Monday, February 27, 2017

Book Review - Ready Player One

I first heard about this book shortly after it came out and I was curious but not enough to immediately pick it up. Over the years I had various friends and colleagues tell me how fun it was and that they thought it was right up my alley so I boosted it higher on my "must read" list. Now that I've finally read it, I'm glad I did. I truly did enjoy it even though it didn't quite live up to my expectations. Whether I had over-inflated expectations thanks to all the recommendations or if I was let down by flaws in the book, I have yet to determine. My general feel is that this is a good fun book with an intriguing plot and fun story development but it won't appeal to everybody.

Ready Player One is set in a mid-21st century dystopia where fossil fuels are largely gone, global warming has made a mess of things and society is functional but very divided. The author doesn't get overly political or provide big socio-cultural narratives but there is an enormous wealth and knowledge disparity that grants amazing power to some while stifling others. If you imagine exacerbating our current socio-economic problems you'll have the general idea.

The first many chapters involve a fair amount of exposition and information dumps to set up the world and the situation. Even though these chapters were a little slow I personally found them to be interesting world-building and I also really enjoyed the 1980s references (more on that later).

Our main character Wade lives a pitiful existence with his aunt in "the stacks." The stacks are an intriguing concept from the author...society has over-maximized the space in mobile home parks by creating vertical "stacks" of mobile homes one atop another. This allows hundreds and hundreds of families to live in a mobile home park that otherwise would only fit maybe 50-100.

Wade's aunt is a stereotypical figure in these sort of books and really only keeps Wade around so she can benefit from his food/ration vouchers provided and other subsidies provided to the poverty stricken. Naturally Wade doesn't receive any benefit from his aunt other than keeping himself out of foster homes and out from under the scrutiny of "the man." Wade has a sort of "street urchin" life of his own where he is able to gather food and other resources. He's also found his own little hideout where he can hide away and access the world-pervasive virtual reality program/game known as OASIS.

The driving plot for the book is the virtual reality world of OASIS and a contest created by its founder James Halliday. When Halliday died he created a "Willy Wonka" style contest where the winner gets full control of Halliday's fortune and the company behind OASIS. Very little is told about the treasure hunt other than that players must find three keys to open three gates and complete the challenges within the gates. The only hint they have is that the keys/gates are all related to Halliday's life and passion which is filled with tons and tons of obscure ~1980s "geeky" pop culture...things like early computers and video games, dungeons and dragons, movies, books, anime, etc. Halliday's will provided an obscure clue to the first gate and left the everyone to scramble for answers. Naturally the world frantically went crazy trying to solve the puzzle but for years nothing has happened.

Wade attends school in OASIS with his government/school provided gear and spends all his free time researching everything he can about Halliday. One day he has an epiphany for the location of the first key/gate and shortly thereafter he enters and completes the Copper Gate and receives the clue to find the next gate. His name becomes the first and only name on an in-OASIS scoreboard and the world craze for the hunt re-ignites. Because Wade is a minor using a public school account, his true identity is hidden behind privacy legislation so he fortunately isn't hounded by reporters and paparazzi. However, those with high tech means are able to track Wade down and suddenly the stakes are even higher. Not only is he racing to find the next gate but he is trying to stay safe and one step ahead of the other hunters out to take him down.

Once the book gets past the first few chapters of exposition and Wade finds the first gate everything really takes off and maintains a good pace through the end of the book. There are a few moments where things slow down so Wade can try to puzzle out some of the problems facing him but to a large extent the book moves into high action for the last two-thirds of the book.

As you might expect, the game is filled with a TON of pop-culture references from the 1980s (extending slightly into the late-70s and early-90s as well). As a child of the 80s I really ate up all of the references and had a ton of fun strolling down memory lane. I also discovered some new things that I want to learn more about. For those not as excited about 80s tech/geek culture, the references will likely be less interesting and large chunks of the book may feel a little obscure or slow.

The sci-fi elements of the book were fun but left me wanting a little more. I fully acknowledge that predicting the future is a difficult thing and in this book we're only ~25 years in the future and we're also in a society that has had a number of significant breakdowns but I still wanted a little more of a bump in technological advancements beyond the overarching shroud of OASIS. I'm not sure exactly "what" I wanted...maybe some increased AI in the form of robots/cyborgs or something like that. Granted, most of the advancements happened in and around the OASIS platform and its related hardware so I suppose that's fairly realistic inference.

As to character development, we get a somewhat fleshed out Wade pretty early on and he doesn't seem to change a lot throughout the book. We meet and interact with some of his friends over the course of the story and even though they're interesting they are a little flat and predictable. They largely serve as sounding boards or foils for Wade to work with or be compared against. There are a couple of character twists later in the book and there's also the seemingly requisite "love interest" to add an additional plot element (even though personally I didn't feel like the book needed that additional element or even benefited from it per se). The villain characters are true villains without any special depth to them. They behave villainous and if anything they are even more cruel than I might have expected.

On the whole I personally enjoyed this book a lot. I went in with very high expectations given all the buzz and recommendations I'd heard. I have also heard great things about the audiobook read by geeky pop-culture icon Will Wheaton (I don't know that I love the book enough to seek out the audio version). If you're not a fan/guru of 1980s pop/geek culture you probably won't really get into this book but if you enjoy tech-based sci-fi you'll likely still enjoy the adventure. Still, I can certainly see that this book won't appeal to everyone. If the main premise sounds like your sort of book, be prepared for a few slow chapters at the beginning that may or may not be interesting to you depending on your passion for the topic (aka - Halliday's obsession with 1980s culture) but once you get beyond that exposition and build up you're in for a fun filled enjoyable adventure.

4 out of 5 stars

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