Ready Player One is set in a dystopian vision of the year 2044 in the USA. Fossil fuels are running out, global warming is taking its toll on the planet, the economic recession is getting worse and worse. The majority of the population find solace within the OASIS, a huge online game set within a virtual world that anybody can escape to just by putting on a visor. And participating in the OASIS becomes even more exciting when its founder, the reclusive J. Halliday, passes away. Halliday has no heirs and leaves his entire fortune and control of the OASIS to whoever can solve his clues (which are all based on his unrelenting obsession with 1980s pop culture) and unlock challenges hidden around the virtual landscape. An international frenzy ensues as the whole world competes for the prize - from ordinary teenagers such as protagonist Wade Watts and his friends, to the massive global corporation IOI who want to seize the OASIS in order to charge sky-high membership fees and make millions.
This was a perfect holiday read for me. I would bury my nose in the book and emerge some time later, having been completely oblivious to my surroundings and feeling the same slight disorientation that you get after becoming hooked on a new computer game for hours and hours. Not that you necessarily have to be a fan of computer games to enjoy this! I have to admit that most of the references to early gaming and video arcades went well over my head. However, I absolutely adore my 1980s teen movies and loved geeking out over the constant references to my favourites ('Answer the question, Claire'!!).
The pop culture references are certainly what set this book apart from similar stories, but while I enjoyed them, I did feel like it got a bit much at times. Cline obviously has a great passion for the books, films and games that he writes about, and it occasionally seemed like he might be name-dropping some of his own favourites just for the sake of it. Some of the more obscure references were accompanied by detailed explanations that didn't do much to further either plot or character development. This was a shame because equally there were some really great concepts that I felt could have been expanded on.
I liked the idea that Wade and Art3mis were motivated to win Halliday's quest in order to save the planet and fix things for the human race as a whole, and I would have loved to read more about the nature of their plans. In addition, the book delivers an anti-privatisation message that is touched upon but not developed as much as it could have been. The OASIS functions as more than just a game - children attend virtual schools there, virtual libraries, churches etc. and all these services would be threatened if the IOI won the quest. I would have liked to read more of Wade's thoughts about the impact that this would have on his life. Furthermore, Cline raises questions about reality and the pros and cons of functioning in a virtual world. Wade and his friends form tight bonds based on their online personae, but would they have become such good friends had they met in real life first? Does meeting online mean that people see each other for who they really are rather than making snap judgements based on appearance, or do we only see the sides of people that they choose to display to us?
This book is the most fun novel I've read in ages and certainly a must-read for anyone who has a passion for computer games, 1980s pop culture or anything remotely 'geeky'. It has a lot more to offer as well, but if you are someone who isn't at all interested in those areas then you might find it hard work.