When I saw the trailer for the cinematic adaptation of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, it almost deterred me from reading the novel. But what seemed like an archetypal hybrid of Tron and Divergent is in fact its own body of work, with unique ’80s culture references, vast world building and most importantly, a story centered around a nerdy, ordinary boy.
The book follows protagonist Wade in a near future, roughly 2045, where the world is plagued with hunger, famine and climate change. To escape these harsh realities, people enter an augmented reality world known as the OASIS, where anyone can be anyone; regardless of their past status or background, individuals can make a new life for themselves, choosing where they work, how they live and what they eat. We learn that the founder of the OASIS has died and left behind a tournament in which gamers can search the OASIS for three keys that unlock three gates to find an easter egg. The first person to get the easter egg wins his fortune and gains complete control of the virtual reality system.
The book is divided into three evenly paced acts, with the stakes and speed of the plot only increasing as the story reaches its climax. In the first act, the central conflict and stakes of the competition are revealed in the prologue. The second act story then focuses on the real world and Wade’s personal life before diving deeper into an exploration of the OASIS. In the third act, it develops into a heist movie up until the climax, wrapping up nicely at the end with a last line that does justice to the preceding story.
The story buys into various archetypes that make it seem familiar but also make the structure concise and effective. There is a force of good (the gamers) and a force of evil (the Innovative Online Industries or IOI), a technology giant that wants to win the easter egg and turn the OASIS into a monetized, corporate vehicle. There is Wade’s best friend, Aech and the love interest, Art3mis. With the help of these two, Wade must beat the evil IOI and find the egg. When considering the fundamentals of the plot, it has all been done before, but Ernest Cline breathes new life into this traditional format, and the archetypes help the reader follow the story.
The two-world nature of the story doesn’t allow for extensive character development even in the central protagonists because we only get to see the avatar version of each character through the OASIS. Their actions and identities are carefully orchestrated, rather than being an accurate depiction of who they really are (Art3mis uses this exact reasoning to say why she and Wade can’t have a meaningful relationship). However, this only allows us to better understand the characters when we meet their real-life counterparts and understand why they chose their avatars based on their backstories. With this, there is also an interesting commentary on race and gender when we learn how people often tend to create avatars that skew male and white to assume greater privilege and thus avoid discrimination.
Throughout the novel, there isn’t a clear distinction between the OASIS and the real world and sometimes the stakes seem trivial when thinking about how he isn’t saving the world but rather just a computer application. However, the strong world-building makes the OASIS feel real, and this struggle the reader has in distinguishing between virtual and real life mirrors that of the characters.
This book does a rare feat: it successfully targets both current adolescents and people who grew up in the ’80s playing arcade games. Like with the OASIS, readers of all ages can immerse themselves in this new setting — but unlike the characters, try not to forget the real world.
Grant Muller is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org