Update: Since the release of the film, I have re-examined this book and have additional thoughts to share: “Revisiting Ready Player One.”

For those of us who grew up in the 1980s, there has finally come a novel to light our darkest hour: Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. In a world devastated by ecological and environmental collapse, the one pastime that unites human entertainment, business, and social life is the globe-spanning OASIS–or  Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation–which is basically what would happen if you combined your favorite MMO with Second Life and multiplied the result by Tron. Since the real world is so trashed, everyone lives through the OASIS–everyone, including our clever protagonist Wade Owen Watts (yep, “W. O. W.”), better known by his OASIS handle: Parzival.

In case you have not yet guessed based on his handle: this story is a grail quest. Brilliantly, it’s a grail quest in which the puzzles are all derived from 70s/80s culture and the prize is nothing less than control over the OASIS; the founder has died, and the one who solves the Easter Egg puzzle quests in his expansive online universe will inherit the entire company and all its spoils. So, we have a bleak dystopian future where the online virtual reality is preferable to the real thing; we have a mountain of nostalgic 80s and gamer culture; and we have a quest to find the keys to a kingdom–and did I mention that the chief competitor for said grand prize is a Nazi stooge corporate sellout who wants to turn the free-to-access OASIS into a money-making mechanism exclusive to the super-rich.

The “cyberpunk” genre has long been defined by works such as Gibson’s Neuromancer or Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and  Ready Player One is a very worthy successor to this tradition. The narrative itself is a fun romp through classic 80s-kid nostalgia that touches lightly but meaningfully on the greater tradition of the grand hunt or grail quest while dealing with huge and overwhelming issues–corporate domination of new frontiers, environmental catastrophe, economic crisis–with all the charmingly senseless optimism of an 80s movie. The narrative is escapist fantasy at its best, and while it may be at points shallow–my “worst of” pick would have to be the rather lackluster romantic interest, “Art3mis”–the story really does capture the best of 80s optimism within a shrine of its own classics.

The narrative itself entertained but did not thrill me, yet the story manages–in the best tradition of classic 80s cinema–to have a heart that’s bigger than its plot. It’s the little touches that make this story of “downtrodden white boy uses unique but obscure skill set to try to win the big prize, get the girl, and (probably) save the world” something special. There are loving send-ups of everything from Dungeons & Dragons to Ultraman, and I won’t lie when I say that a few of those references are played dramatically and poignantly enough to have brought a fine mist to my eye at least once during the story. A friend of mine called this book “popcorn for your soul,” and while in many ways I agree, I also think there’s more to this novel than just the joy of clever writing and escapism.

Though Ready Player One remains tonally light and generally simple in its scope, it touches meaningfully on many issues relevant to the lives of those who experienced the very culture it embraces. While the novel is set in the (not so) distant 2044, it is about my generation–we 80s kids who have now inherited a complicated mess of a world. This novel underscores what might come of us failing to do anything to improve the world–but in so doing it reminds us that we have the chance, perhaps one last chance, to improve the world in which we live, just like everyone from G.I. Joe to Captain Planet always told us we could. (Pardon me; I think I just stumbled over a little bit of “political,” there.)

Even if you don’t go in for politics, the novel offers an inspirational view of what the best MMO of the future might look like. The OASIS is, without a doubt, the best game ever–take notes, game developers! The mere notion of being able to visit all the worlds of classic RPGs, films, or just about anything else while leveling up and becoming the master of an endless digital archive of enchanted relics and super cool gear is basically the pinnacle of fan heaven. It’s a game to exceed all games, and the novel is even realistic enough to acknowledge just how terrifying yet beautiful that might really be. Speaking of fan heaven, Wil Wheaton is a top government official in this world–and that’s just beautiful.

If you loved games, film, television, or any other culture from the 80s–if you love cyberpunk and sci-fi–if you love grail quests and the struggle to triumph in the face of evil–then you owe it to yourself to experience this delightful book. You don’t have to take my word for it, but like they say, knowing is half the battle. I guess what I’m saying is, this book really, truly has “The Touch.”

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