The year is 2044 and the Earth is in decline. Fossil fuels have been exhausted and climate change has degraded the quality of life on the planet. Most humans escape the bleakness of their lives by entering into the virtual reality world of OASIS. In OASIS they can access any book ever written, explore hundreds of beautiful and exciting planets and have endless adventures in perfect bodies. Young people can opt to attend school via OASIS, and for a poverty-stricken nerdy teenager like Wade Watts that alternative beats a brick and mortar school hands down. Thus begins the science fiction gem Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.
An orphan, Wade lives in the laundry room of his aunt’s trailer like a sort of non-magical Harry Potter who has to write his own ticket to Hogwarts. They live in “the stacks,” a community made of mobile homes stacked up twenty or more high and held together by scaffolding. The stacks came into existence as people had to flee rural and suburban areas to gain access to dwindling resources concentrated around cities. Unwelcome in his own home, Wade earns his food vouchers by repairing old computers and equipment he salvages.
Needless to say, the OASIS is Wade’s salvation. But it offers more than a virtual escape. The man who created OASIS, James Halliday, left a fortune to whomever could solve a complex puzzle after his death. Wade, and thousands of others, have spent years of their lives in pursuit of the prize. With little else to occupy his time or energy, Wade has studied every possible aspect of Halliday’s legacy. Halliday was obsessed with the 80’s, the decade of his youth. Video games, movies, any manner of popular culture trivia from the 80’s is likely to help solve the puzzle and move Wade and the other seekers closer to the prize.
When Wade finds the first of three keys to the puzzle, the world is abuzz with new hope that the puzzle can be solved. But with the stakes so high, people are willing to kill to get ahead in the game.
Ready Player One includes G-rated romance between Wade’s avatar “Parzival” (a screen name version of Percival, finder of the Holy Grail in Arthurian legend) and Art3mis, a female avatar also in avid pursuit of Halliday’s prize. Their budding romance touches upon issues inherent to online connections, as Art3mis warns a smitten Parzival that he doesn’t really know her, and that she is not like her avatar. Even though he is aware of this, and tries to forget Art3mis and focus on his search, Parzival aka Wade can’t get her out of his mind.
Although I am not typically a science fiction fan nor a gamer, I adored Ready Player One. The characters were more well-rounded and likeable than I have found in other science fiction novels, and the interplay between futurism and 80’s nostalgia was cleverly entertaining. The amount of detail in the descriptions of classic video games should delight enthusiasts. Author Ernest Cline is also known for writing the screenplay of Fanboys, a film about a group of Star Wars fanatics on a quest.