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by John Q McDonald --- 29 May 2016

Ready Player One

by Ernest Cline

Feel free to geek out. The day is not far off when technophiles will be able to live within their own private virtual universe. Already, we "curate" our own on-line experiences, focusing on favorite sites for shopping, entertainment and even virtual travel. Once the computing power becomes sufficiently fast, and the memory sufficiently huge, and once the "haptic" interfaces become sufficiently subtle and elaborate, people will be able to completely immerse themselves into whatever universe they want to live in. At first, this will be just a subset of the population, the technogeeks. But, as the technology goes mainstream, everyone will be doing it. We wonder how we lived without it. But, with many millions of people living in a virtual world, what happens to the real world? Nobody wants to admit it, but there are signs of global neglect already evident in a culture too enamored of its own technology.

In this energetically geeky novel, author Ernest Cline forsees just that. We visit a world a couple decades in the future, one in which a vast interactive decendent of the internet, the OASIS, is where most people spend all of their on-line lives. There is the "free" region, full of shopping malls and low end games. And there is the vast area of created worlds one can visit, at a cost. The whole thing was created by J. D. Halliday, a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates figure, a man so enraptured by his youth in the 1980s that, upon his death, he conceives of a vast interactive game, the search for an OASIS Easter egg, the goal of which is to inherit his multi-billion-dollar empire. Of course, this spawns another great subculture, that of the gunters, the technogeeks and 80s pop culture afficonadoes who try to find this impossibly valuable egg. This story is narrated by one of them, the young man whose avatar goes by the name of Perzival, and the first person to find the solution to the first clue of the puzzle/game.

What ensues is a long love-letter to the video/role-playing game, in which our hero, whose real-life name is Wade Watts, navigates almost entirely virtual adventures. Most of these involve games from the early days, the halcyon era of the 1980s. There are some very real threats, though, as a corporate entity also wants to win the OASIS for its own commercializing endeavors. This company, IOI, will stop at nothing. Here is where the author had to introduce a real threat to the gamers. As nothing inside of OASIS is truly fatal, the stakes aren't high enough. While the author refrains from too much gaming detail, the non-gamer reader may yet find this portion of the story a little trying. It's an action-filled chase scene, full of a video-game kind of action, culminating in a great virtual battle for the Easter egg.

Down at the San Diego ComiCon, you're likely to find a culture for whom this novel is prophecy. The book itself has its own Easter egg, the prize for which was a DeLorean and which was claimed in 2012. The book revels in its culture, the video and role-playing games we remember from back in the day, and in its promise of technological immersion. The book largely neglects the Real World inside which all of this is happening and its real world emotional engagement. For some readers, its few glimpses of that real world make up the most promising notes of the book. But the author misses that chance. This isn't that book, after all. It is a game aimed at the gamers, amusing in its way, but as tenuous and uncommitted as the virtual world in which it takes place.

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