I love Huey Lewis and the News. It is physically impossible for me to refrain from dancing while listening to “Power of Love.” However, my father used to make fun of “The Heart of Rock & Roll” because he said that it seemed like the purpose of the song was to list as many cities as possible so that everyone hears the shout-out to their city and thereby likes the song. I’ll go ahead and admit that I am more inclined to like a song that fondly mentions Atlanta, or “A-town.” So, by including shout outs to as many cities as possible, Mr. Lewis is ensuring that his song is enjoyed by as many residents of as many cities as possible. Smart move, Huey. Smart move. Having said that, I feel like Ernest Cline was replicating this “mass appeal” idea in his novel Ready Player One.
Let us get the obvious task out of the way:
It’s the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place.
Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets.
And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune — and remarkable power — to whoever can unlock them.
For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday’s riddles are based in the pop culture he loved — that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday’s icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes’s oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.
And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.
Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt — among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life — and love — in the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.
This novel has a cult following, which is why it has been sitting on my TBR list for years. However, I did not love this book, especially not with the ferocity with which others seem to love it. My number one qualm with the novel was the Huey Lewis-esque mass appeal aspect, which was less “city shout-outs” and more “make every 80’s reference possible.” I’d say about 50% of Ready Player One was 80’s pop culture references, 40% was straight up info dump, and 10% was action. While I did love the connection to 80’s culture (he mentioned Oingo Boingo’s “Dead Man’s Party” within the first two pages and that is MY JAM, so I was immediately on board), it struck me as Cline’s attempt at mass appeal, naming as many 80’s pop culture movies, TV shows, songs, video games, etc. as possible so that if readers didn’t get one reference, they might get the next one, or the next one. It didn’t take long for my impression to go from, “he’s just trying to include everyone” to “oh, he’s just using this book to display his vast knowledge of 80’s culture.” It became frustrating; he’d often name some obscure cult classic but not explain how it related to the events in the novel. Cline quickly became that “friend” that everyone has that prides himself on his vast amount of “trivia knowledge,” who finds excuses to pepper the conversation with irrelevant info, just to show everyone that he knows a lot of things about a lot of things. YES, THANKS, WE GET IT!
One of the issues with sci-fi literature is that a good bit of time has to be dedicated to “world building” or setting the scene and updating readers on the backstory of the novel. There is a fluid way of incorporating this info; read The Martian and you’ll see what I mean. Cline did not achieve that. A large portion (40%, by my earlier estimate) of the book is Info Dump City. I’m talking about pages upon pages describing the minutiae of Wade’s world. His neighborhood, his hideout, his avatar, his avatar’s clothes, his video game console, gloves, goggles, chair, etc. are all described in painful, paragraph-consuming detail. I eventually learned to scan paragraphs for irrelevant details, so that I could skip the 4 paragraphs in which Cline describes the front door of Wade’s apartment.
If you can sift through the mounds of “info overkill” and ignore the millions of obscure 80’s references, the events of the book are quite unique and interesting. I like that Cline was able to focus so strongly on “geek” culture that not being nerdy enough became a disadvantage for readers. In this novel, the nerdier you are, the cooler you are. I LOVE that idea. I have always considered myself nerdy (see any of my countless LOTR references for examples), but I was so not nerdy enough to get all the geek culture shout-outs in this book, and I felt left out. It’s about time that the nerds get to be the “in crowd,” so I didn’t mind that most of it went over my head. However, I could tell that I was not the intended audience. I don’t doubt that if I were a teen aged, geeky, socially awkward, video game-loving boy, I would have liked this book far more than I did as my current self.
As it is, I’m giving it 3 stars. It was just okay. I won’t read it again, but I won’t deter anyone from reading it. Another one bites the dust (80’s reference!!).