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October 01, 2012

Book Review: Ready Player One

A friend recommended this to me and I wanted to punch him in the nose. The premise seemed so contrived and so pandering, so eager to please. Like an annoying pop song where a hit is guaranteed because they've layered sugary-syrupy hook upon hook upon hook.

The premise is this: It is the year 2041, and the world has been over thirty years in the grips of the Great Recession (the one that began in 2008). Most people spend most of their free time in the greatest, most massively-multiplayer virtual world ever created, containing thousands of highly detailed worlds, including, explicitly, World of Warcraft's world. Pretty much all gaming and sci-fi and fantasy worlds have been ported into this massive virtual multiverse, and players can move from planet to planet (and fantasy to fantasy) via teleport pads or even X-Wing fighters.

That costs real money, though. Poor people mostly mill about on the few free worlds.

The creator of the game is a geek who was a teenager in the 1980s, fascinated with 80s pop culture and nerd culture of all kinds (sci-fi, fantasy, anime, Giant Robot Japanese shows, Duran Duran, videogames, and, yes, Dungeons & Dragons).

He dies. But in his video will -- televised to all the world -- he appears digitally inserted in the funeral scene from Heathers to announce that he has no heirs, and that his fortune -- two hundred and forty billion (with a b) dollars -- will be awarded to the first person who discovers the Easter Egg he has coded into the fantasy universe.

And oh, there are riddles and challenges, and they're going to involve esoteric trivia from the eighties (like maybe the dialogue in Ladyhawke or Ferris Buehler's Day Off) or skill at his favorite videogames (like, possibly, Berzerk or Defender).

So: It's a mash-up of the plots of Dream Park, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The DaVinci Code, except the riddles are not about early Gnostic thought or Dutch Masters but about Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot and Donkey Kong.

(Actually the riddles aren't about those things specifically -- I'm not giving spoilers. But they're about things like those things.)

The thing is, it all works. It's fun from start to finish. The Massively Multiverse Online Game isn't really so far off. At this point, only the lawyers and licensing stands in the way.

The high school zero hero, Wade Watts, is instantly appealing simply because he's such a pitiable underdog; he's awkward, fat, riddled with acne, and living in the future version of a trailer park (in which RVs are stacked upon each other 20 or more trailers high to preserve ground space). He doesn't have any money to teleport to all those myriad world where the Easter Egg can be found, but he does have time on his hands, so he can at least study the billion-dollar clues which might be hidden in Family Ties and Man From Atlantis.

But since this contest is for Real Money -- as Real as it gets, 240 billion dollar's worth -- there is, naturally, an Evil Corporation which has long sought to take over the virtual reality world, and they have their own hunters trying to find the Egg. And they are, of course, not above cheating.

Or murder.

I really liked this book. After reading a series of depressing books, and finding our own crapsack world pretty depressing lately, I really wanted a bright and light bit of escapism.

The book delivered. It's a first novel, and reads like that at times (it's always sort of awkward to read adults try to capture the essence of teenager's speech -- here, it seems to be a lot of "Dude" and "Suck" and "SUXXOR.") The Evil Corporation does not really appear to be all that Evil, except to a teenage Conforming Noncomfomist liberal's mind (wow, they want to take over the multiverse to impose a monthly fee, and put up additional advertising, and reduce cursing and trolling -- not exactly the Third Reich, here.)

But then, they do have a habit of murdering people, and that does make them pretty evil.

And towards the end, some very difficult schemes are pulled off with, to my mind, too little difficulty, too little set-up, too few complications along the way.

But still: If you have an interest in any of the things this writer does, and wouldn't mind to check out of the crapsack world for 8 or 10 hours in this virtual (literary) world, I'd buy the book.

Three quarters of the way through I started calling people to recommend it, so I'm definitely a fan.

By the way: Apart from the Evil Corporation That's Evil Chiefly Because It's a Corporation, there is one throwaway line to the crapsack world having had its environment altered because we screwed it all up, but that's never mentioned again. So you'll get those two minor nods to liberal sensibilities.

Otherwise, it's just a great big pure-escapism treasure hunt, with Fan Service laid on so thick you know it's going straight to your thighs, where people drop lines from The Breakfast Club and occasionally someone uses the line "No one ever gets what they want in the world and that is beautiful" for their computer's passphrase, and you'll scratch your head wondering "Where is that from?," until you look it up.

Highly recommended, if you're in the mood for a very, very sugar-filled dessert which is then topped with more sprinkled sugar. With a side of Count Chocula.

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posted by Ace at 06:05 PM

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