Fans of pop culture have heard about Ernest Cline’s new book “Ready Player One” for over a year. The hype machine kicked off with a book and movie rights bidding war back in June 2010 and hasn’t let up since. It wasn’t until mid-August 2011 though that readers were able to see if the book lived up to the long promotional period. And, after finishing the book, I was immediately unsure how to answer that question. The book wasn’t a complete home run, but even jaded/cynical types like myself would have to grant it at least a triple. Or maybe it was an inside-the-park home run for its perseverance.
The hook was a winner, involving a contest set inside a virtual world. The goal of the main characters was to win the $100 billion+ fortune of a dead game designer. That high concept had me me feverishly turning the first few pages, as the background material of the world in the 2040s was interesting. I found the protagonist – a poor, teen geek – to be easy to root for. His online best friend and a mysterious love interest were also compelling characters to follow.
Unfortunately, if you’ve paid any attention to the online discussions of the book, much of the first 80 pages has been spoiled. As I read through that first quarter of the book, I kept waiting to get past events that I knew were going to happen and I found that that process took much longer than I’d expected. If you’ve avoided the hype machine, you would likely be more patient than I was.
Once the book’s first major section was complete, the next 120 pages were spent on character development and raising the stakes with the book’s bad guys. In particular, these goons rapidly became credible threats, almost to insurmountably bad levels. While the middle portion of the book wasn’t wasted space, I would have liked it to be more condensed or re-worked with more relevant action. Much of the main character development that took place was somewhat predictable.
The story got rocking again for the final 150 pages, as the central quest returned to the forefront of the story and so did the action. The very end of the book was handled well, with a late mentor relationship appearing that was compelling. I was surprised to get slightly-choked-up at one point near the end. There was a certain ‘message’ in the book’s conclusion that wouldn’t be bad for the geek fans of the book to take to heart and much of that message has to do with how we spend our time. Mr. Cline would seem to be a geek who has his priories straight.
Overall, I enjoyed the book. My biggest complaint was a subjective one, in that I had inflated expectations regarding the high number of 1980s references to expect. Yes, there were many 1980s references in the book, but not to the level that the hype would have led me to believe. Of course, that was a matter of perception and those going into the book with lower or more-reasonable expectations won’t have much to complain about. On a related note, I enjoyed the use of footnotes in the opening pages and would have liked that concept to have been continued throughout the book.
Those pop culture references that Mr. Cline did include were often very entertaining. Some seemed to bleed into the 1970s and 1990s or 2000s, but that would be the nature of what would develop within the virtual ‘Oasis’ world that was created. The core references within the book stayed 1980s-centric, albeit with a few significant deviations.
One particular 1980s reference, involving the dead billionaire’s first computer being a Color Computer 2, hit home for me. That exact model computer happened to be what first introduced me to early computing and it was a blast to see it become a ‘star’ of the story. I also found the heavy “Dungeons & Dragons” references to be interesting. I missed out on much of that phenomenon, but it seemed worthwhile to acknowledge how big of an influence it had on the general role-playing videogames and online multi-player experiences that would follow in later decades.
In terms of visionary imagination, Mr. Cline said in interviews that it was risky to write futuristic descriptions of the world. Such fiction often dates itself badly when reality catches up to the fictional time period and I can sympathize with these challenges. If anything, Mr. Cline plays things conservatively and limits his descriptions of the real world. The detail that was provided described a pretty depressing world that I don’t hope to be living in someday.
One could nitpick a few things about other future descriptions – I’d assume that blogging or the idea of personal television channels would have evolved further than Mr. Cline asserts – but I didn’t have many complaints in that regard. The book won’t have the same sort of impact as William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” did when considering a ‘next level of reality,’ but I’m not sure if that was really Mr. Cline’s goal. He seemed more focused on telling a compelling story that allowed him to play with numerous pop culture toys.
Not being an intellectual property lawyer, it is hard to say how the film version of the book might turn out. The first film that popped into my head for comparison was “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Complex licensing deals would need to be struck in order for certain film and videogame properties to appear as they do in the book. I’m sure that some compromises could be struck, but there will be significantly more companies to deal with than “Roger Rabbit,” which featured animated characters from only a handful of companies. The film adaptation would also have to overcome comparisons to the pop culture reference-heavy “Scott Pilgrim” and that film’s box office failure would assuredly cause hesitations regarding how to adapt “Ready Player One” for the masses.
In summary, although the book had me concerned by its midpoint, it caught a second wind that made it worth recommending. I look forward to reading Mr. Cline’s future work and hope that he continues to produce novels. The success of his first effort – being #21 on the New York Times hardcover list as of this week – would seem to assure that “Ready Player One” isn’t the last that we’ve heard of Mr. Cline’s penchant for the fictionalization of geek pop culture.