Wade Owen Watts, a poor kid who could be described as homeless, embarks upon an adventure in a virtual world. The OASIS is a vivid, incredibly detailed, virtual reality world that provides more opportunities than the real world does. Ready Player One can be described as a science-fiction dystopia story.
The OASIS was created by James Halliday and his business partner, Ogden Morrow. (The two grew apart over the years.) Upon Halliday’s death, a contest was announced. The first person to find Halliday’s “Easter egg” would receive Halliday’s entire fortune and corporation. Wade becomes an egg hunter, or “Gunter”, and makes a few friends who are on the same quest.
WARNING: This book review contains some spoilers!
Unfortunately for Wade, there is an evil corporation called IOI (Innovative Online Industries) which also wants Halliday’s “Easter egg”. The company has the money and resources to send thousands of avatars through the OASIS. Each avatar looks identical to the rest, and each has a number that ends in a six for a name. It becomes clear that IOI wants to turn the OASIS into something that makes money for them.
In my opinion, Ernest Cline was dead on accurate about what a giant corporation would do to the OASIS. We see examples of this type of behavior “in real life” whenever internet providers lobby the FCC in the hopes of getting a net neutrality deal that is good for the company – and terrible for real people.
An interesting quirk in Ready Player One is the emphasis on pop culture from the 1980s. I really liked the way it gets incorporated into the story. James Halliday was known for being a huge fan of the movies, games, and music of the 1980s, so it is assumed that the clues that will lead to his “Easter egg” will connect to some of the things Halliday loved the most.
Halliday was a teenager in the 1980s, and Ready Player One takes place in the 2040s. The result is that Wade, his friends, and the “Sixers” (IOI employees who hunt for Halliday’s “Easter egg”) did not grow up in the 1980s. They didn’t live through that time, and have no cultural or personal connection to 1980s pop culture. For them, there is no nostalgia attached to any of it. They are simply too young to remember it, and the more serious ones spend all their free time studying it.
Ironically, the teens and young adults who read Ready Player One in 2011 (when it was originally published) or shortly before the movie came out in 2018, are also too young to have any nostalgia for the 1980s pop culture that is such an important part of the plot. If Ernest Cline was writing the book for the young people of today – he probably ended up alienating most of them.
Meanwhile, people like me, who were teens or pre-teens in the 1980s, can easily catch (most, if not all) of the 1980s references. The ones I remembered brought back a lot of nostalgia. On the other hand, there were also times when the book felt a bit tedious. For example, there’s a part where Cline describes a movie from the 1980s, in a “walk through” type detail. I felt it dragged on too long. I’ve seen the movie dozens of times, and I didn’t need the tutorial.
There is a point in the book where Wade (whose avatar is named Parzival) and Art3mis are having a conversation about the in-OASIS gameplay involving that movie. The player has to take the part of the male lead in the movie. Art3mis says she wished that she could have taken the role of the female lead in the move. Wade doesn’t have anything to say about that.
As a woman who spent years playing as Mario and Luigi, long before there were any female characters to choose from in video games, I can relate to what Art3mis was expressing. The movie they were talking about was made in the 1980s, with a male lead character. But, decades later, why couldn’t the OASIS have an option for people to play as the female character instead?
It made me feel like Ernest Cline wanted, if only subconsciously, for Ready Player One to exclude female geeks as much as actual video games in the 1980s did. This was disappointing.
I read this book around the time that the movie version hit theaters. I haven’t seen the movie, so this review is entirely based upon the book. Rather than do a point-by-point review of the plot line, I will discuss things that I liked, and disliked, about the story.
I love the concept of the OASIS. Everyone can access it entirely for free (so long as they have a computer, goggles, and special gloves). Wade is among many students who attend school in the OASIS – on a planet that is filled with identical school campuses. Students are issued a computer, goggles, and gloves for free. The teachers have no limit to the resources they can use in their classrooms, and can take students on field trips to museums, important historical time periods, inside the human body, or wherever else fits their curriculum.
Students are unable to “act up” and cause a disruption in the classroom. The OASIS system simply doesn’t allow them to interrupt the teacher, for example. Those who try are penalized (much like they would be “in real life”.) Class sizes are reasonable because there are plenty of schools and teachers. Students who are bullies can literally be muted by other students. The bully can still say whatever they want – and the victim can entirely avoid hearing any of it. I believe this would be a great way to stop fights before they begin.
I didn’t like Wade. Part of the reason is because this book has what I think of as an “expiration date”. Read it when you are about the same age as the main character, and you likely think he’s super cool. Read it when you are years older than the main character, and you find him incredibly immature and annoying. The Catcher in the Rye is another example of a book with an “expiration date.”
But, there is a bigger reason why I don’t like Wade.
I’m not thrilled with the way women are depicted in Ready Player One. To clarify, the female characters in the book are interesting – but Cline presented them in ways that feel kind of icky.
I think what made it clear to me that women, people of color, and people who are LGBT, are generally viewed as less significant than white, straight, men, by the author is that there are absolutely zero women who are in power. James Halliday and Ogden Morrow created the OASIS (to make a long story short), so it makes sense for them to be the “gods” of the OASIS. Each of them is a white, heterosexual, man.
The OASIS User Council consists of two people, a President and a Vice-President, who are elected by the users of the OASIS. In the book, the president is Cory Doctorow and the vice-president is Wil Wheaton – two white, heterosexual, men, who have been in those two elected positions “for close to a decade”. I have nothing against either one of those guys. But, why couldn’t one of those two elected positions be held by Brianna Wu, or Zoey Quinn, or Carol Shaw, or Kate Mulgrew?
Art3mis is a good example of what I mean when I said the female characters in Ready Player One are interesting, and that Cline presents them in problematic ways. Art3mis has chosen an avatar that is “plus-size”, and created a popular line of clothing for other “plus-size” avatars. In addition, she’s got a ton of fans who watch her channel. (I think it’s called a POV, or point of view, in the book.) Art3mis is smart, creative, and is as knowledge about 1980s pop culture as Wade is. Art3mis is also something of a celebrity in the OASIS.
Wade doesn’t see this, though. He has a huge crush on Art3mis (which started long before he actually met her in the OASIS). Wade likes that Art3mis chose to be “plus-size” in this virtual world – because he dislikes the super skinny female avatars and the female avatars who have exaggerated porn star bodies. In short, Wade has a fetish that he’s entirely unaware of. If Art3mis had selected a skinny avatar, Wade might not have become obsessed with her.
Wade stalks Art3mis. He watches her channel as much as possible and reads all her blog posts. Wade steals every photo she posts and collects them in a folder so he can look at them whenever he wants to. The very first time Wade has an online chat with Art3mis, he pushes her to get into a virtual room with him, instead of the text chat they are using to talk to each other with. She declines.
Not long after that, Wade tells her “I’ve had a crush on you since even before we met. From reading your blog and watching your POV. I’ve been cyber-stalking you for years.” (It’s on page 170 in the Trade Paper version of the book.)
This is not cool, or romantic, or acceptable at all. Wade is creepy! He tells Art3mis this after she has pointed out that they are competitors and that he doesn’t really know anything about her (including what she really looks like). She responds to his creepy revelation that he is her stalker by, again, pointing out that Wade doesn’t really know anything about her. He insists that he does know her because “This is the OASIS. We exist as nothing but raw personality in here.”
Wade is not listening to what Art3mis is saying. At all. Wade is dangerous. There’s an informative article on WebMD that states: “Stalkers are lonely and lack self-esteem, yet they feel very, very important.” The article includes the following paragraph:
According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, 370,000 men are stalked annually — one in 45 men. More than 1 million women are stalked every year; about one in 12 women will be stalked in her lifetime.
The article describes various types of stalkers. Wade fits the description of “The intimacy-seeking stalker”. “They believe they are loved or will be loved by the victim. Often they focus on someone of higher social status. This person is mentally ill and delusional.” The article advises people who are being stalked to avoid directly telling the stalker that they don’t want anything to do with them. By rejecting that person, the article says, there is a chance of violence.
Eventually, Art3mis joins a social circle of Gunters that includes Wade. She can’t really get away from him without isolating herself from this unique group of people that she shares a common interest with.
I found myself feeling anxious whenever Art3mis and Wade were in the same place or talking in a chat together. His crush escalates, and he eventually tells Art3mis that he is in love with her. He does this shortly before…I’m gonna say a battle takes place… and Art3mis is able to safely escape from Wade. She actively avoids him after that.
I spent most of the book hoping that Wade and Art3mis would not become a couple at the end of the story. I have concerns that some young men who read Ready Player One, and who are already unbalanced, will assume that stalking is perfectly acceptable. I don’t think I’m the only woman who read this book who found Wade’s stalking disturbing.
None of the female characters in the book are presented very well. It is strange, because these characters are interesting, and unique, and detailed – but, somehow, Cline failed to write them into the story in a way that uses their full potential.
Kira is an example of the stereotype of the “quintessential geek girl” (page 119 in the Trade Paper book). She is described (by Ogden Morrow) as being “unabashedly obsessed with Monty Python, comic books, fantasy novels, and videogames.” Most of the characters in Ready Player One are into video games, comic books, and 1980s movies. It would make sense for Morrow, and Halliday, to befriend a girl who liked the same stuff that they did.
All of them are geeks. But, no one in the book is described as the “quintessential geek boy”. This is a problem!
Descriptions like that serve as a way to “other” girls and women who like comics, video games, and other geek stuff. It is used as a form of gatekeeping and distancing. Women who are “quintessential geek girls” are seen by their male peers as either the exception to what most women are like – or as a potential girlfriend.
It’s not a compliment. It’s a way of reinforcing the idea that only men can truly be geeks. It turns women who are equally geeky as their male peers into a “unicorn”. “You’re not like those fake geek girls”.
Or, it is used as an impossible standard that enables men who are geeks to keep women who are geeks out of participating in geek culture. Men who believe there are “quintessential geek girls” are the guys who stop a woman who is wearing a Captain American t-shirt and insist that she answer a dozen questions about the character from memory, on the spot.
Oddly enough, I really liked the Ogden Morrow character. He seemed warm, and welcoming, with a quirky sense of charm and a strong moral code. So, when Morrow wrote that he saw Kira as the “quintessential geek girl” – it feels awkward and out of character. I think this is an example of Ernest Cline unintentionally letting us know that he sees women who like geek stuff as less than their male peers.
As a note, I didn’t know anything about Ernest Cline before I started reading Ready Player One, and I intentionally avoided reading anything online about him. What I think of his book comes entirely from my perceptions of the book itself.
Then, there’s Aech, who becomes Wade’s best friend. The two of them play video games together, talk about Halliday’s “Easter egg”, and eventually have personal conversations about girls. Aech can “trash talk” as well as any other guy who he invites into his OASIS 1980s basement. In the OASIS, anyone can choose to look like whatever they want to – unless they are students, who are restricted to looking like a human. Aech is a student who looks and sounds like a male, white, high-schooler.
Toward the end of the book, it is revealed that the “in real life” person behind the Aech avatar is an African-American who is about the same age as Wade. Her real name is Helen, and she happens to be a lesbian. This makes Aech one of three people of color (the other two are Japanese guys), and one of two women, who turned out to be very successful Gunters. Kudos to Ernest Cline for creating a diverse group of main characters, and doing it in a way that felt very natural.
When Wade first meets Helen, he isn’t sure how to react. I could feel myself holding my breath as I waited to read whatever Wade was about to say. It was a relief that Wade continued to see Aech as his buddy, and accepted Helen for who she was. He didn’t reject her, or feel like she had been deceiving him.
Helen briefly shares with Wade why she chose a white, male, heterosexual avatar. In short, she did that to avoid experiencing the discrimination that she would have had to put up with if she presented herself in the OASIS as an African-American lesbian.
On the one hand, I think Aech made a good decision that seems to have worked out well for her. On the other… I feel so sad that, in 2040, African-American people, and people who are LGBT, are still facing discrimination in virtual (or online) spaces. Granted, Ready Player One is a dystopia, I get that.
I just wish that readers could have learned more about Helen earlier in the story. There isn’t much time left after this “big reveal” before the main characters prepare for an epic battle.
The end of the story, like the end of many video games, focuses on an gigantic, fantastic, fast-paced battle. I will leave readers to discover the details about that for themselves. All I will say is that I found it to be exciting, with some extremely unexpected strategic decisions utilized.
Overall, I think that Ready Player One is worth reading, because some of the characters are absolutely wonderful. I enjoyed all the geek references to things I read, watched, or played in the 1980s. That being said, I hate that Wade is a stalker, and strongly disliked that this was being presented as a romantic situation. It makes my skin crawl.
I adore both Art3mis and Aech, (and also Ogden) and would have liked to see some chapters from their viewpoint. By the time I was done, part of me wanted to rewrite the story and have Aech and Art3mis become best friends. Maybe they could become the next President and Vice-President of the OASIS User Council.
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