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Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

by ◊ 3 years ago 8 Comments Switch View

Preliminary Scan:

It’s the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place.

Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets.

And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune—and remarkable power—to whoever can unlock them.

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday’s riddles are based in the pop culture he loved—that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday’s icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes’s oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.

And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.

Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt—among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life—and love—in the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

A world at stake.
A quest for the ultimate prize.
Are you ready?

- synopsis and cover courtesy of

Atmospheric Analysis: Ready Player One‘s cover is bright, garish and entirely appropriate. There’s even a little avatar reaching for a key in the large level “O”! But the paperback cover is even cooler.

I love when publishers give us creative, contextually appropriate covers. More of this, please!

Planetary Class: Ready Player One mixes things up a bit. The core setting is dystopian–below the awesome world of OASIS lies an impoverished, dying world. But there’s also a touch of retro cyberpunk here, too.

Mohs Rating: Despite the infinitely magical rules of the OASIS interface system, the sci-fi is fairly plausible. I’d place this one somewhere between a 3 and a 4 on the Mohs scale–physics plus, or one big lie, depending on whether you believe Cline breaks several natural laws, or one, with his really MMORPG.

Planetary Viability: Despite the fact that Cline’s science makes intuitive sense, I’m not sure how feasible his amazing VR world would be. Wouldn’t the energy requirements alone be pretty crushing? And while I loved the retro flavor of the OASIS, it wasn’t always entirely believable. The people of Wade’s world have no culture of their own. I’d say this was meant to underscore the emptiness of their lives, but that didn’t feel entirely supported by the novel. Honestly, I think Cline made everything so retro because it’s awesome, not because it makes any sort of sense.

Xenolinguistical Assessment: Cline captures the voice of an eighteen-year-old video game and pop culture geek perfectly. Unfortunately, that includes the geeky habit of going on at length about gaming gear and gaming rigs, sharing overly detailed accounts of beloved movies and games and exercise routines . . . it was fitting, but also a little boring sometimes, and it bogged down the otherwise really snappy pacing.

Expanded Report: Did you see the new Tron movie? I can’t help but wonder if Ernest Cline did–and if he winced when he realized how similar it was to his book.

Ready Player One is conceptually nearly identical. Eccentric millionaire computer whiz invents rich VR-world. Years later, he’s gone and a kid must enter the computer in order to save the old man’s company from evil corporate shills. Jeff Bridges would even make a great James Halliday.

But unlike TRON: Legacy, Ready Player One samples liberally from not just one 80s film franchise, but all of them. In the obsessively detailed retro-futuristic sci-fi world of the OASIS, it seems that the pop culture of the 80s doubles as the pop culture of the 2140s. Other than the OASIS itself, mankind seems to have been incapable of creating anything of artistic value since Y2k.

The effect is dizzying, not unlike Ready Player One‘s cover. The novel’s fast-moving pages could easily double as a catalog of recommended viewing, listening, and gaming for any self-respecting geek kid. It’s not really realistic, or plausible, but it sure was comfortably familiar for this 27-year-old reader.

The story is simple: Wade Watts recounts how he became overlord of the OASIS with the help of his best friends, Aech and Art3mis. Wade’s voice was, perhaps, a little too perfect. Tiresome infodumps abound, especially in the first half of the novel–at which point they’re replaced with equally tiresome battle and game recaps. There’s nothing worse, I suspect, then to have to listen to someone recount the plot of video games–except maybe to have to listen to them recite Monty Python. That happens here, too.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a fun novel. Ready Player One is accessible, and the core friendship between the three teenagers is well-rendered and believable. But it’s also a little simplistic. Villains are one-dimensional. Minorities are stereotypical (there are two Japanese boys obsessed with “honor”). Endings are tidy. We’re told that this is a world where racism and sexism don’t matter because everyone can pretend to be a white guy. Hmm.

But I can’t deny that this is a book that a lot of people will love. It might not be particularly challenging, but it’s undeniably entertaining. It’s a great read for geeky teen readers who are into 8-bit culture–or geeky adults who, like the inhabitants of the OASIS, just want to escape into some harmless fun. Ready Player One is available from Amazon or your local indie bookstore.

About the Author


Phoebe North is a twenty-something writer of YA speculative fiction. She lives in New York State with her husband and cat (who may be the most intelligent being in her household). Visit her website at View all posts by Phoebe »

Discussion - 8 Comments:

  1. Ronan Wills

    Oh man. This is one of those tragic books I really wanted to like more than I did.

    The book had been heavily hyped up by sites like i09 by the time I got to it, and I loved the first third of it. I was seriously hooked- just like you said, the story is accessible, it’s fast paced, the protagonist is the sort of person you want to root for while still having enough human foibles to make him seem real. I honestly enjoyed the infodumps, although admittedly I have a much higher tolerance for that stuff than I think most people do.

    One problem I had with the early section of the book was the 80s pop culture stuff- it was an interesting idea, but like you sad, it gave me the feeling that this world had no actual culture or identity of its own. But whatever, that was a minor annoyance. I could live with it.

    The real problems started when he (I’m not sure if I can do spoilers tags here so I’ll keep this vague) gets to the second city. The story initially takes quite a dark turn that made me really think the book had more depth than it was letting on, but everything falls apart soon after that. We’re told the protagonist doesn’t have much money, but he effortlessly buys anything he needs. His lifestyle is becoming unhealthy but don’t worry! That gets solved in about half a page or so.

    The story continues on like this- every single potential problem gets solved in a matter of paragraphs or is simply brushed away (I face palmed so hard when I found out what Art3mis’ “dark secret” is), until the story limps over the finish line with an incredibly anticlimactic ending. To make matters worse, it show-horns in the obligatory “reality is more important than fantasy so pay attention to the real world kthxby” message even though we’ve been repeatedly shown that the real world is a desolate nightmare, and Wade would never have met the friends that are now making reality bearable if he hadn’t been so obsessed with the OASIS.

    The overall impression I got was that the book had been very tightly edited for the first third or so before for some reason being presented as-is after that. There are amateur mistakes in there that just don’t seem to mesh with the writing early on.

    Reply Quote

    • Phoebe

      I agree completely. The moment Wade changes locales, I thought we’d get something a little deeper–we were finally seeing the true horror of the world around him. But it doesn’t happen. And I thought the exercise plotline was unusually tidy. He . . . . gets so fat that he’s too big for an XL suit, and then drops that weight and then some within six months? Totally unrealistic.

      To make matters worse, it show-horns in the obligatory “reality is more important than fantasy so pay attention to the real world kthxby” message even though we’ve been repeatedly shown that the real world is a desolate nightmare, and Wade would never have met the friends that are now making reality bearable if he hadn’t been so obsessed with the OASIS.

      I think for the story to have really excelled narratively and fulfill these themes, he probably needed to push a big red button at the end. Or at least, you know, address it.

      Reply Quote

  2. Heh, I just read and reviewed this one as well. The gamer in me found it compulsive (and who doesn’t love the zero-to-hero trope?), but I had problems with what appeared to be a global monoculture.

    Must disagree about the voice, too. The Wade telling the story is not 18 years old – it’s an older Wade looking back on his past, and that creeps through in a lot of his phrasing.

    Reply Quote

    • Phoebe

      Hmm–I know it was communicated in retrospect, but did he explicitly say how old he was at the beginning? I was under the impression that it was soon after winning. That actually might bring the story down a notch. It wasn’t only Wade’s voice that felt young, but his perceptions, too–most of which go unchallenged even up to the end of the book.

      Hustling off to read your review now. :)

      Reply Quote

      • He says at the beginning of the book that he’s telling the story because all the movies and TV shows have been wrong. I’d put that as at minimum five years later, and probably more.


      • Phoebe

        Hmm, it’s possible–but as soon as he clears the first gate, there are SNL parodies of him. So not sure if it’s a necessity.


  3. I quite enjoyed this book, but I didn’t it was stellar writing. 3 stars at Goodreads and a minimalist review.

    The book itself was structured like a video game, albeit one with a dearth of boss levels (until the end). There’s never any real sense of danger to Wade (especially given the framing at the beginning, which Cline seems to have forgotten about by the end?) and we simply watch him proceed from hurdle to hurdle.

    I did like how the relationship between him and Art3mis was dealt with, however – that the book is not a romance, but that their relationship is in fact one more hurdle for them to address in solving the puzzles.

    While the craft of the book was pretty so-so, as a former gamer and sporadic video game player, I had a good time with his references while I was reading them. Heavy heavy infodumps aside, it was good fun. On the other hand, afterwards I made it exactly 2 pages into Lev Grossman’s THE MAGICIAN KING, caught the first reference to Star Wars, and put the book down. READY PLAYER ONE made me feel like I’d binged on chips. No more chips, please, not for a while.

    Reply Quote

    • I haven’t read the book yet (I was on the list for it at the library, and then dropped off after reading more about it), but that seems exactly like the kind of book it is, the kind that screams “REMEMBER THIS? WASN’T IT AWESOME?” at you and mistakes this for “comedy” or “fun”. It’s great for a giddy fun time (especially when you catch all the references) but usually about two-thirds of the way through it starts to feel less fun for me and ends up being this slog through a Giddy Gauntlet where you’re beat over the head with exclamation points.

      It does strike me as kind of weird (and frankly a little off-putting) that we’re getting so much 80s geek nostalgia fiction (and 80s nostalgia in general), but I guess that generation is getting on towards their late 30s and 40s and is starting to put out their flavors of midlife fiction.

      Reply Quote


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