Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The cover of Ready Player One says “Enchanting. WILLY WONKA meets THE MATRIX.” —USA Today. I thought it was more like Second Life meets Speed Racer meets Surrogates.

OASIS, the book’s highly advanced and therefore seemingly magical virtual world, in some ways resembles Second Life, an online platform where user avatars can interact with one another in a variety of digital settings for business, education, entertainment, or personal reasons. In both cases, the world is fake but the social and economic relationships inside it are very real.

The book embodies modern liberal values such as the superiority of science over superstition, the urgency of the need for alternative energy sources, the right to online anonymity, the idea that information (and thus education) wants to be free, the equality of all races, genders, and sexual orientations, the importance of inner beauty, the protection of basic human rights, and, of course, the inherent evil of money-grubbing mega-corporations run by villains who, like Speed Racer‘s E.P. Arnold Royalton, will not hesitate to take with deadly force whatever their obscene piles of cash can’t buy.

To the extent that the book has a message, it’s that of the mediocre 2009 Bruce Willis movie Surrogates: the real world should be more important to humans than any substitute. However, the whole of Ready Player One seems to argue the exact opposite: “The digital world is really cool, guys! We can use it to live in our own retro-futuristic fantasy worlds, like, forever!” The moral of the story thus seems not just tacked on but insincere.

What, then, is the point? The novel is an unsubtle homage to the pop culture of several decades set in a technologically superior “dystopia”, though anything with so much baked-in wish-fulfillment can’t possibly be properly dystopian, if you ask me.

But hey. At least there’s a Firefly reference in there.

See below for more thoughts on the novel as well as a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

My beat sheet plot summary for Ready Player One

Opening Image
Poverty. Wade lives in a tiny corner of a trailer on a stack of trailers in a slum.

Set Up
Society is crumbling, but a virtual OASIS serves as an escape. Moreover, whoever can collect three keys and pass three gates will inherit a fortune from the late great founder of OASIS.

Wade realizes the first key is hidden on the virtual planet where he and his best friend Aech attend school.

Debate / Break into Two
Wade is worried his avatar Parzival will not survive an encounter with the key’s guardian, but he finds that the time he spent studying the founder’s pop-culture obsessions pays off.

Fun and Games / B Story
Wade meets Art3mis, a famous female prize hunter he has long admired. He gives her a hint that helps her get the first key. Using money collected in the key’s hiding place, he travels to the first gate and completes the necessary challenge. Parzival becomes famous, starts earning money, gets some upgrades, befriends two Japanese hunters, Daito and Shoto, turns down an offer to work for the Sixers (the army of a hostile corporation), moves to a secure real-world location, and starts dating Art3mis.

At a high-profile party, Parzival tells Art3mis he loves her, that he cares more about her than the hunt for the keys. She says his feelings are mistaken and that the hunt is more important anyway. Sixers burst in and try to kill them both.

Bad Guys Close In
Lonely Parzival is working tech-support to make ends meet. He isn’t making progress in his quest. Artemis, meanwhile, finds the second key. In an attempt to catch up, Parzival earns a mysterious artifact resembling a quarter. With a clue from Aech, Parzival gains the second key. The head Sixer, having killed not just the avatar Daito but also the human controlling him, gets the second key too. Parzival uses the second key and finds the third, in the process uncovering a clue the Sixers overlooked. He puts a daring plan into motion.

All Is Lost / Dark Night of the Soul
Wade has himself arrested as a debtor to the hostile corporation, which takes him into custody. He may never be able to leave. He is only “free” when he’s in his sleeping pod with the light is off and the camera can’t see him.

Break into Three
Actually, using a black market security code, Wade has hacked the pod to think he’s sleeping when he’s not! Having broken into the corporation’s top-secret database, he discovers that the Sixers are going to try to kill Shoto and Art3mis, and have all the info they need to do it. Wade grabs as much data as he can, erases his debt, changes his identity, sneaks out of the company building, gets some new clothes and a new OASIS connection, and logs on to warn his friends and plan their endgame strategy, which involves sharing the prize. A powerful ally finds them and offers his help.

Parzival, his friends, and all the prize hunters in the OASIS have a showdown with the Sixers at the location of the third gate. Parzival disables the Sixers’ defensive dome using authorization codes gained while inside the company’s system. His mysterious quarter ensures that although he needs the help of his friends to unlock the final gate, he is the only one who survives to enter and pass it. Thus he becomes the founder’s sole official heir.

Final Image
Parzival (Wade) meets Art3mis (aka Samantha) in the real world, which suddenly seems like the place to be.

What I didn’t like about Ready Player One

I have one small complaint and one big one.

The meter of the poems is all wrong!

The worst is the so-called limerick, which doesn’t sound like a limerick no matter how many times I read it.

The Copper Key awaits explorers
In a tomb filled with horrors
But you have much to learn
If you hope to earn
A place among the high scorers.

Sure, the rhyme scheme is correct, but an AABBA rhyme scheme is as close to the name of a popular band as it is to an actual limerick. To have a limerick, you need a particular rhythm called anapestic trimeter.

There, I fixed it:

I once hid a key very well,
It’s copper (not brass like a bell),
It’s close to a school,
So don’t be a fool,
Seek the tomb with a horrible smell.

Okay, so maybe my version leaves something to be desired, but it *is* a limerick…. Fine. Here’s a version closer to the original.

The key that’s now sought by explorers
Rests deep in a tomb filled with horrors
There’s still much to learn
If you hope to earn
The top place among the high scorers.

See? Better, right?

But more importantly…

Parzival overcomes no real obstacles!

Wade transforms smoothly from penniless nobody to all-powerful multi-billionaire. The novel would have us believe he deserves to win the contest, unlike the corporate goons who have no love of the culture that inspired it. However, the novel never really shows Wade doing any preparation. He did it all in the five years before the start of the story told in the book.

Speed Racer‘s villain, E.P. Arnold Royalton, says that “The will to win is nothing without the will to prepare.” Did Wade have this admirable will to prepare? His preparation consisted of watching movies, reading novels, browsing message boards, listening to music, and playing video games—pursuits you may recognize as leisure activities.

Moreover, although Wade didn’t have much of a social or family life, he was attending school, so I don’t believe five years would have been long enough to do everything he supposedly did (master dozens of games, memorize dialog from dozens of shows and movies, read dozens of novels, etc.).

Even if we grant that Wade put in five years of hard work and suffering before page one, that wouldn’t make Ready Player One a good story. Wade, as Parzival, should have to work hard and suffer as the plot unfolds to earn the payoff at the end. Does he?

  • Two minor characters die to indicate the life-or-death stakes, but the emotional impact of these deaths is pretty minimal.
  • Throughout his quest, Parzival faces adversaries who are better equipped, but in every case, he always “somehow barely manages” to survive, win, and escape unharmed.
  • There was no plot twist. Parzival is never betrayed, and he never fails.

In other words, Parzival merrily collects plot coupons the whole way through the story. There’s no drama. The story is nothing more than a chronological list of events, narrated after the fact by a smug kid. (I think I’d have disliked the story less if it had been told in third person.)

The story could have been interesting.

Perizval’s friend Aech could have been a corporate spy. A betrayal seemed to be foreshadowed in several specific ways.

  • Aech’s Basement is a large, well-equipped, exclusive chat room. We’re told those are expensive, and also that the Sixers have unlimited funds and will stop at nothing to get intel on the hunt.
  • The Basement would be a good place to spy on young, low-profile gunters like Parzival and I-r0k, though the latter turned out to be thoroughly useless to spy on.
  • Aech and Parzival have only been friends since the beginning of the hunt, which is when the Sixers came into existence.
  • Daito and Shoto say they are worried there’s a Sixer spy among them.
  • Aech’s identity is very mysterious. Even when Parzival breaks into the Sixers’ comprehensive database, he can’t find out anything about him.
  • Aech doesn’t seem to be worried about the Sixers finding and killing him, which of course he wouldn’t be if he were one of them.
  • The Sixers are always on the tail of the protagonists. What if one of Parzival’s buddies has been feeding them intel?

In the end, however, Aech’s secret identity (he’s actually a fat black gay woman) is no threat to Parzival. It’s just another plank in the author’s liberal-values platform.

Parzival could have been betrayed by Ogden, the founder’s ex-business-partner.

  • Ogden has admin privileges in the OASIS and can enter private chat rooms like the Basement, where he invisibly lurks and accidentally knocks over a stack of magazines.
  • Before the finale, Ogden rescues all the protagonists and brings them to his home in the real world. He would then be able to choose the perfect time to betray them. He could just unplug them like Cypher.
  • Since Ogden apparently fought with the founder (possibly over a woman), it seemed he might harbor a grudge against his ex-partner and any contest-winning heirs.

In the end, however, Ogden is just another convenient, fawning ally.

In the yet-to-be-written sequel, I want to see Wade wake up from a simulation—you know, as if he’s been on one of those Total Recall vacations where he gets to act out the life of a heroic spy who saves everyone on Mars. No other explanation accounts for his success.

When and why I read Ready Player One

Read and recommended by my husband for its inventiveness.

Genre: fiction (science-fiction)
Date started / date finished:  29-Sep-18 to 01-Oct-18
Length: 374 pages
ISBN: 9780099560432
Originally published in: 2011
Amazon link: Ready Player One