If we’re honest with ourselves, the 80s were a dark time in American history that no one wants to repeat. (Well, almost no one. Keep reading.) Our world thrived on neon plastic, shitty synth music, too much cocaine, implausible action movies, boxy hardware, pixelated software, grainy videos, and the third Godfather movie, which probably could have started and ended this list at the same time.
Yet a whole generation of people exists—my generation—whose nostalgia is trapped in that forsaken decade. Because we were children at the time, we have fond memories of the horrible video games and the cheesy comedy movies that dominated the decade. After all, at the time, that was the only world we knew.
It’s fitting, then, that Ernest Cline’s dystopian throwback novel, Ready Player One, takes place almost exclusively inside a virtual world that doesn’t really exist. Set in 2044, the novel follows Wade Watts, an orphaned teenager living in his aunt’s trailer in an America ravaged by capitalism and greed. But Watts doesn’t experience a whole lot in the real world. He spends his time, instead, in the OASIS, a fee-free virtual world created by James Halliday, a revolutionary computer game programmer. When Halliday dies, he leaves his fortune—and complete ownership of the OASIS—to whomever can solve a complex puzzle he’s left behind within the virtual world he’s created.
Wade’s primary adversary in the quest for Halliday’s Easter egg is a man named Sorrento, who works for the evil corporate empire, IOI, an organization that threatens to monetize the OASIS. If Sorrento and his cronies win the contest and take control of the OASIS, the only thing Wade has ever clung to will be stripped away from him forever.
Cline’s story overflows with the dystopian and fairy tale tropes we’re all familiar with—the humble hero, his rapid rise to prominence, his triumphant struggle with a powerful ruling class. But the dystopian setting isn’t what propels Ready Player One. Cline succeeds because of his unique take on dystopia—namely, the setting within the OASIS.
The real world may have turned to shit, but the OASIS makes anything possible, from enhanced education to magic items, secret chat rooms, other planets, teleportation, outlandish forms of transportation—the list goes on. You can even make your avatar look however you want, probably the most likely feature to be abused if the OASIS really existed. (Cline’s characters take very few liberties with their avatars, surprisingly.)
And because the OASIS is virtual, even death is impermanent. It only means you’ve lost all of your items and you have to start over again. Most OASIS users avoid this consequence as much as they would in real life, but it does set the stage for an epic showdown between Wade and Sorrento. (It seems unlikely that, had the contest taken place in the real world, anyone would risk their life for a chance to win Halliday’s prize.) In a deathless world, people willingly take a lot more chances.
While Cline managed to avoid the clichés of dystopian settings with a very clever and well-thought-out idea, much of the writing itself minimizes the impact the story might otherwise have. Campy one-liners and other unnecessary 80s hat-tips litter character interactions, which leaves the reader feeling more like they’re watching a bad Schwarzenegger movie than reading a novel written in 2011. (Not surprising, really, since Cline is a screenwriter before a novelist.)
Cline’s excessive, sometimes repetitive descriptions also distract from the novel at times. These cause the novel to lag in places where it should accelerate. His unchecked use of passive voice only adds to the sluggishness and detracts from what is an otherwise extremely engaging tale.
Overall, Cline succeeded in adding something of quality and originality to an already overwhelmed catalogue of dystopian fantasies, which is an achievement in and of itself. Of course, nothing is more impressive than his success in making 80s culture something more tangible—and more tolerable—than nostalgia. That, perhaps, is his greatest achievement of all.