am friends with quite a few, but the ones who you picture living in their mom’s basement and unable to talk to girls. Everything about this plays into that fantasy, including everything about Art3mis and her plot line and ‘character arc’ (I have to put it in quotation marks because, seriously, why is her issue with her appearance so… so… it’s just such a stereotypical girlish vanity thing and I knew it was coming and I hated every word of it).
Lest someone start thinking I didn’t like anything in this book, I loved the plot and the concept and the world. And I love the geek stuff – D&D, the movies, the books, all of it, it was great getting to read through and say ‘I get that reference’ or ‘I read/watch/listen to/play that’. I just wish there had been more focus on the world, less of the romantic plot tumor, and some more realistic reactions – even as a stupid 18-year-old, Wade should have reacted more strongly and more long-term to his life being threatened.
Speaking of world development, why were the indentured servants not mentioned until the final third when they became plot relevant? It felt like they came out of nowhere, and there were places where they could have been mentioned fairly early on – Wade’s aunt could have threatened him with that fate, or his classmates could have teased him about it, or Wade himself could have feared it as a possibility. But no, we don’t find out until we need to when it’s clearly an important feature of their world.
I also loved the brothers by choice Daito and Shoto – as someone who has a couple of ‘so close they’re basically siblings’ people in my life, I appreciate that they can say ‘in this reality we really are brothers’ and I would have loved to see more of that relationship instead of getting an info dump from Shoto after Daito’s death. Speaking of, Daito’s death should’ve driven home the consequences even more, but it felt more like a cheap ploy than a real ‘raise the stakes’.
And I didn’t feel like the stakes were ever really raised, actually, especially not at the end when the Sixers barricaded themselves inside Castle Anorak because we’ve always seen their barricades broken. Even though Wade tells us of an air of hopelessness in the Gunter community, I just didn’t buy it (too much tell, not enough show, maybe?).
I’ve read other reviews that have asked about audience and mentioned the interconnectedness of sci-fi in general (more-so than a lot of other genres, there are already a lot of books/TV shows/etc. that reference each other or build on each other, assuming you’re familiar with sub-genre’s ‘basics’). All I want to say on this topic is that I think someone – whether Cline or an agent, editor, or publisher – wanted to make this book more open to people outside of your typical geek community, and that’s probably why a lot of the references feel over-explained to those of us who are geeks. Whether that’s good or bad is open to interpretation. Personally, I didn’t especially mind it, but I know some people who found it heavy-handed. Since I also know people who don’t consider themselves geeks and liked the book, I’m going to assume (unless and until they tell me otherwise) that they were able to access more of the book because of those very explanations, but I could be wrong.
Wanting to reach a wider audience is not, in my mind, a crime. And I think that’s why Cline wrote this book the way he did, because he – or an editor/agent/publisher/etc. – wanted people who haven’t read other virtual reality books to read this book and not be confused about why he wasn’t exploring certain avenues of virtual reality. To me, having read books like Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age and manga like .hack//, it felt a bit like retreading old paths. But that’s okay – because I’m not sure that I was the target audience.
The more I think about it, the more I think that the target audience is actually people who don’t normally read sci-fi/fantasy books, which is my ‘main’ geek subset. After all, most of the major clues involve movies, Dungeons and Dragons, video games, TV shows, music… Cline is writing this book for people who are geeks and who like the 80’s, yes, but he’s not writing it to add commentary to the existing speculative fiction works that deal with virtual reality. Or so it feels to me. And, again, that’s okay.
But since that’s part of why I read it, expecting more discussion of such things, and since it only gets addressed a couple of times – and not in new ways – I found myself a bit disappointed in that regard. But, again, that clearly wasn’t the point of the book or the target audience.
So yeah, I have a lot of mixed feelings about this book. I was engaged enough that I will read Cline’s new book, but I really hope that my disappointment here won’t end up being repeated.
I struggled with the rating for this one, but, ultimately, 2.5 out of 5 stars. Decent writing, good concept, some engaging characters (Aech, Daisho, and Halliday especially), an easy read – but I just had too many issues with it.
I have a lot of feels about this book, so please feel free to hit me up in the comments with your thoughts, opinions, or reasons why I’m wrong.