Ernest Cline’s first novel, Ready Player One, feels a lot like someone trying to justify a decade – namely the 1980s – or more spent watching a lot of television and movies, listening to music, and, most of all, playing video games.
Now, I remember a lot of trivial facts. Knowing the meaning of words like “fortnight” and “synecdoche” or remembering the names of characters in novels like Middlemarch has sometimes earned me dork status; it’s possibly the product of spending the first 30 years or so of my life reading more than my share of novels. And as a teenager during at least the first half of the 80s, many of Cline’s references are familiar – think D&D, Family Ties, Galaga, Blade Runner, etc. However, Cline far surpasses me, displaying a knowledge of the 80s that suggests he never leaves the couch.
Cline marshals this minutia to write a future dominated by a virtual reality universe created by a now-dead, semi-reclusive genius who willed control of that universe to the person who can find three hidden eggs. Guarded by riddles, locked gates, and 80s-centric tests, the story focuses on the efforts of a few ultra-geeky, utterly obsessed young people searching for the eggs. For the youth, the internet is an escape from the oppressive poverty and pollution that comprises their real world lives. They also hope to win the online contest and claim the very real reward.
This conflict between the real and the virtual is at the core of the book. And, while Cline tries to conclude that the real world and the real relationships we make with one another are ultimately better and more important than anything we can have online, the fact that knowledge of and success in the virtual might enable success in the real gives contradictory evidence. He says one thing, but the story sends a different message.