I love the 80s and not just on VH1
Ready Player One is a fantastic book that finds a way to do something really interesting with nostalgia. The setting is the bleak future, a time of gas shortages, which have led to the collapse of suburbia. In 2044 the slums have become “stacks,” trailer parks with trailers stacked twenty or thirty high. The cities grow upward because the lack of gas means they cannot grow out. The only leisure activity in this new landscape is a virtual world called the OASIS, “a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets” (from the blurb). Membership for OASIS is free, all one needs is a computer, a visor and haptic gloves, all of which seem to be affordable in this world. Much of this virtual society is free for anyone to use and enjoy; however, real money equals virtual credits, which allows the rich to travel far and wide in OASIS, build homes and purchase all of the virtual creature “comforts,” including weapons, armor and space ships. The poor, however, can use the virtual equivalent of mass transportation to participate in all sorts of free experiences and adventures and enjoy themselves as well. This world seems to be the SIMs plus Second Life plus World of Warcraft.
The protagonist Wade Watts is an orphan living in the stacks with an aunt who only values him for the extra food vouchers his presence brings. He lives with her and thirteen other occupants in a double-wide trailer near the top of their stack. Like most teenaged boys, Wade has found himself a hideout, a hidden van, long abandoned by its owner, that he uses to avoid his home life. He only enters the trailer when the weather is too cold for him to stay in the van. While Wade lives a life of poverty, he is able to receive a good education via the OASIS public school system. Wade’s avatar attends one of the thousands of identical schools on the virtual planet Ludus. He takes classes lead by teacher avatars who are able to use the educational power of the virtual worlds to take the students on field trips anywhere in time or space.
Wade is sure he is destined to be one of the many unemployed when he graduates high school. Then, the creator of OASIS, James Halliday, dies, and his avatar, Anorak, announces that his billions will be won by the person who can complete his contest, quickly dubbed the Hunt (i.e., the hunt for the Easter Eggs Halliday built into the OASIS programming). The clues and puzzles are scattered throughout this virtual world. Wade, along with every other person in the world, sees this as his opportunity to escape poverty. The catch is that Halliday was a teenager in the 1980s and for his whole life has been a collector of 1980s movies, music, TV shows and games. His love for pop culture continued throughout the 20th century. The Hunt will test the gunters’ skill in trivia and gaming–gunters, a portmanteau word for egg hunter. A good clue to gunter culture comes through their recommended reading list: “Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, Neal Stephenson, Richard K. Morgan, Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, Terry Pratchett, Terry Brooks, Bester, Bradbury, Haldeman, Heinlein, Tolkien, Vance, Gibson, Gaiman, Sterling, Moorcock, Scalzi, Zelazny” (62).
In the opening of Ready Player One, the Hunt has been going on for five years, and not one aspirant has scored a point on the big scoreboard; Wade is 18 years old and has spent the past five years immersing himself in the 1980s: “That was what saved me, I think. Suddenly I’d found something worth doing. A dream worth chasing. For the last five years, the Hunt had given me a goal and a purpose. A quest to fulfill. A reason to get up in the morning” (19). He can manage high scores in video games like Joust and Donkey Kong, and he knows all the dialogue of Back to the Future and all the 80s “classics.” Wade, in the form of his OASIS avavtar, Parzival, has a virtual best-friend, Aech, and a virtual crush on a gunter blogger, Art3mis. He hangs out in Aech’s Basement, a chatroom “programmed… to look like a large suburban rec room…. Old movie and comic book posters covered the wood-paneled walls. A vintage RCA television stood in the center of the room, hooked up to a Betamax VCR, a LaserDisc player, and several vintage videogame consoles” (37). Here Aech and Parzival argue about which movie is better, Legend, Labyrinth or Ladyhawke and other issues that should’ve left social conversations before their parents were born.
Wade finally figures out Halliday’s first clue one day in Latin class, locates the first Easter Egg, and beats the first Boss. Within a day, Parzival is famous. The name tops the scoreboard, and he has made some real money endorsing gunter products as Parzival (without him giving out his real identity.) Of course, there’s an evil empire that wants to force him to reveal the first location—this is really just a quest myth after all, so there has to be an evil empire. In the first part of the book, almost all the action takes place in the virtual world with Wade holed up in his hideout and Parzival participating in the Hunt. In the latter part, Wade is under threat so there’s more of a mixture of real world and virtual action. I don’t really read cyberpunk, so I found it interesting that I was so enthralled by a book in which the protagonist is sitting in a room for its majority.
Admittedly, I am in the correct age demographic to get all of Ernest Cline’s 80s references, and although I did not play all of the video games that litter its pages, I spent enough time in arcades to understand the lifestyle that Parzival emulates in his cyberworld. There’s a two-page riff that Wade does describing his self-education, in which he “learned the name of every goddamn Gobot and Transformer” (63) that is absolutely hilarious to anyone who grew up in the 80s. As Parzival goes about his business in the OASIS, Cline provides Wade with lines and an interior dialogue straight from movies (often unidentified). The one that made me laugh out loud is Wade’s spoken pass phrase that enables him to login to OASIS: “You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada” (26). This book offers some interesting parallels to The Last Starfighter, which makes this reference all the more fun.
Cline’s book is a very successful attempt to translate a video game to a written form. Anyone who has played NES games like the Zelda series will recognize all the beats of Parzival’s quest. And those of us who have some 80s knowledge try to figure out the clues before he does (I never did, which made me like this book all the more fun). It is no secret at this point in my review that I loved this book. In fact, writing this review is making me want to read it again, but I’m going to resist… for a while. However, one of the messages of this book is that it’s no shame to geek out over the pop culture we love. After all, Wade watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail 157 times.