Saturday, April 14, 2018

Ready Player One

I am often late to the party on great books, usually being that guy who sees a movie that looks interesting then reads the book, knowing that the movie won't be nearly as good, and that well describes Ready Player One by Ernest Kline.
Like any book turned into a movie,
they redid the cover, and being late
to the partythis is the cover on
copy I read.

In addition to excellent pacing and a vibrant story, this book impressed me doing well two other things that are often done wrong. It tells the story of it's world without having to resort to long authorial dissertations, and it paints incredible pictures with words.

The world of Ready Player One is a highly believable near future dystopia. A global energy crisis has led to a massive economic collapse. Most people live in crushing poverty while an elite few live in a great wealth.

The world feels very real because it is not overdone. It takes our current economy and its disparity of wealth and extrapolates it. The government provides ration cards to the poor, which are much like food stamps. The poor live in hastily constructed "stacks", which are steel scaffolding holding stacks of mobile homes and other residences for people to live. They were created because, with the energy crisis, people could no longer afford to travel, so they needed to be near cities to find jobs, but the resources did not exist to build tall buildings, so the stacks were created.

People struggle to survive, working day labor jobs and otherwise hustling. The protagonist, Wade Watts, lives with his aunt in a trailer with 11 other people.

Into this world, Kline has extrapolated the trends of massively multiplayer online games and social media to the Nth degree. The OASIS is a fully immersive simulation. It had started as an MMO game, but grew to be something greater. It ended up being a platform for everything from virtual schools to commerce to simply a place to escape, and there is plenty to escape from. Many people even conduct business in the OASIS creating a real economy in a virtual plane.

Tomb of Horrors. Spoilers.
The plot of the novel centers around a contest created by James Halliday, the eccentric creator of the OASIS. Upon his death without heirs, he announced a contest, the winner of which would become his sole heir, getting his half-trillion dollar fortune and control of his company and the OASIS which it operates. The contest is an Easter Egg hunt throughout the OASIS. He has hidden three keys that open three gates which contain three challenges. The clues to where to find these keys and how to get them are hidden in his personal journal and other bits of 80s pop-culture.

This is where the nostalgia is worked in brilliantly. The character James Halliday was born in the early 70s so he came of age in the 80s. He clearly missed the simpler time of Atari and its blocky graphics, video arcades, and red box D&D, and he wanted everyone else to appreciate it. By creating the contest and creating puzzles where the solutions were hidden everywhere from old Dungeons and Dragons modules to movies to video games, anyone participating in the contest (and with $500,000,000,000 on the line, who wouldn't) would need to become the same level of geek about 80s pop culture that he was.

The book is loaded with detailed references to all manner of that retro pop culture, and it is not contrived at all because it works perfectly with the context of the story. Because I am familiar with the pop culture it is referring to, the story is very vibrant for me. When the main character has to play a life or death game of Joust, I could picture it exactly. And the surrealism of a simple 80s video game being the competition field for such a high stakes duel worked in the book, because the action occurred in a surreal virtual environment.

An original Joust stand up arcade system
I'm not sure if someone reading it born after 1990 might not have quite the same appreciation, but with YouTube and such it would be easy to look up all the references and full understand them even if it wouldn't have the same nostalgic resonance it does for me. Either way. the story and world building are still excellent and well worth the read.

On seeing the movie, I was disappointed to find that the movie did not create as engaging a visual story or evoke the kind of nostalgia that the book did, which is quite unfortunate given that the movie had a big screen to do it on while the book had only my aging imagination.

I'll say that if you have already seen Black Panther and A Wrinkle In Time and you don't want to see Black Panther a second time, then you might enjoy seeing the movie Ready Player One. While it lacks the robust world building and impressive nostalgia of the book, it is a fun popcorn action movie.

However, if you have not read the book, I highly encourage you to finish this sentence, stop reading whatever you a reading right now, and go get a copy and read it.

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