Ready Player One
Random House, 2011
This highly regarded (and being made into a movie) novel left me, well, a little flat. It’s like a slice of chocolate cake prepared by a master baker. Sure, it’s lovely to look at and tastes magnificent, but in the end, it’s not really satisfying as a full meal.
The creator of a truly massive online world died a few years prior to the action of the story, and has left both his multibillion fortune and control of the company that manages this super-MMORPG to the first person who successfully solves a set of puzzles hidden in that world. Our hero, Wade Watts, manages to discover the location of the first puzzle – and solves it. Naturally, he attracts the attention of an EEEvil megacorporation, whose owner wants to win just to extend the power of his business empire.
Turns out all the puzzles have to do in some way with 1980s computer culture – games, movies, and music. This makes it a rather decent nostalgic romp through that era, which is what all the critics and reviewers seem to love.
I liked the ride, too, having been a young adult at the time, and having actually played the games and seen the movies referenced. But after I put the book down, disillusion set in.
Wade comes upon the solutions to the puzzles just a little too easily. There’s never any sense that he is being challenged, or even in any danger. It is a problem for anything set in a virtual world, admittedly, but even in the one occasion where he is actually physically threatened, it turns out that Wade set up the entire situation.
There’s a heck of a lot that’s unsaid in Cline’s world building. The novel is set in a world of scarce resources, to the point that it takes on a post-apocalyptic vibe. But the idea that the U.S. is in such a crappy state precisely because everyone is spending so much time in the online world (Wade even attends school there) that the real world has been allowed to go to rot is unexplored. Even the fact that indentured servitude has become legal again (you can be outright kidnapped by a private corporation and forced to work for them to pay off a debt) is tossed off without comment or elaboration.
Cline has some good ideas, but I think he should have spent a little more time with actual world-building than playing games in some 1980s fantasyland.