#CBR7 Review #1 – Ready Player One

Ready Player OneTarget: Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One

Profile: Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Pop Culture, Adventure!

After Action Report:

Ready Player One is one of those books that’s been sitting on the shelves at Barnes and Nobel taunting me with nearly universal acclaim for longer than I care to think about.  Not only that, but it falls clearly into my ‘near future, speculative fiction’ bailiwick and even focuses on video game culture, so I really have no excuse as to why I’m only just now adding it to my library.  And that’s a shame, because it really is quite good.

Any returning readers will recall that I intensely dislike reading books with good press or recommendations, mostly because it means that I’m suddenly holding the author (and the book) to much higher standards than are reasonable, but also because it messes with the way that I think about writing these reviews.  I feel pressure to generate ‘original’ criticism, which puts my tendency to nitpick into overdrive.

On first (and second) look, Ready Player One is a fairly boilerplate adventure novel, set in the escapist virtual reality of a disappointing version of the future.  I deliberately avoid using the word dystopian here, because it is overused, but also because this version of 2044 is harsh and depressing, but not actively oppressive.  It is a version of the future that my generation is supposed to worry about and the one before mine created with rampant consumerism and nary a thought given to the limits of supply.  Into this world is born Wade.  Going by the webnomen Parzival, Wade is immediately recognizable as the kid who is isolated by his mind and his incredibly geeky array of interests.  And even in a future where life takes place entirely in an online virtual world, he still resonates with the gamers and fandom members as someone whose gifts seem wasted on trivial, or silly things.

But Parzival’s geeky tendencies pay off when he figures out the first part of a multi-billion dollar treasure hunt set in motion by the creator of the virtual world that everyone inhabits.  At stake are an incredible fortune and control of the company that has become the only venue for business, art, culture and free expression in the world.

With the stakes sufficiently raised, Cline takes us on a whirlwind ride as Parzival, along with a small group of tenuous friends and allies, races to find the treasure before an evil corporation can claim it for themselves. The story starts slow, but quickly accelerates, alternating between swaths of geeky trivia and brief bursts of action.  Sometimes indulging in both at the same time.  The narrative is solid, pushing readers along without feeling like its rushing.  The level of explanation on the puzzles is robust but, at least for me, didn’t feel alienating or off-putting.  Your mileage may vary depending on how much you care about/are interested in 80s movies, classic video games and general geekery.

Even the romantic subplot, which is so often mishandled, comes off as sweet and important to the story.  Though Art3mis is an extraordinarily unrealistic version of a love interest, who only avoids feeling out of place by virtue of the bizarre personalities that would be drawn to a treasure hunt of this nature.  Cline gets into more trouble later on when Wade suddenly develops real world skills and abilities for a 3rd act plot twist that feels both unnecessary and completely implausible.  Parzival becomes increasingly ‘Mary Sue’ like as the story continues, which is excusable in an adventure story where the character gains confidence and skills as he progresses in his quest.  But that rule of thumb doesn’t apply here because Wade’s adventures don’t apply to his real body.  Even with the shoehorned physical training program taken into consideration, Cline seems to forget his protagonist had no meatspace experience to speak of.

But we can forgive a little aggrandizement in the services of a more compelling heroic arc.  We can forgive quite a bit if the hero reminds us of ourselves and validates our more quirky hobbies.  Which is at the core of why Ready Player One is so compelling, at least to me.  It is a story by geeks, for geeks that makes us feel a little better about ourselves if we’re feeling down on our hobbies.  It also happens to be a compelling modern quest narrative that could only exist in the context of video games.  Mission Complete.

Posted on February 4, 2015, in Cannonball Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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