Ernest Cline’s READY PLAYER ONE

Ernest Cline’s first novel, READY PLAYER ONE, is exactly as it’s advertised by USA Today: the Matrix meets Willy Wonka. The only thing I would add to that is that it also has a dash of the SCOTT PILGRIM book series as well. The premise of the book is that the dystopian world has been consumed with an online simulation (not so different from Second Life). The creator of this online simulation dies, and his final will includes a contest; the winner of this contest will be gifted the creator’s entire fortune (that consists of multiple billions of dollars). All of this, however, is drenched in nostalgia and retro/vintage references.

READY PLAYER ONE is a real page turner. It moves along at breakneck speeds; weeks and months can pass between paragraphs at times, but the narrative never feels disjointed or confusing. The universe that Cline invents is very rich, and he is able to convey it wonderfully. Admittedly, it will probably be easier for gamers/geeks to grasp the universe than someone outside of the audience — many of the ideas here (online simulations, leveling up, NPC’s, “drops”, easter eggs) will be intimately familiar with gaming veterans, thus easier to understand. Additionally, many of the references require some sort of preexisting knowledge of the 1980’s pop culture atmosphere. While some allusions are explained, there are plenty of encyclopedic references to pick up on.

This novel does many things really well. I really didn’t want this book to end; I wanted to spend more time with the characters and the universe. A lot of the enjoyment that comes from this book is in discovering this dystopian world and how the online simulation has influenced it. There’s a love story that takes place here, and unlike THE HUNGER GAMES, it felt true — not just like another plot device. By the end, what happens to the two lovers involved feels realistic and earnest, not pandering or manipulative. The book also feels unique. Even though there are Matrix/Willy Wonka comparisons, the result of this chemistry creates something entirely new and bold. It’s unabashedly geeky, but it doesn’t feel amateurish or like fan-fiction. Instead, it’s a well written novel that is steeped in a subculture that has not been well represented in mass-produced literature.

There are two issues I have with the book. The first is that I don’t exactly know if this book knows what it wants to be. What I mean by this is that the first 2/3’s or so (the book is broken into 3 “levels”) have a very clear theme and tone, but the last third of the book seems to ditch these themes. READY PLAYER ONE’s first half feels very much like a satire, showing the pain and desperation of a world (and its people) that has lost itself in reality. The statements made here are really effective, with Cline showing these characters getting lost deeper and deeper into an online simulation, it causes the reader to reflect upon our own society. It feels like this book has something important to say. Unfortunately, this trend gets ditched by the last third of the book. By the ending, there was no clear message for the book; it’s not that the themes were ambiguous, it’s that it feels like they were forgotten in deference to more epic action.

The second issue that I have with the book runs along the same lines as the first. The first two levels of the book are funny, witty, and engaging. READY PLAYER ONE is a fun, propulsive book that champions brains over brawn. By the ending, it feels like the id of the book began to take over. There was less witticism and more full-throttle testosterone. That’s not too say that it wasn’t good: the finale is pretty thrilling. The entertainment here just felt a little cheaper. It feels like the online simulation is no longer a simulation, but a straight-up video game.  Again, this really hampers any kind of satirical voice that Cline attempts to use to carry the book’s themes.

I would recommend READY PLAYER ONE to anyone that has played an MMO, or anyone that loved Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. It’s a well written book and a great debut. The book is entertaining on many levels, but there are a few times when it struggles to find exactly what it wants to say.

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