My water-damaged, crumpled copy of Ernest Cline's geek friendly science-fiction adventure Ready Player One certainly now looks like a vacation read, and as an entertaining ride that ultimately offers few challenges to the reader, a vacation read is probably the best summary of its qualities. In this case, appearance and reality coincide.
Which is not to say that the premise, an extended dive through a global virtual-reality game that has come to stand in for the Internet in search of a departed billionaire's fortune is not both intriguing and well-executed. The execution of the plot is pitch-perfect, and the near-future dystopia, in which the energy crisis and global warming have driven human beings into the refuge of a virtual world, is intriguing. But the game ultimately proves more compelling than the characters' fictional reality, and so as speculative fiction, Ready Player One falls short.
The quest for the Easter Egg buried in the vast, shared virtual-reality world of OASIS, which grants access to the entire game as well as its creator's legacy, is as much a tour of Geek culture as the story itself. No movie title or song goes by without its due, reverent, acknowledgement. The products of Eighties geek culture, from arcade games to D&D to Monty Python to John Hughes' movies, all get their moment on screen, but there's no lightness of touch or satire in Cline's relentless referencing. This means that, firstly, the culture is predominantly the dominant culture of US media and games, but that Cline also conveniently leaps over cyberpunk, over Willam Gibson (Neuromancer, 1984) over Philip K. Dick, over the all the science fiction and culture of the 80s and beyond that has taken the same ideas about reality and virtual reality, the real and the fake, but questioned them with much more rigor and effect.
The effect of this is that as speculative fiction, Ready Player One falls enticingly short. The real world of the novel, including stacks of mobile homes that make for compelling cover art on my water-damaged edition, with its collapsing energy economy, galloping inequality, and corporate slavery, is intriguing, but Cline never attacks these themes head on, and the ramifications of the tension between material realities and virtual realities are handled more predictably than analytically. Although Wade's online best friend does turn out to be black, female, and gay, rather than a white gamer bro, this is no surprise, and Wade's love interest remains "the girl", minor blemishes aside. Wade and his friends fight and hack a murderous corporate entity to win the prize, but the fact is the prize is.... control over an even more ubiquitous corporate entity.
The end of the novel makes a gesture towards rejecting the virtual reality that Wade has always used as an escape from a collapsing world, but this is only possible because Wade and his friends have mastered the Geekosphere and escaped from virtual reality to the even more tenuous reality of the ultra-rich. They may choose to save the world at this stage, but never ask what world, exactly, is worth rescuing. Other works in the same vein, such as Charles Yu's sardonic "Hero Absorbs Major Damage" (of which I hope to say much more) bring a sharper critical eye to bear in less space.
Which is not to diminish the fun of this airplane read, but only to observe that Ready Player One would be stronger, and more memorable, if its contemporary cyber-nostalgia was tempered with more of the spirit of cyberpunk.