When I go back and watch a Spielberg film from the late 70s or early 80s, it has a certain look and feel to it – a tone that is instantly recognizable. When I watch a sitcom from the 80s, it has a singular cadence that instantly puts me at ease, and prepares me to have my problems solved in 30 minutes or less. When I play a video game from the late 70s or early 80s, it makes my fingers itch for a quarter. And, when I read one of the books I loved when I was a teenager, it brings back the pure joy I would find in losing myself in another time and another place. I spend so much time thinking about what I read now; it’s becoming more and more rare for me to find that unadulterated escape in a book anymore. I found it when I read “Ready Player One” – and I loved it.
“Ready Player One” is the story of Wade Watts. He’s a high school student who, like almost everyone else in the world, spends as much of his time as possible immersed in the virtual world of OASIS. It’s a massive online virtual universe created by video game legend James Halliday. A completely immersive virtual world, OASIS has made Halliday a multi-billionaire, and changed the way people interact with each other.
When Halliday passes away, he sets in motion a grand game to determine who will inherit the company and become the caretaker of OASIS. He has hidden three Keys somewhere in the system and set up an old school Scoreboard to track everyone’s progress. Halliday was in love with the 80s (it seems Halliday was born only a year after I was), so the game’s puzzles are all based on 80s pop culture, movies, music, and video games. Wade (or Parzival, as his online avatar is known) is one of the millions of people searching for the answers to Halliday’s riddle:
Then, on the evening of February 11, 2045, an avatar’s name appeared at the top of the Scoreboard, for the whole world to see. After five long years, the Copper Key had finally been found, by an eighteen-year-old kid living in a trailer park on the outskirts of Oklahoma City.
That kid was me.
Dozens of books, cartoons, movies, and miniseries have attempted to tell the story of everything that happened next, but every single one of them got it wrong. So I want to set the record straight, once and for all.
What follows is a story steeped in an admiration for all things geek. It’s a love letter to the culture that shaped all of us who grew up in the 80s. This is a book for anyone who’s every memorized a pattern on Pac-Man. It’s a book for anyone who’s ever answered a question by saying – “Blue…no, yellow!” It’s a book for anyone who’s ever rolled multi-sided dice in the hopes of achieving greatness. It’s a book for anyone who’s ever believed with all his or her heart that a small square on a small TV, holding a pixilated arrow, was really a brave knight on an epic Adventure.
This book is just fun. I don’t want to go in to great detail on the story itself – to do that would ruin the thrill of discovery that I felt as I turned each page. It drew me in from the first chapter and whisked me along on a trip down memory lane. So much of my childhood is represented in this book; it felt like putting on a comfortable pair of old blue jeans. I realized about half way through that this is the book my 13 year-old self didn’t know he was preparing my 40 year-old self to love.
I could go on for pages about the multitude of references and influences found in “Ready Player One”. It’s part “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, part “The Breakfast Club”, and part “Indiana Jones”. There are echoes of J.R.R. Tolkien, Mike Resnick, Jack L. Chalker, and Piers Anthony. And within OASIS, there is room for Star Wars, Star Trek, and Firefly to all live together. It’s the perfect synthesis of all these cultural touch points and a multitude more.
To stop there, though, would do the story a disservice. It’s not merely a 300+ page excuse to reminisce about the stories, games, and movies of our youth. It’s also a compelling story that invests you in its characters. There are themes exploring the corporatization of our culture, the true meaning of friendship, and the dangers of disconnecting yourself from the real world. The last is a timely message, and deftly balanced between a love for the virtual world and an understanding of the need for balance between the virtual and the physical.
I created OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world. I didn’t know how to connect with the people there. I was afraid, for all my life. Right up until I knew it was ending. That was when I realized, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real. Do you understand?
Once I picked up “Ready Player One”, I found myself doing something I don’t do that often these days – I made time to read the book quickly. I snuck in 5 minutes here and 5 minutes there. I turned the TV off. I stayed up late. I made excuses to read when I really didn’t have the time. It was that perfect dichotomy we all, as readers, yearn for – I couldn’t read it fast enough, but I didn’t want it to end.
Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of “Ready Player One”. Whether you are a fan of 80s pop culture or not – whether you’ve ever even put a quarter in to a Ms. Pac-Man machine – this is a book that will entertain you. You will not be disappointed. It has action, it has adventure – but it also has heart, and ultimately a message about the importance of not losing sight of what’s real. It gave me a span of 3 days where I felt like I was 13 again and nothing in the world mattered as much as answering the question – “what happens next?” It may only be August, but I feel certain I’ve just read my favorite book of 2011.
For a healthy dose of 80s pop culture, check out the official “Ready Player One” website – here.
My favorite words from “Ready Player One”
That there was nothing so wrong in the world that we couldn’t sort it out by the end of a single half-hour episode (or maybe a two-parter, if it was something really serious).
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “It doesn’t. It’s even worse than the first Ewok flick, Caravan of Courage. They shoulda called it Caravan of Suck”.
Lame-o-rama! Beyond lame. “Highlander 2” lame.
I recognized the music. It was the last track from John Williams’ original Star Wars score, used in the scene where Princess Leia give Luke and Han their medals (and Chewbacca, as you may recall, gets the shaft).
© 2011, The Word Zombie. All rights reserved.