Ready Player One

Another book review, this time Ready Player One. It’s a recent young adult book that H had us listen to in the car on the way to work. We ended up reading the last half of it. No offense, Wil Wheaton as narrator.

My feelings on the book are mixed. On one hand, the subject matter – early 80s culture and gaming – is delightful, since I, too, was growing up at the time and got my first computer in 1984, much like James Halliday. And there are some very clever moments. However, I feel there are some serious problems worth dissecting, and I preface the following comments with the usual SPOILER ALERT.

First off, the novel’s central contest is based mostly around the mastery of coin-op titles. If you know Joust, Black Tiger, and Tempest cold, you’re basically worthy to win, which seems an odd value judgment for even a reclusive billionaire to make. Where are the moral tests? Halliday seems concerned with the right kind of person taking control, but he also seems wedded to the notion that if he can only force the countless millions of gunter contestees to be lesser clones of himself circa 1989, they will automatically become worthy human beings as well. And Wade never questions this – never wonders, bright fellow that he is, if this contest isn’t flawed from the get-go. Later on we learn that Og is the contest’s failsafe of a sort, but this doesn’t prevent a innocent kid from dying, or pretty much any of the Sixers’ progress. In short, the contest bred more evil than good. Being a product of the ’80s myself, I have to say, regrettably, that all that stuff doesn’t make you a better person than average, and manual dexterity at Pac-Man has limited value.

Second, the true beginning of the novel is probably when Wade enters the tomb. Everything up to that point – about a third of the book – is primarily exposition. The book only flows when the contest is progressing. As such, all that slow stuff in the beginning – the setup of the contest, Wade’s home, his school – could be gradually filled in later in a more streamlined fashion. This is a first novel, admittedly, and simultaneous plot/exposition is hard, but it can be done. The scene with the lich is interesting enough by itself to carry the reader forward into that material.

Third, the entire section where Wade gives up his apartment is completely and utterly unbelievable. Nothing he has done as a character up to that point points toward him being capable of it – again, immersion in ’80s culture doesn’t make you a better or stronger person – and he does it without even knowing if the codes he brings work. Also, the reader is left in the dark for two chapters after getting used to knowing everything Wade thinks, which is a big no-no.

Finally, the ultimate ‘lesson’ or ‘character growth’ moment of the book is that Wade finally escapes the Oasis and rejoins us blokes in the real world, getting the girl and saving the world(s) in traditional fashion. I know this is young adult stuff, but I thought it would have been more realistic, given what had been presented thus far, if both the real Halliday (as represented by his avatar at the end) and the real Artemis had proven disappointing, or if the contest had been a joke, with no prize or a far lesser prize – or, even, if Wade had lost all his friends in his obsessive quest to win (my preference). There are hints and false starts to all those possible endings in the book, but we got the least meaningful one.

Now let’s be fair. There are counterarguments. Halliday does throw everyone for a loop when he requires the last gate to be opened by three people, suggesting that only someone with similarly-skilled friends willing to share the prize can enter (although you only get to know this if you can play a certain Rush song on guitar during a very limited one-shot window of time). And Wade does seem to be a basically good fellow, so Halliday’s contest ‘worked’ in producing an appropriate winner, deus ex machina in the form of Og notwithstanding. The obsessive attention to detail that creates master players of Joust is in the end a symptom of highly refined taste, which leads to superior morality – after all, nearly all of the games Wade plays are good vs. evil with the player firmly on the side of good, with bravery, chivalry, and selflessness all positive traits displayed in the media as well. This could have been more nakedly pointed out, however.

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