"It was the dawn of a new era, one where most of the human race now spent all of their free time inside a videogame."
If the 1980s was "Morning in America" as the transformational Ronald Reagan famously dubbed them, then the 2040s that are imagined in Ready Player One by Ernest Cline could be called "Midnight in America", i.e. the logical end result of Reagan's trickle down corporate dream. In this bleak future imagined by Cline, in the midst of a 30 year Great Recession, after a global oil crisis, mushroom clouds and even a short-lived Retro 80s fashion fad, comes the story of Wade, a pimply-faced, overweight, no-income teenager in Oklahoma, who like everyone else seems to be sitting around, escaping into an alternate reality (whenever he can) and basically awaiting the doom of mankind's fate. Kinda sounds like the 70s doesn't it?
In the tradition of George Orwell's 1984, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and William Gibson's Neuromancer, the entertaining question that Ready Player One dances with is: "Could this really be what the future might look like?" Could mankind go on existing in a reality so bleak that spending nearly every waking moment inside the virtual reality of an internet video game becomes the only way to cope with it?
Ready Player One is filled with enough clever details and plausible tweaks to convince most readers that this vision of the future is not so far fetched. Some details are subtle, like certain characters, pop culture references, video games, events and "things" that accurately echo their counterparts in today's reality. For instance, the creators of OASIS (the videogame at the center of the novel), are suspiciously similar to John Carmack and John Romero who are the Lennon and McCartney of video game creators (and whose life stories are documented in Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner). Other details are more universal however, for instance the depiction of the all consuming vidoe game/pop culture addiction that so many people in 2040 are inflicted with doesn't seem vastly different from the video and pop culture addictions of the dozens (maybe hundreds or thousands) of "friends" we all know on facebook.
There was however one central aspect to Cline's depiction of a future that was not at all believable (to me, at aleast). And that was that in this future there is nearly a total lack of actual face-to-face human contact that anyone has with anyone else. For instance in this excerpt, after finally meeting the character that Wade considers to be his best friend in person, he admits:
"As we continued to talk, going through the motions of getting to know each other, I realized that we already did know each other, as well as any two people could. We'd known each other for years, in the most intimate way possible. We'd connected on a purely mental level. I understood her, trusted her, and loved her as a dear friend."
Then, at the conclusion of the book, Wade meets his love interest face to face for the first time and we are led to believe they will live happily ever after. None of this rang true to me however - this idea that people can fall in love over the internet - and it made for a lackluster ending. But overall, although Ready Player One has a fairly formulaic plot and relies heavily on stereotypical young adult character devices and it is chock-ful of played-out comic bookish dialog and its share of clunky descriptive passages, it is none the less an immediately gratifying, guilty pleasure/page turner with several interesting cultural matters at play. For pop culture junkies and folks who like to ponder upon what the future might hold, Cline's novel will be a must-read. For these reasons and more I give it 3 out of 5 WagemannHeads.