Friday, September 27, 2013

Setting up a quest

book review

Book: Ready Player One
Author: Ernest Cline

Dystopian future is a setting so overcrowded with science fiction dramas that it’s becoming hard to come up with ways of revisiting dystopia that are truly unique and interesting. Which is why the idea behind Ernest Cline’s debut novel Ready Player One seems intriguing. Geeky, offbeat, and more than a little quirky, Ready Player One takes us into a universe where people have embraced a virtual world to escape the harsh reality of their actual surroundings.

Ok, so virtual reality is hardly a new concept, but an adventure in a virtual setting still seems exciting. Add to that an obsession with pop culture and the video games, movies, and music of a bygone era, and you certainly have the ingredients of what could be a fun story.

The year is 2044, and the energy, environmental, and economic crises have made life miserable for the masses. It is perhaps the desolation around them that has driven people to retreat into the immersive online world of the OASIS, “a massively multiplayer online game that had gradually evolved into the globally networked virtual reality most of humanity now used on a daily basis”. The unprecedented success of the OASIS has made James Halliday, the video game designer responsible for creating it, one of the wealthiest people in the world.

It is with Halliday’s death, however, that the story begins. A reclusive billionaire with no heirs, he comes up with an eccentric way of finding someone to inherit his massive fortune: setting up a quest to find an Easter egg that he has hidden inside his most popular creation, the first person to discover which will inherit his vast empire. A cryptic clue is all he offers to get them started:

“Three hidden keys open three secret gates
Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits
And those with the skill to survive these straits
Will reach The End where the prize awaits”

Thus begins the quest to find Halliday’s Easter egg, looking for the copper, jade, and crystal keys hidden somewhere in the OASIS, and completing the challenges to open each gate until the egg is found.

There, however, is a slight snag – no one really has the slightest idea what it is they are looking for, or where to start looking for it. Millions of people (including a nefarious organisation that will do anything to win the hunt) devote every free moment of their lives to searching for the egg. All they know is that Halliday’s obsession with the 1980s might help them unravel his riddles. But five years pass and there is no success. Then, one day, Wade Watts’ name appears at the top of the scoreboard. He is the first person to find the copper key, and Ready Player One is his story.

The book relays Wade’s adventure as he narrates his quest and tells us about the world – both physical and virtual – that he lives in. The premise is certainly interesting, and the story itself isn’t all that long or complicated and is very easy to follow. It has, however, been extended with overly detailed exposition and intermittent info dumps, which get tedious and kill the pace of the narrative. You have to go through a lot of description to get to the action, and the quantity of exposition can feel exasperating; the quality, too, isn’t all that impressive. The story is told through very ordinary prose, and the stereotypical characters offer little introspection or depth. The writer brings up issues, then dismisses them in an off-handed way.

All of which leaves one confused about the novel’s intended audience. With a teenage protagonist and simple, young adult writing, the book seems to target the youth. But its obsession with the ‘80s makes it a nostalgia trip for those who grew up in that decade and who will probably have more fun with the movie, television, and video game references that are scattered throughout the book; then again, they might find the endless details that go with each reference thoroughly tiresome, and the writing unimpressive.

All in all, Ready Player One certainly is a fun adventure, albeit not necessarily an unmissable one. If you are a video games fanatic and don’t mind reading detailed descriptions of a character using a gadget or playing a game, then this virtual treasure hunt is very likely to engross you. Being able to stand copious references to pop culture is also essential. In short, fans of gaming and people obsessed with ’80s trivia who don’t mind pedestrian prose are very likely to enjoy Ready Player One.

- S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 27th September, 2013

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