To say that Ernest Cline’s new novel is the literary-fiction equivalent of VH1’s I Love the 80’s series may not sound like a compliment, but we mean it as one. Cline narrates this sci-fi adventure as much with nostalgia as with words, using pop culture shorthand to trigger memories and emotions embedded in the psyche of a generation. A noise is described as the transformation sound effect ”lifted from the old Super Friends cartoon.” A group of workers ”looked like extras from THX 1138.” If it’s easy to get lost in such references, that’s the point. This is about a future that disappears amid the glorification of the past.
Ready Player One is set in 2044, in an impoverished, dystopian America. The only escape is a vast virtual-reality simulation game deeply saturated with geek obsessions from the 1970s and ’80s: Star Wars, Atari, Dungeons & Dragons, and John Hughes, to name a few. (The book names a lot more. Like, all of them.) The virtual world was created by James Halliday, one of the real world’s richest men, who recently died. His fortune and digital kingdom will be awarded to whoever can complete a series of hidden quests assembled from a hodgepodge of his favorite childhood movies, games, TV shows, and songs.
And so our hero, a poor, lonely high school kid named Wade (a.k.a. Parzival, his online handle named after an Arthurian knight who sought the Holy Grail), studies these geek texts the way a monk studies scripture. Naturally, he’s the first to crack one of the riddles, and begins a race not just to take over this high-tech Willy Wonka’s dream factory but also to beat a merciless tech company, IOI. Upping the stakes, IOI aren’t content to kill avatars — they’ll also execute you in real life, if they can find you.
If the many pop references don’t mean anything to you, then Ready Player One probably won’t either. But give Cline credit for crafting a fresh and imaginative world from our old toy box, and finding significance in there among the collectibles. To use a reference Parzival might appreciate: Cline strikes the nerves of nerd culture as expertly as Andy played that skeleton organ in The Goonies. A-