Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

ReadyPlayerOneThe year is 2044. Human civilization is hanging on by a thread. Recession, energy crisis, disillusionment, unemployment, starvation and poverty have reigned for decades. The only escape most people have is in a massive interactive simulation, the OASIS. The OASIS is also where most people work, a virtual universe with everything from shopping malls to space monsters. Thirteen year old Wade has grown up in a slum and has nothing to show for himself but being a geeky kid with some computer skills when OASIS co-founder and creator James Halliday dies, leaving his entire multi-billion dollar fortune and control of his company to the winner of an elaborate and mysterious quest throughout the OASIS. During the next five years, Wade becomes one of millions of “gunters”, short for “egg hunters”, trying to crack the quest and win the prize, fittingly an “Easter Egg”. This mostly involves ridiculously extensive research into the pop culture of the nineteen-eighties, Halliday’s favorite decade, to the point that Wade can recite every line of dialogue of every popular movie of the day, sing along to every hit song, and win at every old arcade game. He also knows the most obscure details of Halliday’s life. Then one day, Wade makes a breakthrough.

Ready Player One is a fast-paced, exciting, page-turning thrill-ride which proudly displays its early Cyberpunk roots. As Wade progresses on his quest, he encounters both allies and rivals. In particular, a large and ruthless multinational corporation is aiming to take control of the OASIS by running an entire division of gunters and battling for the prize. The majority of the action takes places in the OASIS, providing a stark contrast to the bleak and impoverished world outside. In the real world, people are jobless and homeless, and even debt slavery is often a better option than freedom since at least it provides room and board. In the virtual world, the poor but skilled can be wizards and warriors, paladins for justice or evil villains. The virtual world affects the real one in worrying ways, however, and domination of the real one is very much tied to winning the battle for the virtual one. For our recluse hero, this is a shocking and painful realization. He is mighty in the OASIS, but really only a geeky and powerless kid in the real world. The transformation of Wade’s real self to match the heroism of his avatar is the true underlying quest in the book.

It is clear Mr. Cline did a lot of research on eighties pop culture himself. The entire novel is one big orgy of fanservice, specifically aimed at those fans who grew up in the eighties. As an avid consumer myself of John Hughes movies, old computer games and era music, it pushed all the right buttons. The question this: can a person who is not at least casually versed in eighties pop culture truly appreciate it? I would say yes. Even without understanding the myriad pop culture references, it is a great adventure novel, and an excellent metaphor for our despondent times. Just be prepared for the massive geek-outs.

5Rosbochs

Reamde – Neal Stephenson

A former drug smuggler turned Internet gaming magnate. His adoptive niece. A Russian gangster and his bodyguard. A Chinese computer virus writer. A Hungarian hacker. A British spy. An Islamist terrorist. A tea-selling girl from the Chinese hinterlands. These are some of the characters that inhabit Stephenson’s wide-spanning action thriller Reamde. It is almost impossible to briefly summarize the action, but suffice it to say it involves an attempt to extort money from players of a massively multiplayer role-playing game, a band of international terrorists, and a sprawling extended family from Iowa.

This is a big novel, weighing in at over a thousand pages. Due to Stephenson’s detailed and entertainingly understated descriptions, there are two action scenes which easily take up two hundred plus pages each. The action sprawls from the Pacific Northwest to the Chinese port city of Xiamen as several parties initially chase a conspiracy to extort money, then stumble upon something much more serious. The last quarter of the book is one long and convoluted chase scene, a killer payoff if there ever was one.

The many characters are complex, with rich back stories and believable quirks. The personal journey of the girl Zula, unwilling victim of not one, but two sets of abductors, is a fine base for the many branches of the story. She is a complex and strong character with two very different heritages, the first as a refugee from Eritrea, and the second as the adoptive daughter of a rural Iowan family. Her uncle Richard, the (former) black sheep of said family,  is equally interesting, and an archetypal corporate maverick.

While the main story is well paced and fascinating, Stephenson’s genius lies in his description of detail. Like a good comedian, he seeks out the hilarity in what on the face of it are ordinary situations. For example the disorientation felt by Americans in the sprawling Chinese city of Xiamen is brilliantly described, as are the similar sections where foreigners from other countries end up in the backwaters of Washington State and Idaho. Tangents and datadumps are often long, but Stephenson’s ironic and understated style make them both interesting and entertaining. Some parts of the book take place party in the virtual world of T’Rain, a massively multiplayer online game. These sections could easily have been cheesy and impenetrable to those not familiar with such games, but are written in an easy to understand fashion without reveling in geekiness. As such, they are easily accessible even to the game illiterate.