(Audio)Book Talk: *Ready Player One*, by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One (book website)
Ernest Cline
Audiobook read by Wil Wheaton
Crown (2011), Hardcover (ISBN 030788743X / 9780307887436)
(Audio edition ISBN 9780307913159)
Fiction, 384 pages (Audio length 15 hours 46 minutes)
Source: Purchased audiobook (Audible.com)
Reason for reading: Personal

Opening lines, Chapter 1: “I was jolted awake by the sound of gunfire in one of the neighboring stacks. The shots were followed by a few minutes of muffled shouting and screaming, then silence.

Gunfire wasn’t uncommon in the stacks, but it still shook me up. I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep, so I decided to kill the remaining hours until dawn by brushing up on a few coin-op classics. Galaga, Defender, Asteroids. These games were outdated digital dinosaurs that had become museum pieces long before I was born. But I was a gunter, so I didn’t think of them as quaint low-res antiques. To me, they were hallowed artifacts. Pillars of the pantheon. When I played the classics, I did so with a determined sort of reverence.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website: It’s the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place.

Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets.

And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune—and remarkable power—to whoever can unlock them.

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday’s riddles are based in the pop culture he loved—that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday’s icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes’s oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig. 

And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.

Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt—among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life—and love—in the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

Comments: I was never much of a gamer–unless the game was Trivial Pursuit. The only video game I ever enjoyed was Frogger, but I wasn’t good at it. And until just a couple of days ago, when it came up as a plot point in this particular novel, I had no idea that Pac-Man had 256 levels; I don’t hink I ever made it any further than the third. Having said that, I did spend a little time in arcades during my college years, and more often than not during the last couple of decades, I’ve had a videogame system in my house. In addition, there’s no question that I’m a pop-culture addict–movies and TV and music–and I consumed plenty of it during my formative years in the 1970s and 1980s. In more ways than not, Ernest Cline’s debut novel, Ready Player One, is written in my language.

Cline’s deep understanding and affection for nerd culture was evident in his screenplay for the cult-favorite movie Fanboys, and it fully informs his first novel. The plot momentum of Ready Player One–which is a highly plot-driven novel–relies on a slew of geeky details. Set in a not-too-distant future in which the current recession has yet to end and natural resources have been even further depleted, the characters here are just a few of the millions who choose to spend most of their lives in the virtual reality of the OASIS–so much more than a video game–rather than in the difficult and unappealing real world. Some go into the OASIS with a specific purpose, though; they’re “gunters”–a contraction of “egg hunters”–searching for the “Easter egg” that its creator, James Halliday, programmed into it. For years, they’ve been trying to unravel the puzzles that leads to it, because the first person to find that secret will be the sole heir to Halliday’s fortune…and now that 17-year-old Wade Watts, known within the OASIS as Parzival, has become the first gunter to get within reach of the prize, the OASIS exerts a greater, and more dangerous, allure than ever before.

While there’s really no profound statement at the heart of Ready Player One, it’s an ambitious novel, largely because it has so much packed into it. It can be risky to reach so far, especially with a first novel, and at times it doesn’t quite make it. While I found some of the delights of the novel in its details–for the most part, they are well-chosen and effectively deployed–at times it felt like were just too many of those details, and they threatened to weigh things down, particularly in the audio production (I might have just skimmed some of those sections in print, to be honest.) On the other hand, and particularly when considered in light of Cline’s background as a screenwriter, the precision of description makes for very effective world-building, and I appreciated how easy he made it to visualize the story. And for the record, this story will make one heck of a movie (yes, the rights have been acquired, although Cline’s screenplay will be rewritten by someone else).

I read this in audio, since it’s been awhile since I listened to fiction and wanted to give it another go. Although there were times that I felt that the format unfortunately emphasized some of the weaknesses in the prose and made the novel feel longer than it needed to be, I think it was a good call, and the choice of reader for the audiobook is perfect. Wil Wheaton doesn’t just get nerd culture; he’s a participant in it, and as a former cast member of a Star Trek series, he’s a component of nerd culture. He sounded like he was genuinely enjoying himself, even during some of the less-compelling instances in the story, such as recitations of the the standings in the egg hunt (some of the details I’d have skimmed in a print copy). That enjoyment was contagious. Despite its imperfections, and not just because of the nerdy and period-specific details, I was thoroughly engaged and entertained by Ready Player One–it deserves its place on the Speculative Fiction short list for the 2011 Indie Lit Awards.

Rating: 3.75/5
This book counts for the 2012 Audiobook Challenge (1/6)
Other reviews, via the Book Blogs Search Engine

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