I both loved this book and really disliked parts of it. If you haven’t read it, here’s what it’s about.
The text below contains some spoilers.
First person, immersive. Wade Watts (online avatar: Parzival) – an orphaned teenager living in the ‘stacks’ in Ohio, the mid-twenty-first century equivalent of a trailer park.
The book is set in a dystopia in 2044. After multiple global catastrophes and scarce natural resources, most people live out large parts of their lives in a VR simulation of reality, the OASIS. This is mostly where the story takes place. The designer of the simulation has died and has left several easter eggs (a set of keys and gates to clear) in the simulation. The first person to find them all wins a large amount of money and access codes controlling the simulation among many other things. The easter eggs all link to 80s Anglo-American/pop cultural references to do with famous shows, artists, videogames etc.
Professional bounty hunters (gunters) are searching for the easter eggs. An evil corporation (IOI) has a division of bounty hunters (Sixers) with the best resources at their fingertips.
Ready Player One scoresheet
I found the world easy to plug in to, and it quickly sparked my imagination. I was born in 1984 and am maybe five or ten years too young to get most of the Anglo-American 80s pop cultural references. Readers who don’t know any of them would likely find the book frustrating or boring. However, if you can get 30% or more of the references then that’s enough to build a picture in your head and get a sense of the world being created.
The references gave the book a fan fiction vibe, but I didn’t feel like Cline was namedropping. It was clear he has a mad passion for this period.
The basic premise of the story is a quest: can the underdog gunters and Parzival find the easter eggs before the Sixers?
The author did well in building empathy for the main character, and in building up suspense and excitement etc. I learnt of the book when reading Save the Cat! as this was an example book that Jessica Brody used to illustrate the model. Cline used that model well to keep the reader interested.
The first person POV worked well as it was immersive, perfect for plugging the reader into the immersive VR system.
The plot development felt flimsy though. There was no deep conflict or betrayal, besides the Sixers v gunters opposition. The Sixers were the baddies who got their comeuppance, while Parzival seemed to coast through every challenge, test, or obstacle that came his way, much like a teenager playing a video game they know well.
The book’s messaging was incoherent, which is fine. However, some of the ideas – of nerdy het cis underdog boys from working class backgrounds taking out their anger on the world, buying guns etc., leaves a nasty taste after the Trump administration. Generalising, my main issue with the book (besides the lack of inclusive language and character issues) was that it left this particular (privileged) white nerd experience unexamined.
Cline is a screenwriter and this might explain why large parts of the book tended to shift between heavy exposition (painting and setting a scene) and dialogue. This is something a developmental editor would likely call him out on. Anyway, it didn’t bother me as I’d already become invested in the story and am used to handling a lot of exposition.
Ready Player One falls down massively in its characterisation and the unquestioned male, heterosexual experience it draws on throughout. Most of the characters felt like afterthoughts; Art3mis’s character was more a reclusive teenager’s idea of a woman, and she functioned as a manic pixie dream girl in the story. She had no back story and Cline barely developed her character. There were several transphobic comments in the book and Cline handled the part in which Wade Watts became morbidly obese badly. There were nods to diversity such as the character of Aech (his best friend, a male avatar, was a black lesbian woman), but it felt very much like attempts to convey a sense of diversity without really engaging with different sets of experience.
Some reviewers have compared the success of this book to the Twilight series. The writing can be mediocre if a story works its way inside a person’s inner child and catches their imagination. Once that’s happened, you start seeing and imagining the world through the lens of the fantasy conceit and ideas at the heart of the book. This happened to me!
For success on this scale, there needs to be a big enough audience whose inner child’s imagination can be captured. To do that, an idea needs to speak to a social group’s experience and the ideas they have about the world – the younger the better. The world this book creates was, in part, the world of my childhood, playing Nintendo and SEGA Master System games; playing arcade versions of Pac-Man at the local leisure centre. Because those experiences are so deeply buried yet not particularly examined, this world really came alive to me. And I suspect this will be true for many more people from my generation upwards in more Western environments.
I’ve picked this text as one that I will analyse during my fiction developmental editing training, which I plan to complete over the next six months. I’ll return to this review once I can bring more of these insights to my commentary.
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