Recently I had some credits to use up and went to the Oracle (Facebook) to ask for advice. A fellow author recommended READY PLAYER ONE, in particular because it is read by Wil Wheaton, who played Wesley Crusher on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION. Wil is a funny guy, and he's played a gamer in a couple of YouTube series (my favorite being Felicia Day's THE GUILD). He is the perfect voice for the first-person perspective of a post-apocalyptic gamer geek, and there is this awesome moment when ... nope, not gonna spoil it.
So let me start by saying Donna reviewed this book back in 2013. I read her review again before posting this one to ensure there wasn't too much overlap. If you are interested in seeing the movie (scheduled for release next spring) AND you're one of those people like me who prefers to read the book BEFORE watching the movie, now you have your deadline.
This review is high-level and only contains minor spoilers. It's adapted from my Goodreads review specifically for Spacefreighters.
READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline, read by Wil Wheaton
Genre: Young-adult sci-fi with romantic elements
I didn't have high expectations for this book. I'm a middle-aged woman, and READY PLAYER ONE ("RPO" henceforth) is about a teenage gamer essentially living inside a virtual world anchored in a post-apocalyptic society. I have played both arcade and computer-based games, but not in decades. I did not expect that I'd relate. But as Donna notes in her review, this novel is RIDDLED with references to 80s culture, and I was a teenager in the 80s. Music, TV shows, movies, commercials, even specific computer models I owned in early adulthood. What a genius decision by the author, amirite? You get the young adult audience, because that's the age of the protagonists, plus all the Gen Xers and some Baby Boomers too. And I had further reason to identify with the protagonist: he lives in a trailer park in Oklahoma City, where I was born and raised. (I never lived in a trailer park, but I knew people who did. Plus they were on the news every time there was a tornado.)
|From the original book cover art. It's gorgeous, |
though based on Cline's description
the trailer stacks were much closer together.
RPO is sci-fi at its best. There's an underdog hero and an evil corporate villain, and they fight their battles with super cool tech, in both the real and virtual worlds. The post-apocalyptic world Cline paints is very believable, as you can see the seeds of his calamities already germinating in today's society. For example, Cline depicts government so ineffective and in bed with corporations as to be useless in its original role of serving the interests of the populace, and corporations that have been given broad powers over the lives of private citizens.
Believe it or not this young-adult-centered geekfest even includes a sweet love story. It doesn't take up a lot of screen time, but it's critical to the plot and the ending wouldn't be nearly as satisfying without it. Can you really fall in love with a person you've never actually met? You be the judge. And as for the ladies, they DO represent in this story. Frankly when I started this book, I figured I'd have to just be okay with it being about a bunch of dudes in their basements. Granted, a lot of the 80s reference ARE very male-oriented. The only female rock musician I remember being referenced (Pat Benatar) was mentioned in conjunction with Artemis, the protagonist's crush. But whatever.
Admittedly it took me a while to get into this story. As stated above, I have little in common with the protagonist (Wade) beyond our knowledge of 80s culture, and besides that there is a fair amount of setup and backstory to get through. Wade also has a tendency to use cliché phrases (ie, "armed to the teeth"), which as an editor and fellow author pulled me out of the story at times. But once the story clicked for me, I was swept away. (Hubs started listening to it with me about halfway through, on one of our drives to town, and after a bunch of initial protesting, he was asking to listen to it at home EVERY DAY until we finished it.) There's so much attention to detail in the world building, it feels like you're inside the game. In fact at times the detail can be a little tedious, but it fits the story, as these details MATTER to Wade.
Now I'll tell you what I liked best about this story, besides the amusement-park-ride quality of the plot. As Wade goes about his quest for the ultimate high-stakes Easter egg, which has been hidden inside the virtual world (the Oasis) by its now-deceased creator, you find yourself rooting and cheering at every turn. He's just a kid vying for a prize along with thousands of other "gunters," but it's fun to watch his obsessiveness and attention to detail begin to pay off. The REAL payoff, however, comes as Wade begins to evolve as a person, developing relationships that bring out his more noble qualities—empathy, loyalty, openness to emotional vulnerability. Qualities that, fairly or not, we don't often associate with gamer personalities. Wade learns to use his powers for the greater good, and that's a quality with timeless, universal appeal.