It’s really hard to figure out who Ready Player One was written for.
As far as the story and writing go, it’s a bog-standard Campbellian Hero’s Journey, with the direct and to-the-point writing style, swashbuckling heroes, and slimy easy-to-hate villains usually found in young-adult novels and fanfic. Indeed, if I were to categorize it based solely on how it was written and what happened during it, that’s the category I’d put it in. It’s a puzzle-solving adventure quest, like From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, or The Westing Game. It also has an 18-year-old protagonist, which is usually a signal that it’s meant to be read by someone of about that same age. (As if to drive the point home, it’s currently being adapted into a motion picture by Steven Spielberg, the patron saint of teen adventure movies.)
And yet, on the other hand, the book features a number of references to sexual and other adult situations that would make high schoolers the minimum intended audience—and, more importantly, it is drenched in references to 1980s pop culture. It’s intentionally written that way. Author Ernest Cline, who was born only about six months before I was, contrives a situation where kids in the 2040s are given a huge incentive to immerse themselves in the popular culture of the 1980s. Deceased software magnate James Halliday, a member of that generation who became really rich and famous, announced in his will that he was giving his entire fortune away to whoever could solve a puzzle he left behind—a puzzle steeped in the pop culture he grew up with.
That makes it ideal nostalgia fare for people in my generation, while at the same time rendering it somewhat inaccessible to anyone younger. Cline readily explains the more obscure pop-culture references, such as the extensive references to Ultraman, but many of the more commonplace ones are effectively taken for granted—and there are just so many of them that any youngster would be left in the dust unless they devoted as much time to catching up with the 1980s themselves as the protagonist did:
When it came to my research, I never took any shortcuts. Over the past five years, I’d worked my way down the entire recommended gunter reading list. Douglas Adams. Kurt Vonnegut. Neal Stephenson. Richard K. Morgan. Stephen King. Orson Scott Card. Terry Pratchett. Terry Brooks. Bester, Bradbury, Haldeman, Heinlein, Tolkien, Vance, Gibson, Gaiman, Sterling, Moorcock, Scalzi, Zelazny. I read every novel by every single one of Halliday’s favorite authors.
And I didn’t stop there.
I also watched every single film he referenced in the Almanac. If it was one of Halliday’s favorites, like WarGames, Ghostbusters, Real Genius, Better Off Dead, or Revenge of the Nerds, I rewatched it until I knew every scene by heart.
I devoured each of what Halliday referred to as “The Holy Trilogies”: Star Wars (original and prequel trilogies, in that order), Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Mad Max, Back to the Future, and Indiana Jones. (Halliday once said that he preferred to pretend the other Indiana Jones films, from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull onward, didn’t exist. I tended to agree.)
I also absorbed the complete filmographies of each of his favorite directors. Cameron, Gilliam, Jackson, Fincher, Kubrick, Lucas, Spielberg, Del Toro, Tarantino. And, of course, Kevin Smith.
I spent three months studying every John Hughes teen movie and memorizing all the key lines of dialogue.
Only the meek get pinched. The bold survive.
You could say I covered all the bases.
And that’s not even the complete passage—the protagonist goes on for several more paragraphs about all the eighties pop culture he’s devoured. “You’d be amazed how much research you can get done when you have no life whatsoever,” he explains. “Twelve hours a day, seven days a week, is a lot of study time.” What teenager has that kind of time these days, or the incentive to use it in such a way?
And the thing is, many people from a particular generation not only don’t bother consuming, they actively disdain the media of their parents’ generation. (Just try getting my younger brother to listen to The Beatles. Seriously.) So, this is a “young adult” style book that will be somewhat impenetrable to most people who are much under 40—or possibly much over it.
But on the other hand, a lot of adults still like reading young-adult literature, because that literature often has more adventure and freedom of imagination than books ostensibly meant for older folks. (And, after all, you’re only as young as you feel—or as young as you read.) They might feel a little embarrassed about it, but they make up a big enough audience segment that UK publisher Bloomsbury found it financially rewarding to come out with an “adult” edition of the Harry Potter series with ugly covers no one would ever mistake for “children’s books.” People like that will find Ready Player One to be right up their alley.
Set in 2044, Ready Player One takes place in an era when the world has used up much of the natural resources we take for granted today and has regressed into a sort of semi-dystopia. No longer able to afford living far outside larger urban population centers, many formerly-rural inhabitants have gravitated into cities, stacking mobile homes on top of one another in huge makeshift tenements.
The book’s protagonist, Wade “Parzival” Watts, lives in such a place. His escape, and the escape of many people in that world, is the OASIS, or “Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation.” The OASIS is a perfected form of virtual reality that people can access with a set of goggles and a pair of haptic gloves, or optionally a complete suit of haptic clothing. Not only is it their recreation, it actually has schools and classrooms set up within, so that students can receive an education without ever having to leave their homes (or, in Wade’s case, his secret hideout in a buried, discarded van a short distance away from home).
A few years prior to the story beginning, James Halliday, the software magnate who invented the OASIS and gave it away for free, announced a contest whereby he would leave his entire fortune of a hundred-plus billion dollars to whoever solved the series of riddles he had left within it. That fired the interest of an entire young generation in solving the puzzle—but it also interested a megacorporation, Innovative Online Industries, who wanted to own and control (and charge for) the OASIS. They devoted untold resources and an entire division of their corporation to solving the puzzle themselves—and they make for a great set of slimy villains to root against.
You need a pretty decent appreciation for eighties pop culture to “get” this novel fully. I grew up in that era and I still haven’t seen all the movies or played all the video games that are referred to. (And from the point of view of someone who lived through the time, I would say that Wade’s near-complete mastery of the pop culture of the era in just a few years is a little unrealistic. But it’s just a book, I should really just relax.) But for someone like me, it’s still a potent dose of nostalgia to read about so much of it all at once. (Which is probably the whole point, really. Given that I’ve written stories where my co-authors and I contrived a way to make eighties pop culture ascendant in the distant future, too, I can readily recognize it when someone else does it.)
But it’s not strictly eighties stuff either. Cline uses the device of a virtual reality where people can look and sound like anything or anyone to hold a mirror up to the Internet of the last twenty years, in which people present themselves as text characters on a screen. I have known many members of my circle of on-line friends for those same twenty years, but have met very, very few of them in person. Even though most of my friends are completely honest about who and what they are, I nonetheless have to take their words for it, and even so they can still end up being completely different people in person than the individuals I’ve known on-line all those years. (Let alone the people I hang out with on Internet Relay Chat channels who often present themselves in the form of their anthropomorphic “fursonas”.) How much more could that be true for people who can create seemingly-real three-dimensional avatars of themselves, potentially out of whole cloth?
It’s also interesting to consider the forms of electronic media that are available in that world. E-books are easy to read when your entire world is electronic, after all. You can even make them look and feel like “real” books, it’s just that you have to be immersed in virtual reality for them to seem that way. And personal electronics in the real world are easier to come by as well. In Wade’s world, a laptop is something you can fish out of the garbage and tinker with to patch up because someone just threw it away to get a new one.
It’s also interesting to consider the film adaptation, especially in light of the film adaptation of another recent book, The Martian, by another seventies and eighties cinema icon, Ridley Scott. Ready Player One is going to face a lot of the same hurdles The Martian did. They’re both first-person narratives, and whereas The Martian frequently diverts into several pages of scientific explanation that simply can’t be depicted cinematically, Ready Player One is the same way about eighties pop culture. But via the magic of selective adaptation, The Martian managed to turn these weaknesses into strengths. Can Spielberg do the same for Ready Player One?
On a related note, not only have I read the text version of the book, but I’ve listened through the complete Audible.com audiobook performance by Wil Wheaton. I highly recommend the audiobook if you enjoy audiobooks at all. Wheaton does a great job with the reading, and he even provides Pac-Man sound effects and does character voices where necessary (including a pitch-perfect rendering of dialogue from the first scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail). It’s also amusingly meta, given that Wheaton gets name-checked at one point during the book itself.
I absolutely love the book, but I’m not sure I can recommend Ready Player One to just anyone. People who haven’t been steeped in at least some of the pop culture involved may spend more time puzzling over the references than they do enjoying the book. And a number of people (especially in low-star Amazon reviews) criticize it for being simplistically written, over-full of period references, and featuring cartoonishly goodie-good heroes and slimy-evil villains. (Indeed, Wade’s description of the vehicle he gets for himself—a Back to the Future Delorean with the additions of a KITT scanner from Knight Rider and a Ghostbusters logo—seems to come right out of fanfic like Undocumented Features.) These are all valid points, though given the style of book you have to make allowances.
But if you look back on the 1980s with nostalgia, can still enjoy a good young-adult book, and don’t mind that sort of thing so much, this will be right up your alley.