Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was an amazing book. It was the kind of book that I was sorry I'd read, because it ended, and I could never again read it for the first time.
I've seen this book described as Willy Wonka meets The Matrix, and that's a fair but simplistic assessment. The novel is about a shy and poor kid named Wade Watts who lives in a near and unpleasant future. The environment has collapsed to the point where gasoline is almost non-existent. He lives in the Stacks, literally a sort of shantytown made of recreational vehicles stacked on top of each other to form makeshift apartment buildings. His only escape is OASIS, a virtual reality where most of the population lives, works, and plays. But when the creator of OASIS died, he revealed that he created a complex scavenger hunt within the game. Whoever can solve the riddles will get his entire fortune as well as control of OASIS. The clues to finding his legacy are related to the world he grew up in, the pop culture world of the nineteen eighties. Wade decides to try to find the creator's fortune, and stumbles onto the solution to the first clue. The book is basically about him and his friends on a virtual treasure hunt while other forces who want the money and control of OASIS pursue him in the real and the virtual world.
What really makes this book special is the eighties pop culture references. The treasure hunters (who called themselves "egg hunters" or "gunters") have immersed themselves in the movies, TV shows, comics, and games of the eighties in order to solve the mystery. When a boy in the year 2044 is sitting in an advanced virtual reality, watching episodes of Family Ties and playing Donkey Kong, that surge of awesomeness is almost tangible. Yeah, nostalgia is a thing. But the great thing about it is that the puzzles he has to solve make sense. The riddles and their solutions always seem like something someone could solve if they had paid enough attention to the eighties. When Wade goes through a virtual recreation of the movie WarGames or has to sing the lyrics to "Schoolhouse Rock," it's both fun, cool, and a revelation.
But it's also an adventure with an evil corporation called IOI plotting to take over OASIS and ruin its freewheeling equality. IOI sends assassins after Wade in the real world, virtual soldiers in the virtual world, and plots and schemes to try to stay one step ahead of him. There are real and virtual gunfights, chases, and death-defying escapes.
Among all the mayhem is also a touching story about the conflict between reality and fantasy. Wade is a hero in a computer-generated world, but has to deal with the harsh reality of being a scared little kid in the real world. He has friends in OASIS he has to rely on, even though he's never seen or met them. He's in love with a girl in OASIS who serves as both his rival and fantasy, someone he knows nothing about, but wants to bring into reality. And Wade discovers that if he ever wants to be a hero in the real world, he'll have to grow up both physically and psychologically. It's a coming-of-age kind of thing.
Oh, and did I mention it's often laugh-out loud funny? Because it is. The dialogue and situations Wade endures never strays into slapstick, but there's a great sense of humor, and the author never takes the story too seriously.
But besides all this stuff, it really comes down to pop culture that makes this book great. Almost on every page, there's a reference to something near and dear to every nerd's heart, whether it's a quote from Star Wars or two characters arguing over the merits of 80's fantasy flick Ladyhawke. It's just a wonderful, exciting, and enjoyable time from the first page to the last.
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