I was pretty skeptical about this book.
I saw the trailer for the big blockbuster that’s coming out, and it sounded like it was trying too hard. It’s sci-fi, but it’s also 80s retro? Do we really need more 80s nostalgia? Shouldn’t we celebrate more originality? I think it also didn’t help that many people were very excited about it being turned into a movie, and evangelical fans informing you that they are sure you’ll love the book just makes it that much harder for you to judge the story honestly.
Nonetheless, I ended up really enjoying Ready Player One. I realize that it may have just played very well to my ingroup; the “culture” of the novel went beyond just 80s nostalgia, but into early computer programming, videogames, and geek culture. For that reason, I’m unsure if I would automatically recommend Ernest Cline’s book to everyone. I’m going to go over some of the weaknesses of the book, and if you think you could overlook them to enjoy a fairly creative and fun sci-fi adventure story, I think it’s worth a read.
In the first couple of chapters, I was a bit disappointed. I realized this was a dystopian near future young adult novel, and that’s a fairly common trope. The world has fallen on some hard economic times, and many people have turned to a globe-spanning shared virtual reality called the OASIS.
The “bad guys” are also incredibly simple. The villain doesn’t have an interesting alternative viewpoint or reason why he feels compelled to be bad. In fact, the obsession with the scavenger hunt just seems uncharacteristic of a large corporation. The evil companies that the story is trying to evoke, ISPs like Comcast or data hoarders like maybe an evil (eviler?) version of Facebook, they are concerning and worrisome precisely because they are large organizations without discrete goals. They optimize for profit, but not in humane or useful ways. Comcast is evil because they will promise to send out a tech to fix your internet who never shows up, day after day, and there’s no one else you can turn to. The evil corporation in the novel, IOI, is evil because it wants to take over the world by winning a contest and getting money. Comcast is evil because it’s already taken over the world, yet it’s so disorganized that its apathetic to how it’s ruining your life. Beating IOI is straightforward, but difficult; you need to win the scavenger hunt before they do. Beating Comcast is both deceptively simple, but yet so complex as to be impossible; you can’t just pass a law saying Comcast has to be less lazy, you have to actually introduce additional competition to cable providers everywhere that Comcast exists. Yet competition can’t just be introduced, barriers to entry, both legal and economic make that difficult. Removing legal barriers requires legislative will and legal knowledge which is sparse and distributed…etc.
The one area where the bad guys actually seemed pretty sinister was during a sequence detailing how IOI presses debters into indentured servitude to pay off their debts. The servitude never pays much, and everyone is forced to buy things in a “company store” type model which means they are essentially stuck in corporate slavery forever. That seemed way more bureaucratically terrifying along the lines of how I’d imagine a giant megacorporation grinding people’s souls for money. So points to that plot device at least.
The general outline of the plot itself also wasn’t too unexpected for a young adult dystopian novel. The creator of the OASIS passed away and has left his fortune to whomever can solve a very difficult puzzle/scavenger hunt which is inside the virtual world. The protagonist, teenager Wade Watts, goes on an a classic adventure, re-imagined into the 80s nostalgia of the OASIS contest. He meets various friends who sometimes help him out, he gets occasional help from a couple older, wise characters, and he fights an army of bad guys.
But despite all these negatives, I actually ended up really enjoying this book. The general plot may have been fairly expected, but the specifics of the plot, including the challenges of the contest, and the intricacies of the world, both physical and digital, are quite creative and original. The rest of review is going to go into more plot details, so if you’d rather avoid that, you’ve been warned.
The world of the OASIS is an absolutely fascinating exploration of what the internet and virtual reality could be used for. The giant public school planet was a nice extension of what online learning classes could be. If you take Bryan Caplan-esque critiques of education as signaling seriously and then set aside the signaling aspect of education, there is little that couldn’t be taught on the internet almost as well as in a classroom.
Other parts of the world of the OASIS were excellent because they were tailored to exactly what a hacker/geek ingroup paradise would be. The idea of the Tyrell Corporation Pyramid being a default structure that anyone could place on an OASIS planet tickled my heart. Built-in crypto was also pretty cool, and it even reflected correct cryptographic practices. Everyone’s actual information was encrypted at rest and not readable by the company’s own employees. While this might be tough to implement perfectly, it was nice that a fantasy book of a geek virtual reality world would correctly implement cryptographic privacy. (Of course, it turns out Og had a built-in backdoor to private chatrooms, which kind of breaks the whole “correctly implemented crypto”…) Additionally, there’s a sequence where Wade votes for Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton which was pretty funny.
Anonymity and privacy is actually vital to several plot points. First is the general idea that IOI can’t track where Wade is logging into the OASIS from since user data is well encrypted and he’s not using them as an ISP. But Wade is also able to generate an income from his avatar’s fame as a successful “gunter” in the contest. The concept of being able to anonymously generate an income where he can be paid without anyone knowing his real name was probably just a useful plot device, but would be a massive revolution for individual freedom in the real world. They didn’t really mention how taxes work, so this probably wasn’t entirely thought out, but the implications for such technology would be just fascinating. In a world largely ruled by VR, it wouldn’t be surprising if lots of work was done in VR instead of the real world. A world where the default interaction is encrypted and anonymous means that payment would default to being anonymous as well. Wade makes money by endorsing products with his online (and famous) avatar, but also by selling advertising on his personal vidfeed, which actually is pretty close to what Twitch actually ended up being in the real world.
A quick aside: Wade programs his vidfeed to show old 80s TV shows, movies, and music videos. He also spends a fair amount of time watching old shows that he thinks may prove useful in the hunt. There’s no mention of copyright enforcement or difficulty in obtaining access to these things. I guess it’s just one of those things that’s assumed away for the story, but having free and open access to these old shows is vital to the knowledge building of the “gunters”. I think the book could have taken a more explicit anti-copyright stance to match the hacker-culture of the gunters.
Back to the commentary on individualism: in a virtual world, there’s the almost obvious point that space itself can be easily privatized. Wade purchases a private asteroid and builds his own extensive base inside it. He can grant access to only people he wants to let in, and he can create whatever he wants in it. Property rights are pretty useful for creating a flourishing market, and so super property rights and the ability to manipulate reality itself (in a virtual world) puts that ability-to-create on steroids. Even Aech’s private chatroom is a pretty cool hangout, but it’s more than that; it’s the absolute privacy of an encrypted document, made “physical” via the virtual world of the OASIS. Maybe an evil dictator would just block access to the OASIS, but otherwise, people could literally meet in private chatrooms and share their ideas and frustrations with an oppressive regime face-to-face, without fear of actually meeting face-to-face. This is a pretty cool idea.
Finally, I want to note that the hacker-culture of the book and the gunters was very personally appealing. I’m sure everyone likes the idea of a community of righteous freedom fighters gathering together to fight the bad guys, but there was something that specifically invoked big MMORPG gatherings when Cline describes the gunter clans banding together to fight the Sixers. Even silly things like Wade’s ship being Serenity from Firefly was just really fun for me to imagine. I don’t know exactly how much of this would transfer over to someone who is less familiar with the references in the book. Then again, I only knew some of the references, and I was totally clueless to the 70s anime shows.
Ready Player One ended up being really enjoyable and did a great job exploring the implications of a worldwide shared virtual reality. Even if the adventure genre made some of the plot predictable and the bad guys cartoonish, there is so much cool world building that I found it easy to overlook any flaws. The sci-fi aspects of the book were excellent, the hacker culture backdrop was a lot of fun, and the plot did still have some impressive twists that I wasn’t expecting. I’m sure the upcoming film will be fine, but I doubt it will be able to capture all the small morsels of this really exciting world. I would definitely recommend this book if you have any science fiction interest, but remember it’s more like WarGames made into a hacker-culture tribute VR science fiction novel, not Foundation.