Earlier this year, Patton Oswalt wrote an essay for Wired entitled “Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die.” In it, Oswalt warns that the world is on the brink of “Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever.” Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is a daring young-adult fiction book about what might happen in such a world.
The year is 2044, and the world is ravaged by economic collapse. The peak oil crisis has occurred, unemployment is at an all-time high (with a two-year wait for jobs in the fast food industry), global warming has destroyed the climate, and people live in abject poverty. Our protagonist, 18-year-old Wade Watts, lives with sixteen other people inside a trailer. The trailer is part of “the stacks” – a new type of ghetto on the outskirts of major cities in which trailers, RVs and shipping containers are stacked one on top of another, creating tall, precarious towers.
On the bright side, a nerd “über-deity”/computer genius named James Halliday has crafted the ultimate MMO: a haptic virtual world akin to the Stephenson’s metaverse, Gibson’s cyberspace, and World of Warcraft. The immersive environment, called OASIS, is accessed by everyone with a computer, and most people spend every waking second in it. In this world, education is free, space is nearly infinite, and every type of diversion exists to distract people away from their daily life.
One the day after James Halliday (born: 1979) dies, a recorded invitation gets sent to every player in OASIS. While Oingo Boingo’s “Dead Man’s Party” plays in the background, a recording of Halliday, digitally inserted into a scene of a John Hughes film, informs OASIS users that he has hidden an easter egg somewhere in the game. And that whoever finds it will inherit Halliday’s entire fortune of billions, his assets, his company, and rulership of OASIS.
The hunt is on. Teenagers race against an evil corporation to find the egg. In their search for clues, a new generation discovers the 80s culture that Halliday loved, the culture that inspired him to build his all-encompassing virtual world. From Blade Runner to Ultraman to the Commodore 64 to Dungeons and Dragons to Devo to Adventure and beyond, Halliday’s challenge produces an otaku culture the likes of which the world has never seen. But as the stakes get higher and people begin to die not only in OASIS but also in real life, it becomes clear that it’s not just a game, and that the future of civilization depends on the outcome.
It’s a wonderful book. Everyone should read it. Check out the excerpts on Ernest Cline’s site, where you can also purchase the book or e-book. The audiobook version is narrated by none other than “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Geek” author Wil Wheaton. A perfect match.