I rolled up on Ready Player One ready to love it.
I am an 80’s-and-90’s kid. I’m a huge Star Wars fan. My husband and I met over roleplaying games. If there was a book that was supposed to fit my demographic, this was it. Now, having finished it, I feel like I was lured in by the same tactics that “The Big Bang Theory” employs, promising a relatable environment and hoping that I will overlook the blatant (and sometimes extremely uncomfortable) flaws for the sake of going, “Hey, look! I like those things too!”
The plot is simple: the eccentric billionaire James Halliday, who created a revolutionary virtual reality and sensory simulation called the OASIS, has died. But before his passing, he created and hid three keys that anyone could find, using riddles and challenges that would eventually lead to an egg tucked away somewhere in this world. Once someone won the contest and found the egg, they would win the prize: the whole chocolate factory — er, the virtual reality world that he had created as well as his fortune.
Let’s start with the main character: Wade Owen Watts, who wanders the OASIS as his avatar Parzival. He’s our Charlie-Bucket-Meets-Harry-Potter, living with his mean and spiteful aunt and spending his waking hours obsessing over the egg hunt that the OASIS’s creator has set in motion. The entire story is told from Wade’s point of view, and I would really like to cross my fingers and believe that we were set up for an unreliable narrator, but there is nothing really indicating this to be a fact.
The reason this was so frustrating to me is because everything goes Wade’s way. Every plan he concocts, every test put before him, every situation ultimately works in his favor. Even when he’s not in the right location (I’m looking at you, Pacman), he actually is lucking into something that turns his entire luck around. As if he needed it.
Furthermore, he’s too perfect, too easy from an emotional perspective. He laments about being bullied but now, when people approach him at school or in his chat room hangout, he knows just what to say to put them in their place. Then, in a twist I was hoping would make me care about him more, the evil corporation trying to get the egg literally plants explosives in his home and kills what is left of his family, his neighbors, and many of whom we are led to believe are innocent bystanders. He is unfazed. In fact, he points out how excited he is to see his crush within three pages of this event. It’s hard for the reader to care what is happening to someone who always seems to come out unscathed, both mentally and physically.
The only thing that just can’t seem to go Wade’s way is love. And if you can’t feel my bitterness in that single word, let me extrapolate.
There is one other main female character, and that is Art3mis. Wade tells us how cool she is from the start. She’s been a gunter (the name used for those searching for the Halliday’s egg) and blogger for a long time, and she’s extremely intelligent and capable. But…oh, what a surprise…not quite as much as Wade, evidenced in how he gets the first key even though Art3mis had discovered its hiding place first. For a while, Art3mis continues on her own quest, but then, in the second act of the story, Wade tells us about how they grow so close and start spending so much time together and developing feelings…which we don’t see at all. We literally get a budding-relationship montage in the middle of the book, and it’s as frustrating in execution as it is in concept. But don’t worry; in what I’m sure will shock you as a twist, they end up back together at the end, in real life, where he loves her in person just as much as he did online. The love story is cliche and empty. Moving on.
I almost don’t want to discuss the side characters, which range from evil mastermind to deus ex machina, from blatantly racist to ‘quick, we need to cover every demographic we couldn’t in two pages.’ I’ll hit the big three though: Shoto, Daito and Aech. Shoto and Daito are (you guessed it) Japanese, and naturally they wear samurai armor, talk about lacking honor and, unironically, refer to suicide as seppuku after one of them is murdered. This was literally painful to read, but not as bad as Aech. Wade’s long-time friend appears in the last section of the book and much to everyone’s surprise, she’s a woman! And black! And gay! And her mother threw her out onto the streets for being gay after tutoring her on how to use a white male avatar online so she would be able to be successful! All of this is crammed into the span of a handful of paragraphs. We don’t get a chance to unpack this information, we don’t get to process it, we don’t even get to see it play into the overall story arc of this character (just kidding. There isn’t one.). This isn’t inclusion. This is too little, too late, and all we get is a neat series of checkboxes.
I also wish that the worldbuilding outside of the OASIS made as much sense as the one inside. Keep in mind that this book is set in 2044, only 33 years after its first publication. In this time, humanity has broken down to the point that if you don’t live in or around a major city, you’re in some Mad Max wasteland in between, as evidenced in how buses are reinforced and bulletproofed in case of attacks. A small detail though it may seem, it left me wondering things like why and how and what the. Additionally, somehow the world has become a libertarian dream/nightmare because corporations can enslave anyone who defaults on lines of credit with no recourse from a federal agency…but said federal agency will arrest the evil overlord of said corporation if there’s even a rumor of murder? I had so many questions, and I feel like I never got any answers.
Overall, if you’re willing to put on your own set of visors and read Ready Player One for its nostalgia and the lush world of the OASIS, you’ll find a fairly simple read that you may enjoy. But the nitty gritty reality of the rest of it may leave you wishing there was something more there, and that’s a longing no amount of Star Wars quotes and giant robot suits will fill.