Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011) after reading the glowing review of the book on Boing Boing. We had been talking about reading something genre-y, and Cline is from Austin, so it seemed like a nice idea to support a first-time local author. I can't say I loved it as much as Boing Boing did, but although it has a few flaws, this is overall a solid piece of science fiction with nicely drawn characters and a fast-moving plot.
Ready Player One is set in a mid-century America (the 2050s not the 1950s) that is feeling the dire effects of a failing economy, environment, and social structure. Unemployment is off the charts, there is hardly any fuel, and crime and drugs are everywhere. No one seems to mind all that much, though, because everyone is plugged into the OASIS, an immersive virtual reality / Internet / gaming world that was invented by James Halliday. When Halliday dies in 2044, he surprises everyone by leaving his entire fortune and the control of the OASIS to whomever can solve the game he created (filled with references to the 1980s, the decade he grew up in) and find the Easter Egg he has hidden in the OASIS. People go crazy trying to solve his first riddle and find the first of the three keys, but years pass and soon most people lose interest or start to think that the whole thing is unsolvable. A sub-set of super nerd egg hunters (or "gunters") obsess over the puzzle and fill endless message boards with their research. And a giant evil corporation, Innovative Online Industries, puts together its own team of ringers to try and win the contest so it can subvert Halliday's intentions and use the OASIS for its own evil purposes. Then our hero, the 18-year-old orphan, Wade Watts, finds the first key.
Wade is a classic underdog: he has no parents, no money, lives with a mean aunt in a giant slum of stacked trailers outside of Oklahoma City, was beat up at school until he got hooked up with one of Halliday's projects to provide public education in the OASIS (and got free equipment to access his account), and spends most of his time in his hideout (a van deep inside a giant pile of abandoned cars). Wade focuses as little of his energy as possible on the real world and spends all of his time watching 80s movies, playing 80s video games, and reading about everything that James Halliday was ever interested in. He has one friend, Aech, who is a fellow gunter, and an unrequited crush on a girl gunter/blogger named Art3mis. When he finds the first key, his avatar becomes famous, and things really start rolling.
Cline does a good job of giving his reader enough context that even a non-geek can read through the reams of 1980s geek culture references in Ready Player One and keep up, but I think I would have gotten a lot more out of this book if I had that video game experience in my past, and if I had some kind of World of Warcraft-esque contemporary multi-player questing experience. I have a little bit of geekiness in my background -- my dad was always into computers and we had a VIC-20 while I was growing up that I would type programs into from a little book. As our computers got better, I got really into freeware games that I could order through the mail, especially text-based adventure games, and I spent many high school evenings logging into a local BBS (shout out to Cyperspace in Lincoln, NE!) that could host 20 people at a time on its message boards, chat rooms, and extremely popular trivia contests. No pictures back in those days, kiddies, just words! The local modemers would have midnight coffee meet-ups once a week, and once I was 16 with a job and a car, I would join the group. I was easily 10 years younger than everyone else there, and one of only a few women, but the modemers were always gentlemen and I got some more exposure to the world of the geek while watching them play Magic, prepare for Renaissance Faires, and have exhaustive debates about Star Trek. But while I was sitting right next to the ultra geek culture, I never really embraced it. I haven't really watched the shows and movies, I never played Dungeons and Dragons, and while I have sci-fi inclinations, they are rather unfocused. The big hole in my geek experience is video games -- beyond the text-based adventure games, I really have never played any video games seriously at any point in my life.
Beyond the slew of references, I don't always like Cline's writing style which sometimes seems to simple for his subject matter and can get a little ham-fisted when addressing larger social issues -- a friend mentioned that this might have worked better as a young adult novel, and I really agree with that. Cline also suffers from what I like to call Cory Doctorow-itis. I like Boing Boing too, but there is a certain holier-than-thou / know-it-all geekiness factor that oozes from those guys, and I can draw some parallels between the things that irked me about Cline's books with the things that irk me about the Doctorow I've read.
Style issues aside, Cline sets up a classic good vs. evil plot with a dash of young romance, coming of age, and rags to riches, that all builds to a satisfying conclusion. His vision of the future is inventive and smart, and as a reader I was never bored. Definitely recommended for science fiction fans, and fans of Cory Doctorow.