Our near-future science fiction book club is now reading Ernst Cline’s Ready Player One. Here are my notes and reflections for the first 20% or so.
I’ll begin with a quick intro, then dive into the book, and conclude with the kind of notes we obsessive lit profs take.
I’ve read the book before, but will try to post as if I’m reading it for the first time.
Our teenage hero lives in a dystopian near future, when he’s not escaping to play a treasure hunt game in a globe-spanning virtual world. Said hero and the game’s creator share an obsession with the 1980s, which also shapes the game.
The first 20% of the book sets up the world and gets Wade started on his quest.
The future world
The world is a grim one. Rather, the physical world is grim, and always appears horribly.
The ongoing energy crisis. Catastrophic climate change. Widespread famine, poverty, and disease. Half a dozen wars. You know: “dogs and cats living together…mass hysteria!” (Kindle location 84)
An energy crisis knocked the world back (317), reminding me of this classic 1980s movie:
Beyond the fuel crash, the Great Recession “was now entering its third decade, and unemployment was still at a record high” (932). It took a generation for this combined collapse to occur, witnessed and lived through by Wade’s mother (“She’s been born into a world of plenty, then had to watch it all slowly vanish”, 342).
Narrator Wade Watts lives in a new type of trailer park, where trailers and similar units are stacked vertically, “twenty-two mobile homes high” (379). It’s violent: “[g]unfire wasn’t uncommon” (238). “There were ofter dangerous and desperate people about – the sort who would rob you, rape you, and then sell your organs on the black market.” (415) The local public schools “ha[ve] been an underfunded, overcrowded train wreck for decades” (569).
Some people “sign a five-year indenturement contract with some corporation” (538). Wade’s mother didn’t work at necessarily happy jobs: “one as a telemarketer, the other as an escort in an online brothel.” (280) Some of their neighbors “lucky enough to have a job… worked as day laborers in the giant factory farms” (440); automation doesn’t seem to have happened here.
OASIS is very different. So far (20% in) it’s largely positive, an attractive alternative to the bad world. It’s huge (201) and rich, reminding me a bit of this year’s No Man’s Sky. Wade describes it as an MMO, but it’s really a virtual world. A variety of locations exist there, from schools to churches (434). It seems to have licensed a huge amount of content, or the world went open (286). Its currency trades on the world market (508) (professor Castranova is the first academic to study this).
However, some chunk of OASIS is not fantastic, but simply represents the real world, or an improved/historical version of it. The high school Wade attends is… a high school (497ff), and avatars are unimaginative by design (508), like uniforms writ large. Somehow the tech also disciplines students (854). It also has rich VR, which makes sense, since participants are already in a VR platform.
The software sounds a lot like Second Life, even to the description of first-time users’ clothing (544) and the company making money by selling land (1069). So far that boom-and-bust project hasn’t been name-checked. There’s also a bit torrent analog for game players sharing stuff, Guntorrent (players are “gunters”, a contraction of “Easter Egg hunters”) (1097).
The technology is interesting and well developed. Two pieces connect users to OASIS, a visor (which sounds like goggles) and a glove (for haptic feedback) (286). It’s a serious VR setup (1045).
There’s also a politics to the technology. OASIS is open source, has no ads, and doesn’t seem to track users. Its enemy, IOI and its Sixers, are the opposite (611).
Our hero is poor and desperate. His home “reeked of cat piss and abject poverty” (242), a trailer holding fifteen people (“It was a double-wide. Plenty of room for everybody.” (248)). We first meet him “wedged into the gap between the wall and the dryer” (242), a bit like Harry Potter under the stairs. OASIS is his escape:
If I was feeling depressed or frustrated about my lot in life, all I had to do was tap the Player One button, and my worries would instantly slip away as my mind focused itself on the relentless pixelated onslaught on the screen in front of me. (255)
[Wade’s mother] used to have to force me to log out every night, because I never wanted to return to the real world. Because the real world sucked. (342)
Those goggles blot out the world, “blocking out all external light” (482).
Wade also has his own oasis, an abandoned and neglected van (“My Batcave. My Fortress of Solitude” (464), that precious site for every suffering teen.
Wade and his hero Halliday are also serious geeks. Not only do they have stereotypical obsessions (obscure slices of pop culture, computer games), but we learn that they share a common interpersonal background of awkwardness, shyness, and social unacceptable appearance (556, 957). The worlds they imagine are from the science fiction and fantasy genres, not from westerns, romance, war, history, or sports. If we think of the 1980s, when geeks were marginal, if rising, this call-back makes historical an emotional sense.
People are fascinated by this world. Andy Weir, author of The Martian, wrote Ready Player One fanfiction.
Lit prof’s notes
It begins with a death, like a mystery novel or a eulogy. The first paragraph is about memory, youth (our narrator), and old age (Halliday), setting up all kinds of possibilities, starting with Oedipal struggles.
Halliday’s an interesting name. The first resonance I can wring from it is “holiday” (for example), which makes sense for a man whose OASIS is a holiday from the dystopian world. He’s also nicknamed Anorak, which suggests to the American reader a guy wearing a jacket for protection or disguise… but actually comes from British slang, meaning geek.
(Wade’s friend Aech, or “H”: could he be Halliday or a his descendent?)
Wade Watts is another fun name. It describes what the character does throughout the book, namely wading through watts (electricity, the virtual world). “Watts” suggests energy, which Wade certainly has. Another clue about the character comes from the passage where we first see his full name: “My mom once told me that my dad had given me an alliterative name, Wade Watts, because he thought it sounded like the secret identity of a superhero.” (273) Wade’s going to save the world.
His other name is Parzival (488), which he describes as “the knight of Arthurian legend who found the Holy Grail” (520). Nothing too complex there. Wade/Parzival also links to “Perceval and Percival”. In case you’re not feeling the mythic weight, listen to the overture of Wagner’s opera.
Wade’s Aunt’s name is, in contrast, cruel. Alice (named 348) doesn’t escape into a fantastic world, but is trapped into a bad real one, and helps pin Wade there. She’s a kind of evil stepmother, “a malnourished harpy” (360).
The Anorak riddle emphasizes the number three (168). This should suggest fairy tales, with their obsession over three brothers, three sisters, and so on. In a Christian-influenced literature like America’s three also suggests divinity and redemption, which might be appropriate for a book about a hero grappling with a bad world.
The title is about escape. We first see it in truncated form in a sentence describing flight from reality, “all I had to do was tap the Player One button” (255). We see it in full after these words: “These three [see?] words were always the last thing an OASIS user saw before leaving the real world and entering the virtual one” (494). I’m curious how Wade will turn from escapee to savior.
Gender: it’s a very, very male book so far. We’re only seen two women as living characters, the awful aunt Alice and the distant dreamgirl Art3mis. Every single book Halliday read was written by a man (1104).
Gaming: the easter egg feels a lot like an alternate reality game (ARG) to me. The bit about minutely altered individual letters (1157) is pure ARG.