Friday, December 11, 2015

Audiobook Review: Ready Player One by by Ernest Cline

Book Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars

Audiobook Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: It delivers a geek-gasm love-letter to the 80's and a decent science fiction tale read wonerfully by Wil Wheaton

Ready Player One takes place in a near future when Earth is crumbling due to wars and deteriorating environmental conditions and the majority of the population escape their sad reality by logging into the OASIS. This is a massive MMORPG virtual universe that is used by people for any of a number of purposes like attending school, playing games, having sexual encounters, building their own worlds, and more.  We learn at the beginning of the book that the creator of the OASIS--James Halliday--has recently passed away and he has set up a game for people to find his "easter egg" in the virtual reality which will bring them a sizable fortune and control over the company that runs the OASIS.  The 'egg hunters'--known as 'gunters'--must follow a series of clues derived from 1980's pop culture--the decade when Halliday grew up--to find the three keys and pass through the three gates that will eventually lead to the egg.  The focal character of the book is Wade Watts--who's avatar's name in the OASIS is Parzival--who lives a poor life in the "stacks"--literally mobile homes stacked on top of each other to maximize space.  He has dedicated himself to studying Halliday and 80's culture and proves quite adept at deciphering the clues left behind that lead to the gates and eventually the egg.

Ready Player One is a ton of fun as it delivers a love-letter to 80's--particularly the geek-centric aspects of that decade--while also creating a rather chilling look at a future that could very well happen.  The book has a rather light tone to it most of the time, but every once in a while it lets its dark under-belly show.  The glimpses we get of the real world are quite stark: the "stacks" (a true hell on Earth), the war-torn countryside, the fact that people can be killed off without authorities batting an eye, and more.  It's obvious why so many have retreated into the OASIS, and it's quite believable that if such a virtual reality existed (and it's definitely not too far-fetched) people would prefer that to the real world.  This of course creates a vicious cycle that allows the deterioration of the planet to continue due to neglect.  These ideas are more in the subtext of the book, but they are definitely present and help it rise above being just a lighthearted adventure as it actually plays with some interesting (and very plausible) science fiction ideas.

But for me, the gleefull revisiting of the 80's is what kicked it up to the next level.  I grew up during that era--I was a few years older than the Halliday character but enjoyed many of the same experiences--and I got almost all of the references.  From the "Trash-80", to the Dungeons and Dragons modules, to the Schoolhouse Rock shorts, to the Leopardon robot from the Japanese Spider-Man TV series.  Almost nothing passed over my head, and while I was not a huge videogamer in the day (hand-eye coordination is not my strong suit) D&D, and the movies, and the TV shows, and more were all my good friends from that time and revisiting them made this a very enjoyable read.  I do wonder if younger readers not as familiar with the 80's will follow the book as well because the references are an integral part of the story.  Sort of like going back and reading the Bloom County comic strip without the context.  That one delivers some classic, biting humor if you know what it is referencing, but may fall flat otherwise.

But I do believe that Ready Player One still stands up as a decent read even if you are not following all the cultural references.  There were a few lapses in the book that dragged it down from time to time, particularly the Parzival-pining-for-Art3mis scenes.  And virtual Halliday's sitcom-style speech at the end could have been handled better.  But those are just minor nitpicks of a first-rate book.  It offered a good, fun adventure while also setting up an interesting and very real dystopian future to deliver a well-rounded, page-turning science fiction novel.  I do wonder how well they will be able to bring all this to life in the upcoming movie to be directed by Steven Spielberg.  But then I questioned how well The Martian would translate to the big screen, and Ridley Scott did a knock out job with that (you can read my review at this link).

As for the audiobook version, familiar late-80's voice Wil Wheaton was brought in to provide the narration.  He is definitely a perfect match and probably only Matthew Broderick would count as a better fit since he was much more entrenched in that decade.  But Wheaton's still youthful voice (he's 43 now, believe it or not) is just right as the story is told from the point of view of eighteen year old Wade.  Wheaton does an excellent job of developing the lead character and does quite well with the voices of the other characters as well.  I will definitely be seeking out some more audiobooks narrated by Wheaton and for me his involvement with Ready Player One made it that much more enjoyable.  An excellent book, and excellent read, and highly recommended.

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