|Ready Player One is an interesting and fun book. It raises some interesting questions and is plotted well enough. Some issues in its style and content make this a difficult book to fully recommend, but I enjoyed it nevertheless.
The power of this story comes in a believable setting that questions current issues. An energy crisis has left much of the earth in social and environmental ruin. Virtual worlds grant the only given escape from dystopian drudgery for the masses, and even that route is under threat from neoliberalist corporations. The constant 1980s references are very interesting – my childhood really. As has been raised well elsewhere, the extent to which 1980s culture would still be dominant in the mid 2040s is questionable. I’ll admit the 1980s were pretty great though: look to James Rolfe for interesting, if profane, explorations of such culture and gaming.
One distinct issue in Cline’s world I have yet to see raised is the idea that Americans are the innate gaming experts, especially in MMOs and clicker-games. Of course in reality, the E-Sports market is dominated by Asian countries, Korea and Japan especially. The Japanese players in the game are great, but-not-quite-great-enough, and this was something that I noticed with a minor wince.
As I discussed this book with my students, I became aware of a real conflict between the style and subject matter. This is a Young Adult book in plot arc and resolution, and almost entirely pastoral in its characterisation of the antagonist. However, casual F-words are narrated frequently and bedroom antics are introduced. So this makes the text a difficult official recommendation for mid-teens. Yet the story itself is remarkably lightweight, and purposefully so. It demands the suspension of disbelief (and perhaps the eating of pizza). Still, I found the interaction with this best friend and some of the revelations underpinning that relationship to be well-handled and well-observed. The revelations about his love interest? Perhaps less so.
What makes this novel a 4-star for me are its nice ideas that promote gaming culture and the nurturing of an inner-world. It promotes what games can do for people: to escape mundane reality in a relatively inexpensive fashion. I particularly enjoyed the clashes between the independent player base and the duly-faceless and entirely-evil corporation. The in-game corporation’s business model mirrors current arguments around microtransactions and pay-to-win models of gaming. Without doubt such DLC models are here to stay and the dangers of neoliberalist morality in our virtual words need to gain greater opposition than they currently do. Ready Player One’s underscoring subtext on net neutrality should be felt keenly by all Americans. This novel raises those points well and in a way no other book (I’ve read) has yet done.
An ultimately interesting claim made by Cline is that time spent on platformer games is never wasted. The continual imbing of pop-fiction, whilst enjoyed by many (like myself) is perhaps not as worthwhile as this text suggests. Yet the notion that class issues and poverty can be overcome by virtual adventure is a powerful one, and one that resounded with me since the 1980s with CYOA books. Alas, any exploration of what it means to make a superior Platonic conception of yourself is rather thin (everyone here is a hero).
But that thinness purposefully makes way in the name of fun, and this is a fun book. Like so many of my Amiga games, I wouldn’t reread (replay?) it, but I will certainly remember it.