The quote on the cover of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011) is “Willy Wonka meets the Matrix”. The Matrix? Really?? It’s like the person who wrote that had no idea that full immersion/virtual reality exists outside of The Matrix… Come on dude, just like there is no spoon, there is no way this book is like The Matrix.
So let me try my own mash ups:
Ready Player One is Willy Wonka meets Black Mirror meets Fanboys.
Wait wait wait, let me try again.
It’s Summer Wars meets Spy Kids 3D, but without the epic Elijah Wood cameo (sadface).
…Much better, I think you get where I’m going with this.
I have to say, Ready Player One is probably the best virtual reality I’ve read since Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde when I was fourteen… Ok, it’s the only virtual reality I’ve read since Heir Apparent when I was fourteen, but still. What’s not to like when, within the first few chapters, there’s a debate about the awesomeness of Ladyhawk and a reference to having a Spaced marathon. Probably my two favourite things!
This is a story about Wade Watts, a trailer trash shut-in who spends all his time in the OASIS, an online world that’s part every day life and part online roleplay. The Willy Wonka connection comes in when the creator of the OASIS dies, leaving his company and fortune to whoever can follow his clues and master all his 80s themed popculture challenges… Yea, it’s kinda insane. But it’s not just nerdy kids like Wade hunting for the prize, a huge corporation is after the OASIS and, as we soon find out, they’ll stop at nothing to get it.
Although I’m not super into D&D or online fantasy games, I have enough superficial knowledge to be able to get by and follow the more RPG side of this narrative. But the book doesn’t just focus on fantasy games but also the 80s films (YAY!) and shows (HUZZAH!) and music (BOO!) which I grew up with. Having so many references to things I’ve been intimately acquainted with, the references I didn’t get weren’t overwhelming and the story still very much held that nostalgic quality of reading my childhood (not that I was even alive in the 80s????). Plus eight year old me was loving this book’s obsession with Matthew Broderick… So sue me. Throw in anime and old arcade games and I’m in!
Having said that, if you’re not big on your 80s pop culture, or if fan culture in general just doesn’t appeal to you, maybe sit this one out.
Now for the criticisms… It’s very heavy handed. At times bordering on preachy. We get it, we’ve ruined the planet. You’ve shown us in your world building so there’s no need to flog a dead horse by going over and over it. Likewise, there are many moments where the references are over explained or just feel like the author was cramming in more than was necessary to impress us with his weird, obscure knowledge. Also, much like Fanboys, there’s just too much Rush. And don’t give me that “Rush is variety” crap.
But for all the references and quotes and gaming technology, at the heart this is still a very human story. A story about people retreating to a virtual world to escape reality. And a reminder that technology can never replace face to face human interaction, in fact it usually does the opposite and isolates us even further.
If a YA novel that references classic 80s icons like Johnny Five and KITT sounds like your sorta thing, then get on it! Just don’t be surprised to find a soft human heart at the centre of this machine.
3 1/2 out of 5