Ernest Cline, Ready Player One (London: Arrow Books, 2012), 374pp
I knew from the premise that I would love this book. But I didn't know that I would love it quite so much. Even in some of my favourite books I have often felt fatigued at points in the story and wished I was doing something else. But with Ready Player One, I was completely enthralled in the story from page one right through to the end.
As many other reviewers have suggested, there is a lot of referencing of 80s culture, and some of it is rather niche stuff like Japanese anime and early Atari videogames that will go over the heads of many readers (including myself - I was born in 1990). But a lot of it is also more popular stuff - Geek 101 stuff like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Monty Python and Highlander, that you really should already be familiar with. And the ways in which Ernest Cline weaves these little references into his own story is a treat to read; the reader never feels excluded for not having foreknowledge of an obscure Japanese anime TV series that ran for two seasons between 1982 and '83, for example. Many of the more knowing, winking references are signposted (but not in an overly obvious way) and you'll be delighted with yourself when you do recognise some of the references which aren't.
Indeed, Cline's writing abilities neutralise any feelings of exclusivity. Ready Player One is not only a delicious geekgasm throughout, but it is also a genuinely entertaining piece of storytelling. It felt in many ways like an homage to the great storytellers of the 80s, not just the likes of Spielberg but also the unsung developers who created the great early text-based adventure video games (complete with baffling riddles!). But it goes beyond mere nostalgia; Cline's OASIS virtual reality world is incredibly immersive science-fiction. Essentially, the OASIS universe contains innumerable planets, each with its own theme, from the rather routine school campus planet of Ludus where our protagonist begins his quest, to the planet Transsexual, where The Rocky Horror Picture Show has event screenings. The OASIS has so many diverse and well-defined in-game environments that it is pure Geek Heaven. Who wouldn't want to max out their avatar with amazing loot, visit immersive fantasy world replicas like Middle-Earth, or traverse a galaxy in their very own X-wing? Who wouldn't want to perform in a 'flicksync', an interactive version of your favourite movie? Trust me, you won't want this book to end, or to remove yourself from this virtual world where anything can happen.
Ready Player One also has very well-developed characters who, throughout the story, you will come to identify with. Cline accurately evokes our contemporary gamer/online community, from our geeky everyman protagonists to the evil, cheating Sixers, who take the fun out of gaming and make it impossible for everyone else to enjoy the Hunt. Although it is not jam-packed with laughs, the book also has its moments of humour ("You're evil, you know that?" I said. She grinned and shook her head. "Chaotic Neutral, sugar." (pg. 96)). Above all, like all the best films and games to come out of the 80s, it balances its adventurous storytelling thrills with genuine heart and emotion. The moral of the story - which becomes apparent at the end - is an important one to heed, especially for us geeky sorts, and there is a romantic plotline which is developed with real care and not just shoehorned in. The love interest is a character on her own merit and her relationship with the protagonist develops believably (how could you not like someone who casts a Cure Serious Wounds spell on you?). At Ready Player One's endearing finale, the romantic 'Marion's Theme' from Indiana Jones kept playing in my head; I couldn't help it, as I was so immersed in this engrossing book. This is destined to be a bona fide cult classic.