Take a Cabbage Patch Kid, chop it fine, sauté it with VHS copies of E.T., sprinkle it with just a pinch of Pac-Dots, stuff it all into an Atari 2600, and serve the concoction in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. But even such a dish won’t satisfy the ravenous hunger of the 80s crusaders as does Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, a mega conglomerate of enough old school pop culture references to make you full and then some. With the much-awaited movie directed by none other than Steven Spielberg himself arriving on March 20, the novel has held the anticipation of many enthusiasts.
The craze for the era now 30 years past certainly isn’t new in recent media, as evidenced by the immensely popular drama series, Stranger Things. However, Ready Player One isn’t set in the 80s, but rather in the distant future — in 2045, to be more specific, and the world could not be more bleak. Due to the depletion of fossil fuels, the world has crumbled down to abandoned cityscapes occupied by the poor and the hungry. Our protagonist, Wade Watts, is the anti-social geek teenager cast type who lives with his abusive aunt in the Stacks, a house of cards made out of stacked trailer homes. But why would the desolate reality matter to him and other millions of people when they’ve got OASIS?
OASIS is an open-source virtual-reality “game” that anyone can enter with a visor and “haptic gloves” (equivalent to VR headsets and gears). Yet to most, it’s a lifestyle. When the creator, mastermind, and most importantly, the number one fan of the 80s, James Halliday, dies and reveals Willy-Wonka-style the presence of an Easter egg that will bestow all of his vast wealth to its finder, the world begins a rabid hunt. Watts uses his obsessive fascination with all-things 80s and his friends’ help to race against the largest internet-service provider IOI and its own group of egg hunters called Sixers who wish to win the competition in order to gain control of OASIS to install a subscription system and limit privacy and access.
Despite the book having high praise under its belt since its publication in 2011, I was disappointed by Ready Player One with its rather lackluster prose and dialogue. The first few pages were difficult to swallow with the lack of subtlety and “show, don’t tell” mentality. Though the increasing pace diverted attention from the writing, the onslaught of trivia and information and the slew of direct references to 80s culture rarely led to a point. They existed to be references, which are a fine ode to many sweet memories, but they leave the reader wanting.
Even so, the immersive world that Cline has molded within the novel glues one in place. He establishes the key principles of a universe that offers endless possibilities and maintains them throughout. His detailed description of OASIS and its rules created a robust, believable sanctuary that slowly absorbs its users into an inescapable dependency on the software.
And the question posed by the novel on the unfathomable potential and equal dangers of virtual realities strikes far and wide. Just as Watts blocks out the sordid concrete jungle outside his window both physically — by painting the window black — and mentally, the people have abandoned the dying reality in place for a new one that in turn traps them. It gives them literal access to all the knowledge human civilizations could offer but it can’t grant true satisfaction because one knows that there will be an unavoidable reality outside the blackness of the visor: the window.
In addition, the novel hits close to home with the none-too-familiar topic of net neutrality and the possible capitalistic overtake of what could be considered our oasis, the Internet, by ISPs as caricatured by IOI.
However, the overall message is one that is admittedly somewhat banal and not entirely original. The virtual and the real continue to fuse together, muddling the definitions and even the need for such a distinction when the inherent “realness” of each is increasingly up to dispute. Amidst the reverberating philosophical repercussions of virtual reality, the answer as directly proposed by one of the characters that the reality matters because it is real and is “the only place where you can find true happiness” seems too straightforward for an intertwining problem.
Simply put, it’s fun. It’s quirky. But for those not smitten with the 80s or looking for a more reflective dystopian piece, Ready Player One likely cannot meet such demands. But for those looking forward to the movie, it may do well to brush up on all the references likely to appear on film by reading the book. In a way, the literary medium may not have been the most suitable or efficient delivery of the author’s love and indubitable expertise on the era. Hopefully, the movie to be produced by an icon of the 80s will do justice to the vividness of OASIS as composed by Cline.