I'm always a bit suspicious of any book that becomes a phenomenon, even if the phenomenon is limited to a certain group of readers. In the case of Ready Player One, that group tended to be anyone with an interest in video games and fond memories of growing up in the 80's. Before I got around to reading it, I had the book recommended to me by at least a dozen people, which set off alarms in my naturally contrarian brain. I don't think I've ever been the type of nerd that hates things just because they are popular (at least I haven't been that guy in a long time), but what appeals to a large number of people often doesn't appeal to me. My fear before starting Ready Player One was that all those “cool” 80's references I was hearing about would be too ham-fisted and googly-eyed to compel me to care. I wasn't too far into the book before I realized that those fears were unfounded. The basic conceits of the plot allowed any reference to be assimilated into the text in a way that was purposely showy. So, yes, the movie and video game (and television and toy) references are a bit obvious and on the nose, but it works as a function of the world Cline has created. More importantly, Ready Player One is a wonderful homage to 1st generation cyberpunk, and I had forgotten how much the tropes and conventions of that sub-genre appealed to me. The nostalgia I had built up for the early works of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Greg Bear and the rest of those in mirrored shades was much more powerful than my nostalgia for classic video games.
In the world of Ready Player One, society has nearly collapsed. The air is poisonous, the streets are dangerous, and cities are so overcrowded people have taken to living in trailers stacked one on top of another to dizzying heights. The danger and clutter of the real world have driven nearly everyone on to OASIS, a massively multi-player “game” where nearly any imaginable setting can be found. Users jack into this virtual world wearing eyewear and haptic clothing which enables them to touch and experience the virtual world in a way that evokes reality. The world of OASIS is so addictive, so inviting, that people basically spend every free moment online. Their online selves have become more important to them than their flesh-and-blood selves. As the book begins, the creator of OASIS, James Halliday (think a little bit of Bill Gates mixed with a little bit of Gary Gygax), has died and left behind a video detailing a contest, the winner of which will get his enormous fortune.
Ready Player One's protagonist, Parzival, is a “gunter,” the term eventually assigned to the players searching the virtual world for the ultimate video game Easter egg. Gunters spend their time immersed in 80's lore because that is where they feel they will find the answer to Halliday's riddles. As we are witness to the conversations between Parzival and his loosely connected crew (it is important to the the novel's basic set up that they are not a team, at least early on) we are inundated with references to things nerdy kids who grew up in the 80's would recognize. Really, there is nothing obscure in the references as far as I was concerned. The only place that I didn't immediately have nearly perfect knowledge of references was the Japanese television shows and toys, and, even there, most of the basic references were familiar. Still, it was fun to think back on those things that gave me a lot of joy during my childhood. Even better, when one of the works does become integral to solving Halliday's puzzles, Cline does a great job getting right to the essence of the objects appeal.
As science-fiction, Ready Player One is equally nostalgic. Cyberpunk has kind of faded from mainstream SF, but I can't help but notice that its themes and motifs are becoming more and more prophetic as we move through the 21st Century. It could be ripe for a comeback, and Ready Player One does its basic themes well enough to be on the vanguard of that movement. I know that when I finished the book, I immediately hit the Web and found a couple of bloggers to recommend recent cyberpunkish books for me to move on to. There is just something that appeals to me in the basic concept of an OASIS or a matrix (Gibson's, not Keanu's) or a Metaverse. I love the contrast of status and the concept of “self” between the meat person and the virtual person, and Ready Player One really does some fun things with it as Parzival and his fellow gunters become famous in the real world for the actions of their avatars.
Maybe Ready Player One isn't great literature. It is really the nerd version of a beach read, but it is a really enjoyable beach read that I can recommend to any science-fiction fan with even a hint of 80's nostalgia in his or her heart.