Set in the bleak world of 2044, Ernest Cline’s hauntingly realistic novel Ready Player One provides an insightful and frightening look into what our world could become in our lifetime: one where global warming and an energy crisis have transformed the goble into a dystopia, and the escape for many people from the misery of daily life is virtual reality (VR). In Cline’s book, that escape is the OASIS, a VR world accessed with a visor and haptic gloves.
James Halliday, the creator of the OASIS, has died. Prior to his death, Halliday planted clues in the game that lead to the “Easter Egg,” the game’s ultimate reward granting access to Halliday’s fortune and control of the OASIS. Egg hunters, called “gunters,” have spent the years since Halliday’s death learning about pop culture—specifically Halliday’s favorite TV shows and video games—which he hints in his will could provide the key to his puzzle.
Wade Watts, a teenager living in a slum on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, spends most of his waking hours in the OASIS. After five years without success for any of the gunters, Wade obtains the bronze key, the first of three keys needed to unlock the Egg, by tracking its location and fighting an AI for it. Seeking to unlock the Egg in order to commercialize the OASIS, an evil corporation called IOI follows closely behind him during his expeditions to find the other keys. Wade races to find the final key, claim the prize, and escape from his impoverished childhood.
Ready Player One, first published six years ago, explores some of the more pressing and complex issues of our time with humor and excitement. The novel takes a nuanced view of technological advancement, suggesting that increased industrialization risks killing the planet while also depicting the incredible potential of virtual reality.
Though Watts’ world appears alien to us, much of it is simply an extension of today’s technology and its accompanying problems. The OASIS visor and haptic gloves seem like a sophisticated VR headset. The OASIS currency might be viewed as a popularized Bitcoin. And IOI, a corporation that holds a near monopoly on providing Internet service, appears reminiscent of current technology giants with few to no rivals. For example, today over 75 percent of Internet searches go through Google. The search company uses its excess capital to fund beneficial projects like Google Glass, self-driving cars, and WiFi from hot air balloons, but that power could easily turn into something more aggressive and sinister, just as IOI uses its funds to search for the Egg.
Additionally, Cline’s novel, set just 33 years after it was written, depicts a world without a middle class. A few of the featured characters are either dangerously poor, such as Watts, or filthy rich, like the IOI executives, suggesting an extreme of the economically polarized world we live in today.
Ready Player One is a fast-paced, funny, and fascinating novel, with compelling characters and a captivating world, and these merits alone should convince you to read it. Cline’s writing grips the reader; his ability to convey many details in just a few sentences pulls the reader into the world of the novel, and the narrator’s witty reactions to IOI’s schemes make the reader laugh through their ongoing angst about the outcome of the search.
The novel’s underlying message is that the actions we take now will determine what life is like on Earth in a generation. It is a call for us to work toward a world of renewable and sustainable energy, a world of greater equality and broader access to opportunity.
Steven Spielberg will direct the book’s film adaptation, set to premiere in the spring of 2018.