Review: ‘Ready Player One’ is the geek book event of the year

Ernie Cline has been kicking around the edges of fandom since I first got online, and even before I learned that we had mutual friends, before we ever met, I knew him as the guy who took a not-at-all-bad crack at writing the long-promised sequel “Buckaroo Banzai Against The World Crime League,” which endeared him to me right away.  Ernie’s the kind of guy who drives a DeLorean with a license plate that reads “ECTO-1” and a specially installed Oscillator Overthruster, and who couldn’t care less if you think that’s cool or not.  In other words… he’s the real deal.  Nerd by blood.  One of us.

In theory, I should be a huge fan of the film he wrote, “Fanboys.”  After all, I love “Star Wars,” and both Ernie and the film’s director Kyle Newman are sharp, funny guys, and the film even directly references Ain’t It Cool and Harry Knowles.  That sounds like a movie that was sort of directly engineered to appeal to me, which is why I found it so frustrating and awkward when I didn’t love it.  That’s a hard position to be in, because the first inclination is to give something a pass.  That’s just a human reaction.  I find, though, that when I am in that position, it is a stubborn point of pride for me that I have to be clear and on the record, and I have to set my personal feelings aside about the creators even if I’m afraid it’ll burn a bridge.  I don’t think you do any artist a favor by lying to them about your reaction to their work, and I don’t think you as an audience deserve to be soft-pedaled on something just because I know someone in the real world.  When I wrote about “Fanboys,” I knew I was possibly going to offend either Ernie or Kyle, and I figured that was just going to have to be the fallout, something I’d have to live with.

When Harry started talking about Ernie’s new novel, “Ready Player One,” in a story when the book sold to Random House last June, he made me nervous right away.  Harry and I have very different stances on the role of nostalgia in our culture.  I don’t mind a certain wistful regard for one’s past, but our generation has grown up positively brain damaged by nostalgia.  I try to imagine my dad at the age of 40 getting all worked up over “The Mickey Mouse Club” or “Zorro” repeats, since that’s the equivalent of guys my age who still get weepy over “Flight Of The Navigator” or the animated “Transformers” episodes.  I understand that you liked certain things as a kid, and that’s wonderful for you.  I would never presume to tell you that you shouldn’t have enjoyed them, or that it’s in any way wrong for you to have enjoyed them.  What I have a problem with is this insistence on just digesting the same culture over and over and over, with your typical ’80s fanboy now serving as a sort of one-man Human Centipede, happily wallowing in the same few things ad infinitum.  I find it disturbing, and the idea of an entire book that openly celebrates that sort of nostalgic immersion sounded, frankly, like a bit of a nightmare.

Still, I try not to make my mind up about anything ahead of time, and as we got closer to release, I reached out to Ernie to find out who I could contact at Random House about reviewing the book.  Almost immediately, a copy showed up here at the house, directly from Ernie.  Yeah, no pressure at all.  I’m just the guy who crapped on the “Fanboys” parade, and now here’s your baby, your first novel, the thing you’ve poured your heart and soul into.  With fingers crossed, I cracked the book last week…

… and I finished it about twelve hours later.  Even with a screening and two press days in the middle, I still burned through the book so fast I think I made the ink run.  It is a preposterously great read, and a richly imagined science-fiction world that uses the very idea of nostalgia as a thematic jumping-off point.  By embracing the idea full-force, Ernie’s crafted one of the first truly significant works of art about the ’80s generation and their refusal to let go of their childhood, and what value there is in shared cultural experience.

His book is set in the year 2044, and it is a bleak picture that he paints of the world.  The Great Recession has lasted almost three decades at this point, and the planet is nearing a breaking point of poverty, pollution, and population.  Wade Watts, named by his geek dad with intentional alliteration a la superheroes, is an 18-year-old who lives alone, long-since-orphaned, in The Stacks, giant trash-heaps of mobile homes piled on top of each other like makeshift skyscrapers.  Wade’s supposed to live with his aunt, but more often than not, he likes to spend his time in an abandoned van he found buried deep in a stack of rusted-out cars, the one private place he can find.  It doesn’t matter to him, since he pays no attention to his surroundings during most of his waking hours.  Why would he?  After all, the real world sucks, and all he has to do is boot up his laptop and his special glove and headgear to jump into The Oasis, a virtual online universe that has essentially swallowed the Internet whole at this point.  Created by James Halliday, an uber-nerd Willy Wonka, The Oasis is a place where every bit of pop culture ever created is alive and interactive and accessible.  It is a far more inviting reality than the one Wade has to contend with when the computer’s off, and even if there were no contest or game drawing him in, Wade would spend all of his waking hours on The Oasis.

But there is a game.  A very special game.  And Wade is not just any player.

See, Halliday was a kid in the ’80s.  He came of age in the days of the Commodore 64 and the Trash-80, and he was an arcade rat in an age when Robotron and Tempest were state-of-the-art.  And when he realized that cancer was starting to sneak up on him, he decided to do something crazy and fun with The Oasis and his entire company.  He created a game, and he left a short film that served as his will, a short film that laid out the rules for the game.  It’s fairly simple as a concept.  There are three keys, all hidden as Easter Eggs somewhere inside the absolutely vast expanse of The Oasis.  And each of those keys opens a gate.  And whoever finds all three keys and opens all three gates and solves whatever puzzles lie within will win The Oasis.  The whole thing.  And Halliday’s entire fortune, including a controlling interest in his company, as well.  And since Halliday was a kid of the ’80s, and since he spent his whole life wrapping himself in the detritus of that era, wearing nostalgia like a warm blanket, whoever solves those puzzles and finds those keys is going to need to absolutely master a knowledge of ’80s trivia as well.

Wade has spent most of his conscious life as a “gunter,” which is the nickname given to Egg Hunters, people who are determined to win the game.  And he has become an absolute walking talking encyclopedia of ’80s knowledge, much like Ernie Cline is, in an effort to make sure he’s ready for any puzzle that might show up.  He’s mastered every classic arcade age video game.  He’s seen every movie and TV show and cartoon from the era.  And even if he never wins the game, he’s become so infatuated with all of this that the hunt is almost secondary.  After all, years have gone by since Halliday’s death, and no one’s ever even found the first key.  People have started to give up, and even for the hardest of the hardcore gunters, it’s starting to just be a habit rather than something they think they can actually win.

And of course, that’s when Wade solves the first clue, finds the first key, and sets off a chain of events that threatens The Oasis, the real world, and everything in both.

Cline’s science-fiction world is ours with just a few jumps in technology, which makes sense considering the entire world has slowed to a crawl thanks to the economic collapse.  The distance between the haves and the have-nots has grown even more pronounced than it is now, and the desperate undertone to the hunt for Halliday’s treasure is sad and sincere.  So is the love of pop culture that is present on every page of the book, and the real genius of what Cline’s done here is the way he captures the essential motivation that drives nostalgia in the first place, the desire to preserve a time when we were happy, a time before adult pressures started to crush the little joys out of life.  He knows that for many people, the pop culture they choose to surround themselves with is an armor from the real world, a buffer to hold all the shit at bay.  And while I think he has a lot of fun with the science-fiction stuff, he makes some great points about the way online culture builds both bridges and walls between us, and it tackles the idea that just because a relationship takes place over an Internet connection, it doesn’t make it any less “real.”  There are a lot of ideas at play in Cline’s book, but above and beyond any of that thematically, it is a great adventure story.  The contest, the friendships, the clues… Ernie handles all of it with aplomb.

In my opinion, “Ready Player One” is one of the true geek events of the year.  I am not someone who is easily swayed by empty nostalgia, and I think it is often a crutch to disguise when someone doesn’t have anything of their own to say.  That is not an issue here.  Cline’s got a strong, clear voice, a great story to tell, and he is brimming over with geek love of a particular time and place.  Don’t just take my word for it, though.  You can read the first three chapters for yourself right here.  And if that hooks you, the book arrives in stores today.  If you’re the sort of person who prefers audiobooks, you’re in for a treat, since Wil Wheaton ended up recording this one.  That seems sort of perfect to me, and when you find the Wil Wheaton reference in the novel, you’ll see just how highly Cline thinks of the choice himself.

“Ready Player One” is a very special book, and while I know it’s been purchased for film by Warner Bros. and producer Donald De Line, I can’t even imagine how much it would cost to license everything that Cline mentions in the novel.  I have a feeling that no matter how right they get it, this is going to remain the pure unfiltered straight from the tap version, and I urge you to check it out as soon as possible.