Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One
By Ernest Cline
Copyright 2011

Ernest Cline’s novel tells a tale set in a dystopian future where the Internet is almost the whole of society’s existence and the world embraces 1980s geek culture. Cline incorporates his vast knowledge of all things 80s into the plot, and tells a suspenseful and action filled story of the ultimate in video gaming. For those of us who grew up in the 1980s with Dungeons and Dragons, video game arcades, Atari game consoles, and the music of Rush, the novel is not only an exciting tale, it is a nostalgic adventure.

The year is 2044 and Wade Watts is a high school senior living in an Oklahoma City mobile home park with his abusive aunt and her ne’er do well boyfriend. The Great Recession – perhaps the same Great Recession we endure today – has decimated the economy and the economy and society itself have degraded badly. In this pitiful existence, Wade finds refuge in the OASIS – an alternate universe created on the Internet by the king of video gaming, James Halliday.

The OASIS serves as the underpinning of society. Real people are represented by avatars of their own making. A real economy – separate from that of the real world – exists in the OASIS where there are countless planets, each populated with countless cities, all created by Halliday and his company, Gregarious Simulation Systems. Wade goes to a virtual school on his home planet of Ludus, using his avatar rather than his physical presence.

Wade’s financial means are not just limited to his real world circumstances. He is also poor within the OASIS and has spent his entire life confined to his home planet. Yet, he, like thousands of others, dream of being the one gunter (short for easter egg hunter) to solve the riddle set down by Halliday before his death. The avatar that can find the three keys to the three gates within the OASIS will be the late John Halliday’s heir and inherit more than $200 billion.

Halliday is has been dead for five years and no one has yet stumbled upon the first key to the first gate. Wade, like the thousands of other gunters, has studied every facet of John Halliday’s life. They have immersed themselves in the culture of the 1980s, perfecting their abilities at various video games, learning the entire scripts of movies, and becoming experts at all facets of 1980s culture, hoping to find somewhere the solution to the enigmatic first clue given as to the whereabouts of the first key.

One day, as Wade hides in a derelict van in a junk yard, logged onto the OASIS, it occurs to him the clue may be hidden in the Tomb of Horrors. This Dungeon and Dragons adventure, penned by the game’s creator, Gary Gygax, is notorious for its dangerous traps and the evil being that awaits those who make their way through the tomb. He is convinced that the tomb is located on his home planet of Ludis. Wade is anxious to explore the tomb and test his theory.

Lacking the funds to travel in the OASIS, he volunteers to travel with his school’s sports team. Once the team arrives at its destination, Wade takes off and, based on the description of the tomb in Gygax’s text, begins his search.

The tomb is right where he thought it would be. With his extensive knowledge of Dungeons and Dragons and the Tomb of Horrors, he is able to avoid the traps and meet the demi-lich that awaits players at the end of the adventure. Wade is frightened because, as a low level player, he has neither the weaponry nor the sorcery to fight the demi-lich.

But it is not a fight the demi-lich wants in the OASIS Tomb of Horrors. He challenges Wade to a game of Joust – a 1980s video game. If Wade can take two games out of three from the demi-lich, he gets the copper key to the gate. If he loses two games, he dies and has to go back to being a first level OASIS avatar with no possessions and no wealth.

Wade bests the lich and is presented with a copper key. The real world Wade stops to check the OASIS high score board (remember those from those 1980s video games?) and finds that, after five years, someone has actually taken top score – Parzival. Parzival is Wade’s avatar’s name.

As he’s leaving the tomb, he encounters a woman whose avatar he immediately recognizes. It is Art3mis, the author of one of the most authoritative blogs on the OASIS regarding Halliday and his almanac. Wade is a huge fan of her writing and is smitten with her on sight. He gives her a clue as to how to defeat the demi-lich to gain her own key, then departs to make his way back.

His find makes international news and Parzival is an instant celebrity. His best friend, Aech, with whom he hangs out in a virtual rec room stacked with 1980s movies and video games, is the first to congratulate him. Soon, congratulations flow in from all over the world and everyone wonders who Parzival is in real life. A number of companies that sell hardware and software for OASIS play offer him sponsorship deals which he readily accepts so he can garner the funds – both real dollars for real world use and OASIS cash – to undertake the next step in the adventure: entering the copper gate.

Now with financial means, Wade relocates from Oklahoma City to the tech capital of the world: Columbus, Ohio and settles into a High St. apartment building. He has ascertained that the copper gate, opened by the copper key, is in a OASIS recreation of John Halliday’s hometown of Middletown, Ohio. Before he leaves he notes that others have found the copper key. Their scores appear below his. Art3mis, Aech, and two Japanese avatars have all claimed the copper key. Wade remains atop the leader board for having found it first.

He travels to the planet that contains a recreation of Middletown, Ohio as it was in Halliday’s childhood of the early 1980s. The gate is contained within Halliday’s childhood home. He goes there and opens the gate. He immediately is transported to another world he recognizes instantly from his hours of study of the almanac and all things 80s. He is in the movie, WarGames and is playing the part of the teenage computer hacker portrayed by Matthew Broderick in the 1983 movie. To successfully complete the gate, he must act out the movie and recite Broderick’s lines. Errors subtract from his score. Extra credit is given for proper voice inflexion. Having memorized the movie, he successfully completes the gate and is given the next clue to as to where to find the jade key.

He returns to find the planet Ludis is now overrun with those in search of the copper key. A corporation called Innovative Online Strategies has its experts on the ground there as well. IOI employs gunters who are experts at individual segments of 80s culture and lore from Halliday’s almanac and pools those resources in hopes of finding the three gates and taking control of Halliday’s fortune and the OASIS. They are derisively called, “Sixers” because their avatars are all denoted by numbers, always beginning with six. The gunters and the gunter clans of the world hate the Sixers because they don’t want to see a corporation gain control of OASIS.

Wade finds his email box filled with thousands of emails, including one from Art3mis. Falling for her as he is, he starts to spend time with her in the OASIS rather than pondering the enigmatic second clue. As a result, his relationship with his buddy, Aech has suffered for he has less time to hang out with him. He also receives an invitation from the head of IOI to meet. Wade agrees and meets Sorrento who leads IOI’s Oology Division. Sorrento wants to put Parzival to work at IOI. Wade declines and mocks Sorrento and the Sixers.

A few days later, Wade reads on the news that the trailer park where he used to live in Oklahoma City was wiped out in an explosion. IOI has tried to kill Wade Watts and end Parzival’s existence within the OASIS.

Parzival and Art3mis are invited to a private party at a club operated by Ogden Morrow, the real life business partner of John Halliday who helped create the OASIS before they had a falling out and parted ways. There, Parzival/Wade tells Art3mis and the real life person behind the avatar that he’s in love with her. Then, the party is attacked by Sixers bent on killing Parzival and Art3mis to send their avatars back to level one. Morrow, with his control of most facets of the OASIS, destroys the Sixers, but Art3mis does not reciprocate Parzival’s affection and slips away.

Hearbroken, Wade decides to resume his quest for the jade key. He travels to planet after planet within the OASIS, following false leads. To relax, he sits down to play a game of Pac Man on a tabletop version of the game, located in an 80s style mall, thinking that perhaps the solution lies within that game. As he sits, he notices a quarter sitting on the table. Those who frequented arcades in those days know that putting a quarter or a token on a machine lays claim to the next game for that player. Wade is unable to pick up the quarter. It is stuck fast to the machine.

He plays the perfect game, eating all of the dots and the bad guys without losing a life. Instead of the jade key, he is only rewarded with the quarter which he can now easily pick up. He pockets it and moves on.

Before long, he sees on the score board that Art3mis and Aech have both found the jade key. Aech, who got his first clue from Parzival on the location of the copper key, evens things with Parcival by telling him the jade key can be found in the computer game, Zork.

Wade gains the jade key. Unfortunately, so have the Sixers. They use their vast corporate resources to deploy troops and equipment to keep other gunters from gaining the key. By studying the lyrics sheet and listening to the 1976 Rush album, 2112, Wade figures out that the jade gate lies within the towering building iconic in the 1982 film, Blade Runner. He travels to the building and opens the jade gate and is teleported to a 1980s bowling alley with the video game, Black Tiger. Parzival enters a 3-D version of the game and bests his opponents, claiming the third and final key.

Tracking Parzival, the Sixers also learn the location of the crystal key and their minions each gain it. They then lay siege to the location of the final gate which is John Halliday’s virtual palace in the OASIS which was thought to be impenetrable. They make it impossible for other gunters to approach the palace while they work on solving the riddle of the final gate.

Wade hatches a plan to get inside. He creates false data to make it appear that he has not paid his bill to IOI for access to the OASIS. This allows IOI to seize all of his computer equipment, arrest him, and indenture him to be a phone operator and troubleshooter.

While locked within IOI’s headquarter, Wade hacks their system. He finds that he, Art3mis, Aech, and one of the Japanese gunters, Shoto, are marked for real death. IOI is working to learn their real world locations. The other gunter, Daito, has already been killed.

Wade also is allowed to gaze upon the face of Art3mis for the first time and learn about her real life. She is a woman (one can never be certain about the real genders of people in the OASIS as they can create avatars in whatever fashion they like). She is a college student leaving in Vancouver, BC. Wade also learns why she was always so reticent to discuss her real appearance. She has a large, wine colored birthmark that covers a large portion of her face. Wade is now in love with the real image of a real person.

Wade programs one of the robots at the Halliday palace to detonate a bomb at a specific time. He then hightails it out of IOI’s headquarters and makes it to a public OASIS station near the Ohio State campus. There, he contacts Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto to let them know of the plot. They decide to meet in Aech’s virtual rec room.

They meet there. As they begin to hatch their plot to gain entry into the palace, Ogden Morrow appears from nowhere. He tells them that he has been using his unfettered access to the OASIS to monitor them and the time has come for him to intervene to stop IOI and the Sixers from gaining control of the OASIS. Morrow knows the physical location of each of the players. He volunteers to fly them to his Oregon home where they can safely undertake the assault on the Sixer siege using the best OASIS equipment.

Wade’s best buddy, Aech, drives from Pittsburgh to Columbus to pick him up. Wade is dismayed to find that his closest friend, represented by a white male avatar, is actually a black female who is also a dedicated lesbian. The latter fact at least explains to Wade how they were so easily able to converse on the subject of the female form. They fly from Port Columbus to Oregon where Morrow has them whisked to his estate.

Wade is anxious to meet Art3mis face to face, but there is no time. They have to gear up and confront the Sixers. The word has gone out over the OASIS for all gunters and gunter clans to unite against the Sixers and to be at the palace. The four gunters assembled at the Morrow estate travel in their virtual spaceships to the planet and get ready. Wade’s pre-planned bomb detonates on schedule, destroying the Sixer shield. Gunter ships and avatars flood in, attacking Sixer troops and weapons.

Sorrento himself is there and the four gunters confront him. Shoto is blown out of the sky and his game is over. They have learned that the crystal gate requires three gunters, each with a key, to open it. So they can afford no more losses. They defeat Sorrento’s avatar and gain the gate. Parzival, Art3mis, and Aech each insert their keys and turn. When they do, the last of the Sixers detonates a bomb which kills every avatar in the vicinity.

On Art3mis’ and Shoto’s screen, the words, game over appear. On Parzival’s screen, he reads, “Congratulations! You have an extra life!” Wade finds that the quarter he won from the Pac Man machine in that remote, abandoned mall on a nameless planet was the key to his survival. He enters the palace where he learns that he must beat Halliday’s high score on the video game, Tempest. He has but one chance to do it. Only one credit shows in the window.

Those who have played it know that Tempest is not a knowledge based game. It is a reflex game. Halliday’s score it quite high and Wade informs his fellow gunters – now reduced to spectators – that he is not well practiced at Tempest. Shoto informs him that there is a glitch in the first generation of the console which allows a player who dies with a certain score showing, to gain an additional 80 credits. Wade puts Shoto’s plan into action and it works. Wade/Parzival now has time to gain the skill necessary to beat the game.

He plays and plays, getting better as he goes. He finally bests Halliday’s score. He then is teleported into what many regard as the ultimate 80s geek movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Wade is a Monty Python expert and easily acts out the script. He leaves that world and finds himself in Halliday’s recreation room with the ultimate collection of movies, video games, video game consoles, and computers, but no clues as to how to collect the prize. He knows he must enter a key word into a computer to advance. He finally figures out the keyword, much as Matthew Broderick’s character in WarGames had to puzzle out the backdoor keyword to the NORAD computer. He enters it into a TRS-80 computer -- the computer the world's greatest programmer first used to learn digital technology.

On a nearby television, an Atari 2600 game console fires up. The game, Adventure is on the screen. In this game, the first easter egg of video gaming was placed when a slighted programmer hid his name and credit in a room in the adventure, unknown to the people at Atari. Wade plays the game, but instead of the long forgotten programmer’s name, Halliday’s easter egg appears. Parzival takes it.

From nowhere, the late John Halliday’s avatar appears in the rec room. He tells Parzival that he (Wade) no controls the OASIS. The avatar, Parzival, is immortal. The palace is his. On Wade’s OASIS screen appears, “Parzival wins!”

Wade exits his gaming console to the cheers and hugs of Aech, Shoto, and Morrow. But it is Art3mis he wants to see most. He finds her outside Morrow’s mansion, in a hedge maze. He greets her in person for the first time and she introduces herself as Samantha Cook. Wade tells her that he plans to divide his immense fortune evenly between the four of them and that he is going to do his part to infuse the global economy with cash to help bring it back. He kisses her and for the first time in his life, enjoys human contact. He finds that his compulsion to log on to OASIS is not so strong anymore.

I was geek in the 1980s. I spent a veritable fortune in quarters playing video games and my hometown’s arcades were my regular haunts. I also dug science fiction movies, listened to Rush – particularly 2112 – at the pain threshold through my old headphones. I dedicated many hours to playing Dungeons and Dragons and ran the game where my players successfully navigated the Tomb of Horrors. The first time I sat down before a computer console, it was a TRS-80. For me, this novel was more than a really great story with exceptionally developed characters. It was nostalgic and had me remembering fondly all of those geeky things I did in my awkward teenage years.

In my review, I have incorporated as many of the cultural references as I could, but Cline, who is a recognized expert in geekology includes many more. Some, such as the anime references, were lost on me. A few of the video games, such as Black Tiger, are foreign to me as well. I think that anybody from my generation is going to recognize most of the cultural references, but will find some foreign to them.

I have to admit, I’m not a big fan of Monte Python and loathed the game Zork for which I laid out a lot of money and in which I was richly disappointed.

If you’re over the age of 35, you should read this book. If you’re over the age of 40, it’s a must read because I’m confident it will become iconic, especially with movie rights secured and a motion picture all but assured.

This is Cline’s first book and it will be hard to top. Great authors can engage the reader with a well developed, well placed plot. Cline does that. Great writers can engage his audience with exceptional character development. Cline does that. Authors can also reach their audience by tapping into their real life experiences and evoking emotions shared in a communal experience. Cline does that. Rarely does an author do all three. Cline does that!

The Greatest Generation had the Great Depression and World War II to define them. The Baby Boomers had the hot days of the Cold War and the cultural revolution to galvanize their collective experience. For Generation X, it’s always been difficult to define our communal experience in anecdote such as the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, or in zeitgeist such as the Hippies and the cultural revolution. In his book, Cline has managed to define what has gone undefined for so long: the communal experience of Generation X. Whether you were a geek or quarterback of your high school football team, if you grew up in the 1980s, you're going to be swept by nostalgia by Cline's prose.

My only criticism of Cline’s book is one that will no doubt be cured with more writing experience. One of the axioms of creative writing is, “Show. Don’t tell.” Early in the book, before his main character is developed, Cline pauses in the action to give us a global history that brought about the current state of affairs. Knowing how we got to the dystopian state of society in 2044 is important. But it could have and should have been revealed through the actions of the main character. Not a long narrative pause.

That’s a small criticism of an astoundingly enjoyable book. I look forward to taking in Cline’s future work!

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