Everyone my age remembers where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about the contest. I was sitting in my hideout watching cartoons when the news bulletin broke in on my video feed, announcing that James Halliday had died during the night.
What it’s about
James Halliday was to computer games what Steve Jobs was to mobile computing. Halliday’s biggest project was creating the OASIS, a multi-player virtual-reality online gaming space that had been so successful – not just for gaming, but for schooling, socialising and everything else – that OASIS had become synonymous with ‘the internet’. And now, at the age of 67, in the year 2039, he was dead.
He’d left a will saying that he’d hidden a puzzle inside the OASIS, and that whoever could solve it would inherit his whole fortune. Since Halliday had grown up in the 1980s and was a pop-culture geek, everyone suspected that the puzzle would involve a knowledge of 80s movies and games and music. But for five years no one made any progress – until a name suddenly showed up on the scoreboard: a teenage gamer living in the slums outside Oklahoma City.
Will our hero beat the bad guys, get the girl, win the prize, have sufficient time to show off his almost impossibly deep and detailed knowledge of everything from Godzilla to Monty Python to Pac-Man, defeat his flabby gamer’s body, learn how to socialise, develop a social conscience and play some sick riffs in a cave on a guitar he’s just ripped out of a rock, King Arthur style? Yes, he will. Oops: spoiler alert. But yes, and I think we already knew that. But that’s half the fun of this book.
Why it’s good
I read this book on a plane trip: an overnight flight on a cheap airline in possibly the worst seats for sleeping that I’ve ever tried to sleep in. This book kept me distracted. It was fun, easy to read, fast-paced, interesting. I may even read it again some day. It was entertaining, even though I’ve never been a gamer – although the fact I had an Apple IIc as a kid (and the usual canon of associated 80s games) probably helped a bit. I’ve already started recommending it to certain friends.
Ready Player Marty Stu
The reason I only recommend it to certain friends is this: it’s a great story about a teenage gamer boy – but at times it also feels like it was written by a teenage gamer boy. The writing style, for example, is perfectly clear and functional, but it’s no William Gibson. The action takes place in the mid 2040s but schoolboy jargon hasn’t evolved since 2010. The online gender ratio also hasn’t evolved since 2010.
When serious issues are addressed in the story, it’s with a classic kind of ‘hey this problem exists – wow that sucks let’s play Zork!’ kind of attitude that mirrors really well how everyday life works now. For example:
- Greediness and global warming have turned the earth into a huge slum. It’s due to Bad People who didn’t care about the environment or each other. If I win the gazillion dollar prize by playing this resource- and energy-intensive video game that cuts me off from the realities around me, I’m going to spend it trying to find an extrasolar planet I can move to. A female friend of mine thinks it’d be better to try and make a difference with the money. I’m sure glad she’s going to do that, because that sounds like a great thing for her to do.
- The worst kind of evil people are those capitalists who try and make us pay for stuff on the interwebz. I’m going to make income from endorsing products I don’t care about then spend it all fighting those guys to save our equality and freedom! This is just what my hero, a man who’s a member of the 0.000001 percent, would be proud of me for doing.
- I don’t vote in the real world elections because it’s a waste of time and because it’s just turned into a popularity contest for, you know, TV stars. I prefer to vote in the OASIS elections where I can re-elect Wil Wheaton but mainly because he’s awesome at protecting my digital rights.
- Female gamers have such a hard time. I even know one female blogger who feels like female people don’t even get accepted as, you know, just normal people. That totally sucks for females. I do my best to help them by telling them they’re prettier than they think and/or just trying to keep thinking of them as normal friends who are guys.
There are times, too, when it crosses uncomfortably from underdog-hero-making-good into fully fledged Mary Sue (or Marty Stu, I guess) territory. Most of the time things are OK, because after all the book’s set in a world where 80s gamer geekdom is the key to winning a fortune and international fandom, but then there’s a scene like this:
‘I got one for you,’ Aech interjected. ‘What were the prizes Atari gave out to the winner of each contest?’
‘Ah,’ I said, ‘Good one. Let’s see […] The Fireworld Prize was the Chalice of Light, and the Waterworld Prize was supposed to be the Crown of Life, but it was never awarded, due to the cancellation of the contest. Same goes for the Airworld Prize, which was supposed to be a Philosopher’s Stone.’
Aech grinned and gave me a double high five, then added, ‘And if the contest hadn’t been cancelled, the winners of the first four rounds would have competed for the grand prize, the Sword of Ultimate Scorcery.’
I nodded. ‘The prizes were all mentioned in the Swordquest comic books that came with the games. Comic books which happen to be visible in the treasure room in the final scene of Anorak’s Invitation, by the way.’
The crowd burst into applause. I-r0k lowered his head in shame.
And that’s the thing about this book. It’s literally a world where you get an ovation for knowing obscure things about Atari games and a billion dollars for being able to recite 80s movies by heart. It was obviously created for the delight of people who also love this stuff, and that’s great – I, too, know obscure factoids and can recite Monty Python. But it was also created for boys with acne who worry about talking to girls and whose ultimate dream is owning a computer that has to be, you know, cooled with liquid sodium or some hard core shit like that. So you just have to remember that whenever you get frustrated.
One last point about the 80s cultural homage: it’s kind of interesting that (as often happens in real life) there’s little discrimination between whether the heroes love the stuff they do (music, movies, comics, TV) because they make a profound and personal connection with it, or just because their friends and idols like that stuff too. Half way through the book I started to wonder if there’d be this twist at the end where Halliday’s avatar appears and says, ‘Well done, you have conquered the 1980s, the era of my nostalgic past! Now go, young padwan, and develop some original culture for yourselves, FFS.’ Nope. The worship of the ‘classics’ will go on, and in the same collectable, interchangeable way that will jar with some fans. Like: at one point, our hero’s car is a DeLorian (from Back to the Future) that’s kitted out with KITT (from Knight Rider) and covered in Ghostbusters logos.
Sidenote: his other ship is called the Vonnegut. Really? Vonnegut’s typical bad guy (like Felix Hoenikker in Cat’s Cradle) was a person who never set out to do evil but who, by apathy or absorption in their own interests, ignored evil and let it go on. Oh well, as far as this book goes, maybe Art3mis will fulfill the remaining stereotypical role of a female character and provide moral tutelage for our hero, thus
saving the world helping him save the world.
Anyway, all this – the fun pop references, the quiz-solving storyline, the not-too-deepness – all makes it a great page-turning read for a plane trip – as long as you don’t think about it too hard afterwards. Make it so!
This book was mostly read on the plane home.