book review: ready player one

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Broadway Books, 386 pp.
Published August 16, 2011

DISCLAIMER: I received a free finished copy of this book from Broadway Books via Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest opinion.
In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he's jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade's devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world's digital confines--puzzles that are based on their creator's obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them.

But when Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade's going to survive, he'll have to win--and confront the real world he's always been so desperate to escape.

There might have been a lot to love in the concept of Ready Player One, but I struggled to actually engage with the action at hand throughout the novel. This wound up as a prime example of a great story that failed to surpass its writing. I still plan to see the movie adaptation later this month (which was the impetus for my reading its source material in the first place!) because there were so many scenes that I think will flourish on the big screen. I also hope that a cinematic setting will help downplay the things I wasn't so wild about...

LIKED: The general setting and philosophy at play in the OASIS.

I'm quite partial to dystopian novels of any variety, particularly those that follow a similar thought process to Brave New World, where pleasure rather than punishment keeps the downtrodden in their place. The OASIS functions as a clever twist on Huxley's idea: a genius with philanthropic ideals created it, rather than some shadowy government entity. As the hunt for Halliday's egg heats up, IOI's corporate competition for control of virtual reality eerily parallels the current debate over net neutrality. This central conflict, shrouded beneath suffocating layers of nostalgia, builds up into a skillful critique of freedom on and off-line, as well as calling our attention to the diminished separation between our real and virtual lives.

DISLIKED: The emphasis on passive exposition dumping, then glossing over much of the action.

From start to (nearly) finish, unwieldy chunks of exposition clog the narrative. Cline displays little to no grace in world-building, from the biographies of key historical figures, to the backstory of the OASIS, to the cut-and-dried summaries of vintage video games, movies, and other flotsam. It feels as though at least two-thirds of Ready Player One is devoted to uninspired info dumping. By comparison, Wade regularly skims over moments of action that are more likely to captivate. I can't fathom why Cline would choose to abandon the actual story in favor of showing off how deep he is into nerd culture, unless his real passion is...

DISLIKED: The fan boy "peacocking" disguised as passion.

Showing off is rarely attractive to observers and Ready Player One is no exception. Besides some necessary information about Halliday and the OASIS, Cline's unceasing explanations of vintage nerd culture fall somewhere between tedious and condescending. Maybe if there were a spark of passion nestled between words I could at least foster an appreciation for the music, movies, and games that inspired the book. Instead every new expositional paragraph is just another chance to show off obscure facts. Ironically, I would expect that it's the uninitiated who stand the greatest chance of being impressed by all this trivia. Yet this particular presentation is no better than pulling up a Wikipedia page.

Ready Player One came across like the first pass of a film script, in novel form. Its clunky exposition and tendency towards summarizing, rather than showing, the action reads like so much background for a director and his cast. A stellar setting should make this a blast to watch in theaters. Spielberg should hopefully add some warmth as well; Cline's perspective was more rote and difficult to sympathize with. There's enough here to keep me excited for an on-screen adaptation, while the book itself failed to captivate this non-uber-nerd who never got the chat room invite.


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