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Review: Ready Player One (Ernest Cline)

July 11, 2012

I’ve had a bit of an unlucky streak with my reading list lately. Consider that officially broken with this next specimen–and not a paragraph too soon.

If I were super cool, I would've hidden an Easter egg in this review.Title: Ready Player One

Author: Ernest Cline

Read this: Because you have withdrawal symptoms from VH1’s “I Love the 80’s” specials.

The short version: A fast-paced and fun read that’s also a field trip through 1980’s pop culture.

I’ll say it again, since this review isn’t entirely made of happy: I couldn’t put this book down. It’s not the most original story in the world–nerdy guy taps into video-game skills, goes on epic quest, picks up some sidekicks, gets the girl, saves the world/wins a massive amount of money, whatever. But it’s also, for the most part, a giggle-inducingly fun version of that story.

Our nerdfabulous hero, Wade Watts, lives in a grim future landscape that totally sucks; as a result, humanity has decamped en masse to a massively multiplayer online game/environment, the OASIS. Wade, alias Parzival, is a “gunter”–an Easter egg hunter in search of the mysterious clues the OASIS’ creator, James Halliday, left in the game before his death. Whoever finds these clues will win Halliday’s entire fortune and control of the OASIS. Enter an evil corporation with hordes of egg-hunting minions, the geeky girl who’s right behind (and sometimes ahead) of Parzival in his quest for the prize, et cetera.

It’s a recipe for nerd heaven, and (again, mostly) it works. The Easter egg puzzles are a fantastically fun rehash of ’80s pop history. The narrative has its lulls, but when the hunt for the Egg is on, it’s on like Donkey Kong. (I did well on the video-game history portion of our exam. Less well on some of the others.)

There’s just one place this book struggles: who is it for? Cline seems to have a bit of trouble deciding on an audience. (It clearly can’t be gamers, seeing as I literally cringed every time he abbreviated “experience points” as “XPs.” No.) It’s not real-life ’80s pop-culture buffs, given how much time the book spends explaining its references, or describing scenes, bands, games, Back to the Future’s DeLorean, in excruciating (and not always interesting) detail. A former professor of mine, who actually did live through the ’80s, described Ready Player One as a primer for the young and uninitiated, who weren’t there for all this and don’t know much about the ’80s beyond a few movies and pop songs. But that seems like a strange audience to stake a book on–are they going to care? Perhaps, then, the book is a trip down memory lane–a friendly bit of nostalgia that assumes its audiences won’t mind copious descriptions of what are also their favorite [insert pop culture items here].

Ready Player One tries to find a middle ground between these prospective readers, and I’m not sure it succeeds. (XPs!!!) All those weeks on the New York Times bestseller list may answer that question for me. But I do wonder what this book would be like had it been positioned, and edited, with feet more firmly planted in the realm of science fiction and cyberpunk. Less accessible, probably. Stronger?

Maybe I’ll be able to tell you after I head out for a spin in my flux-capacitor-equipped DeLorean, singing along to “Time After Time,” the 1984 Cyndi Lauper hit that was a Song of the Year nominee at the 1985 Grammy Awards, having since made appearances on the soundtracks of the films Prom Night (2008), Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (1997), and Napoleon Dynamite (2004).

Yeah. I’ll stop.

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