Ready Player One Book Review

Posted July 14, 2014 by Chad Waller in Nerdy Bits

Various websites and nerd circles I frequent have been talking about Ready Player One by Earnest Cline for some time now, often praising it as the science fiction book for gamers. I’ve heard it used to advertise Audible on more than one podcast, and after enough bombardment, I decided to check it out. It’s…absolutely not worth the hype.

Ready Player One is a first-person past dystopian novel that takes place in 2044. Unlike most young adult dystopian fiction, this one proposes a new dichotomy: The world outside is swarmed with poverty and ruin, but everyone on Earth has access to a virtual reality video game that can only be descried as a utopia. The OASIS video game system is capable of seemingly everything, and people of all types use it in their daily lives. This pairing of opposites is a great way to frame a novel, though sadly, Ready Player One only spends six of its 40 chapters in the real world. It’s a huge waste of potential.

At its heart, Ready Player One is a treasure hunt. The book starts off after the death of James Halliday (the inventor of OASIS and owner of Gregarious Games), an eccentric and obsessive man who devoted too much of his time to his nostalgic view of the 1980’s. Halliday’s death initiated a game within the OASIS, one where the winner would come away with all of his money and stock in Gregarious Games. The game within a game: find Halliday’s [Easter] Egg. Of course this turns out to be no ordinary egg hunt.

Our “hero” is Wade, a misanthropic teenager who attends high school in the OASIS. He opens up talking about how awful the world is and how it’s terrible that adults lie to their kids about religion and the ideas of happy endings, and he’s really quite overbearing. He’s an obsessive individual who spends almost all of his time in the OASIS playing video games, making his self-caused problems hard to sympathize with. But this is his story, and his obsession with the OASIS and James Halliday make him a prime hunter for Halliday’s Egg.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not really sure what kind of novel Ready Player One is. It tries on quite a few hats, taking turns at success and failure, but at the end of the day, it’s just a gimmicky young adult novel with some serious writing problems.

Everything about Ready Player One hinges on the OASIS virtual reality video game and the 1980s. Both start off as reasonable ideas, but both ideas grow old quite quickly.

The OASIS is huge, spanning hundreds of virtual worlds based off of whatever the creators fancy; from medieval settings to science fiction settings to steampunk settings to a gravity free dance club, anything seems possible. As a writing tool, giving your characters a literal limitless amount of places to visit is great, but as a storytelling tool, it just throws continuity out the window. Each new world tires to one-up the last, but the fact that they are all video game simulations takes away any of the real wonder behind them. It all winds up feeling trite.

Likewise, the 1980’s obsession starts off as the sound basis for a running gag, but it quickly permeates everything about Ready Player One to the point of being overbearing. James Halliday’s egg hunt has created a 2044 that highly fixated on the 1980s, and those hunting for the Egg become just as obsessed with the decade as Halliday himself. It’s a concept I found amusing at first, but by chapter two I had already grown tired of it.

The problem is that this running joke spans the entirety of the novel. Almost all of the worlds Wade and his company go to are themed after something that happened in the 1980s; the same can be said of their character’s equipment and means of transportation. Wade likes to fly around in a DeLorean with Ghost Busters stickers, for example. Cline has created a world that’s built around things that already exist; he doesn’t actually have to create anything when he can simply describe something that better fiction writers have already created. It’s lazy and soulless writing.

Cline’s grasp of the Internet and modern online interaction leave much to be desired, and this becomes an ongoing continuity error throughout the book. People in 2014 already use the Internet as a means of dating and meeting new people, yet the Earth of 2044 seems to have taken a few steps backwards. Wade stresses over wanting to virtually date girls and always qualifies his friendships with, “I’ve never met him in person”, but in a world built around virtual reality, such thoughts should no longer be around. Cline’s future is oddly stuck in the past, and it breaks immersion.

On top of that, there is a certain plot hole to Halliday’s game. When I used to play World of Warcraft, every patch came with a large level of community involvement. Players much smarter than myself would go through the game’s files to find all of the new weapons and abilities, and they’d post this information on the Internet for everyone to look at. Why no one does this to find Halliday’s Egg makes no sense to me. Wade does some general hacking, so how come no one thinks to hack in and look at the numerous files that make up the OASIS? Even if this weren’t feasible, it’s never brought up.

I generally don’t like first-person narration, but Cline almost succeeds with it. There’s a hypocrisy to Wade that works: he hates religion and the Bible but worships Halliday and Halliday’s Almanac as if they were holy, and he considers the OASIS more real than the real world despite his misanthropic views on humanity. This hypocrisy starts out as the foundation for an interesting character until Wade has uncharacteristic moments of self awareness and sees himself for what he is (an obsessed nerd) and the OASIS for what it is (a kind of prison).

These moments completely subvert what could have been interesting points about human perception and reality vs. virtual reality, and it’s extremely frustrating to see such potential thrown away for fear the audience might not get what’s going on. Every time Wade explained himself, it felt like Cline thought me too stupid to understand the points he was trying to make, even if I picked up on them chapters before Wade did.

And for a character who openly admits the OASIS is more real than the real world and threatens suicide if the evil corporation wins the treasure hunt and ruins his video game, Wade always manages to refer to Parzival as “my avatar” instead of “I.” It’s quite awkward, breaks character, and makes for wordy sentences.

The first person narration also makes for boring action. When Wade is talking about other people’s fights, the detail is fine and even enjoyable, but when Wade is discussing his own fights within the OASIS, they are short and to the point, often using references to action scenes from movies as description instead of actually building a picture. It’s lazy writing and hinges on the fact that the reader knows the specific movie being referenced.

Ready Player One is also in need of an editor. The first ten or so chapters drag on, spending too much time on the world and Halliday when the world is rarely visited and all of the information on Halliday which is either repeated or easily inferred. There are also sections of the book that could have been trimmed or completely removed altogether.

The book also contains some of the worst dialogue I’ve ran into in quite some time. Some of the teenagers mesh in 80’s lingo and Internet jargon, but even the adults who don’t do this utter some awful sentences. The first teen romance scene (thankfully there are only two and they are both short) was especially bad, though the almost-emotional scene where Wade gives away a sword as an, “I’m sorry for your loss” present and ends with “It’s a +5 Vorpal Blade” deserves an honorable mention. The upside is there isn’t much dialogue to be found in the book, and Wade handles the narration quite well and never breaks character.

Other than some fairly notable problems, Ready Player One handles the first-person past perspective reasonably well. Cline fails on some accounts, but the book always feels as if Wade is doing the speaking, and the amount of commentary and description are believable. And other than the dialogue and content of the book, the actual writing is pretty solid (though I suppose that doesn’t leave much left).

Ready Player One isn’t a good book. It is an entertaining book though, and despite all of the gripes, I had some fun with it. It’s just so frustrating to see a book with good ideas squander away its own potential. What’s left is something too unpolished and annoying to be worth your time.

About the Author

Chad Waller

Chad Waller is the cofounder of Dual Wield Software, a two-man video game company that just published The Land of Glass on Steam. You should check it out! You can follow him on Twitter @DualWieldSoft and find his company page on Facebook with a quick search.