Friday, August 10, 2012

Audio Files: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One has been described as a "nerdgasm" by John Scalzi, and has garnered the kind of ardent praise and outright love from the genre community that most authors can only dream about. Cline's novel is a love letter to pop culture and those of us who revel in it. But unlike many other works that only appeal to a specific audience, Cline layers his tale with plenty of vintage goodies for geeks and non-geeks alike. Add in the pitch-perfect narration of Wil Weaton, no stranger to the subject matter, and an already fantastic story is elevated to something akin to a nostalgic trip to geek Valhalla.

The year is 2044, and we find our protagonist Wade Watts living a grim existence. The age of excess and plenty has passed, and all but the rich live in squalor and soul crushing poverty. But this dystopian cloud has a silver lining, the OASIS. Like most of the world's populace, Wade spends almost every waking minute of his life inside the simulation, escaping the harsh realities of his real-world existence.

The OASIS is a bleeding edge Internet that is free for all. It is equal parts MMO, virtual reality simulation, and operating system. Created by James Halliday, a reclusive, anti-social genius, the OASIS is now the primary means for communication, commerce, education, and entertainment. Anything the imagination can create can be found and explored by putting on your gloves and visor and logging in. Upon Halliday's death, his will proclaims that his entire fortune, including control of the OASIS will pass to the winner of the Contest. The Contest is a quest for an Easter Egg hidden within the his creation. A series of keys and gates have been scattered throughout the countless worlds of the OASIS. The secret to succeeding in this quest is hidden in Halliday's passion for the movies, television, music, and video games of his childhood in the 1980's.

Five years after Halliday's death, not a single key or gate has been found. Egg-hunters or 'gunters' as they come to be called, obsess over every obscure reference in Halliday's journal determined to find the first key. Corporate hunters employed by communications giant IOI, called 'sixers' are also in the search, to gain control of the OASIS so that their masters can turn the once free platform into a commercial theme park for the rich. Everything changes when Wade finds the first key. A deadly race ensues where Wade must not only deal with the dangers and mysteries of the Contest within the OASIS but finds himself on the run from IOI agents who are not afraid to bribe, threaten, or murder if it means finding the key.

The story is told in first person through the eyes of Wade Watts, high school student, third level warrior, and gunter known as Parzival in the OASIS. Wade's extensive knowledge of all things 80's is on full display as are his quick wit and intelligence. Wil Wheaton brings it in the audio presentation, personifying the snark and vulnerability of the teenage Wade with ease. His own experiences as a self-proclaimed geek and growing up in the 80's himself lends his narration an undeniable air of authenticity. We are treated to references about everything from Family Ties, War Games, Dungeons and Dragons, and 8-bit video games. A spirited argument about the cinematic value of Lady Hawke was a highlight, complete with the perfect mix of good-natured ribbing and absolute seriousness. Wade and Wheaton are such a perfect match,  it is hard to imagine anyone else as the voice of the gunter.

Cline wisely doesn't ignore the psychological issues stemming from Wade's life of  isolation or those common to teenagers everywhere. His social anxiety is best mined through his budding romance with fellow gunter and eventual ally Atr3mis. Their conversations are among my favorite passages in the novel; awkward, earnest, and all too true to life. As the hunt for Halliday's egg grows more dangerous, and Wade is forced to spend more and more time out of the OASIS, he begins to experience a growing sense of agoraphobia, showing the dark side of the glittering escapism of the virtual world.

The supporting characters are handled well, particularly Aech, Wade's best friend, and Art3mis, his love interest. Interactions between the trio are among the best passages of the novel and Wheaton handles the banter well. It is easy to imagine that he has similar conversations with his own circle of friends. Cline plays some expected games with the concept of persona versus reality when the action moves out of the OASIS in the last third of the novel, but manages to avoid being pedantic or throwing previous characterization out the window as nothing more than lies.

The OASIS is simply genius as a setting and is almost a character in and of itself. Cline creates a world where the constraints of genre are obliterated, allowing him to mine popular culture with impunity. Imagine a place where you can have armor clad knights and spell slinging mages fighting side by side with thirty foot tall robots against the lions of Voltron and Godzilla. The OASIS is that place and any other place you love from movies, video games and literature. Cline wisely chooses to show a little bit of everything, and never has to bother disguising it.

While full of vast cinematic battles full of spells, bullets, and mechanized warriors and lower key ones like playing video games against a lich (my personal favorite), Ready Player One is a story about growing up. Wade finds that despite all the flash and spectacle of the OASIS that he must become more Wade Watts than Parzival in order to achieve his goal of finding Halliday's Egg. As it turns out, the real world is not so bad after all.

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