Note: details about next month’s book are at the bottom of this post.
Welcome back to the Skepchick Book Club! This month we read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Honestly, I love reading fiction more than nonfiction, so even though this is a generally science/skepticism-focused book club, I do like to slip a fiction book in the lineup from time to time. The reason I picked this book was because it’s science fiction and it’s future-based, and I like to read books like that and discuss how plausible the future presented by the author really is.
The plot of the book was predictable. Before you proceed, it should be apparent that there will be spoilers, including the ending, below. In the story, James Halliday is an eccentric multi-billionaire who created OASIS, which is a cross between the internet, an MMORPG, and fully-immersive virtual reality. Kind of like a holodeck but with a helmet. When Halliday dies, he leaves behind an Easter Egg in the game, full of riddles, puzzles, and trivia about all of the things he loved (80’s pop culture), and whoever solves the whole puzzle inherits his entire fortune, along with control of OASIS. The book follows the adventures of Parzival and his two friends (and fellow competitors) Aech and Art3mis.
Outside of OASIS, the world has crumbled, in predictable 80’s style. Trailer homes are stacked on top of each other, the world is grimy and scary, and people don’t really leave the safety of the OASIS world (at least, not from the author’s point-of-view). The only people who get elected to office are movie stars and television personalities (which seems borrowed from Idiocracy). In fact, I would probably say this world was like a prequel to Idiocracy.
So from out of the trailer parks emerges a teenage boy, who goes on to beat all of the games and win all of the riches. And if that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s basically the plot of The Last Starfighter (which is referenced in the book as well).
In order to solve Halliday’s riddles, you need to know almost everything about 80’s pop culture and video games. So the 80’s is back! And the book is full of so many 80’s references that it could be a Buzzfeed article titled “500 Things Only 80’s Kids Will Understand.” (In fact, I’m a 90’s kid, so I only got half of the references.)
Like any 80’s story, the book has a villain who is pure evil: Nolan Sorrento, the Chief of Operations for IOI, a rival corporation that is trying to solve the puzzle and gain control of OASIS for its own nefarious, corporate reasons. The crew that works for him is referred to as the Sixers (because of their usernames) and they are universally reviled. Throughout the story, there is a constant battle between the rebel forces and the empire, er, I mean the gamers (gunters) and the Sixers. In fact, Nolan tries to kill the high scorers, in the game and in real life, so the threat against them is real.
There is a predictable love story between the main character, Parzival, and the high score runner-up, Art3mis. From the beginning, Parzival is infatuated with Art3mis, because she writes a quirky blog about solving Halliday’s puzzle, and because her avatar isn’t just a generic supermodel, like all the *other* girls in the game. Art3mis doesn’t want to meet up with Parzival in real life because of her horrible disfigurement, which is a birthmark on her face. I mean, I kind of rolled my eyes at this plot because it’s so just like the “ugly girl is actually beautiful” trope.
Overall, I enjoyed the book, but I did feel like the plot was a little predictable and the character development wasn’t very nuanced. I did enjoy seeing the characters trying to solve the riddles, which seemed just about impossible unless you knew everything about the 80’s, and I liked the occasional glimpses into the dystopic future (but that’s just a personal preference). At the meatspace book club, the people who enjoyed this book generally seemed to enjoy the 80’s references, and the people who didn’t enjoy it mentioned what an annoying character Parzival was and how predictable the plot was.
If you read this book, what did you think? If the author grew up in the 90’s, how would the pop culture references be different? Did you think the plot was original, heavily borrowed, or just predictable?
Next Month: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
On September 20th, we’ll be meeting to discuss Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. If you’re in Boston, join us on September 19th at our in-person book club (see the Boston Skeptics Facebook page for details). See you next time!