Ernest Cline is best known for writing the original draft of Miramax’s 2009 PR disaster Fanboys, a film about a group of Star Wars super-fans. But with a film deal already in place for his debut novel, Ready Player One, that’s about to change. In a 2044 where resources are incredibly scarce and major cities have spread out into fields of mobile homes and trailers piled atop each other to form skyscrapers known as “the stacks,” Wade Watts escapes his Oklahoma City life and heads into the virtual Internet paradise known as OASIS.
A kind of Second Life mixed with World Of Warcraft and other MMORPGs, OASIS was the crowning achievement of game designer James Halliday, a combination of Will Wright’s innovation and Cliff Bleszinski’s bravado. When Halliday died, he left a video message to the world that somewhere within his vast online universe, he’d hidden three keys that open three hidden gates. The first player to conquer the greatest Easter egg of all time wins control of OASIS, and infinite wealth. But as years go by and nobody can find a shred of viable information on the keys’ locations, publicity dies down.
Luckily for Wade, he’s a devoted scholar of Halliday’s personal history and hobbies, which cover almost every in-fashion ’80s reference imaginable, right down the line of movies, music, television, and videogames. Wade falls into a group of independent questers nicknamed “gunters,” searching for anything related to Halliday’s Easter egg, in opposition to I.O.I., a game corporation bent on winning the contest and monetizing OASIS, threatening the free access to information and joy that the system provides.
Cultural items from VH1’s I Love the 80’s series and early G4 programming like Icons or Portal cover a basic swath of the material, but Monty Python, John Hughes, Dungeons & Dragons, WarGames, Blade Runner, Pac-Man, Rush, and infinitely more highly regarded geek cultural touchstones appear both as delightful inclusions and ingenious plot devices.
Ready Player One lends itself easily to mash-up comparisons, since in its more complicated passages, it amounts to long strings of cultural references pumped through well-worn story arcs. The adventure comedy of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy meets South Park’s Imaginationland with a dash of Willy Wonka, except all of the cynicism has been replaced by sheer geeky love.
Ready Player One borrows liberally from the same Joseph Campbell plot requirements as all the beloved franchises it references, but in such a loving, deferential way that it becomes endearing. There’s a high learning curve to all of the little details Wade throws out about the world, and for anyone who doesn’t understand or love the same sect of pop culture Halliday enjoyed, Ready Player One is a tough read. But for readers in line with Cline’s obsessions, this is a guaranteed pleasure.