Note: This is a somewhat long review of the book Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. The short version is that if you are over 40 and you self-identify as a geek, you’ll love this book. Even if you are not over 40, you should check it out, but it will really resonate if you were a teenager during the 1980s. The following is as spoiler-free as I can make it, but if you are a purist, you might want to skip it.
I was first introduced to Ready Player One on the blog of Patrick Rothfuss. Usually, that is enough to make me at least check it out, but it was also item number three in Entertainment Weekly’s top ten list, and that surprised me since EW isn’t exactly known for its coverage of science fiction/fantasy.
Now before you start teasing me about reading EW (or even referring to it as “EW”) I don’t do it to keep up with the latest antics of Brittany Spears (she’s such a little scamp, isn’t she?). In my job it is sometimes a good idea to have some handle on popular culture, so now I know about that nice young man named Ted Situation who lives in New Jersey with his sister Snookie and they do that charity work on the coast. Plus, I keep it in the bathroom, and I find that the articles are the perfect length for the amount of time I spend there. Assuming I’m eating right, I can get through an issue in about a week, which is how often it is published.
Anyway, the basic plot is as follows: it is the year 2041, and the world is not a pleasant place. World economies have collapsed, the environment is a wreck and energy is scarce. Most people escape the drudgery of their lives in a online simulation called the OASIS (think Second Life crossed with World of Warcraft with a dash of Gibson’s Cyberspace). The creator of the OASIS is videogame designer James Halliday, who quite naturally is also one of the world’s richest men.
When the story opens, Halliday has just died. Having no heirs, he has placed his entire fortune, including a majority stake in the company that owns the OASIS, into an Easter Egg (extra, undocumented code put into a game or application) hidden in the simulation itself. The first person to find it, gets it. The story follows one such egg hunter (or “gunter”) as he searches for clues, all of which are based on things from the 1980s.
With that premise, I expected a nice little stroll down memory lane with nostalgia.
I did not expect nostalgia to punch me in the gut.
The book brought up memories of things I haven’t thought about in decades. For example, Halliday’s first video game console was an Atari 2600. My first video game console was an Atari 2600 – which I still have, by the way (and in the original box). At one point in the novel the plot involves Dungeons and Dragons, specifically a module called Tomb of Horrors. I can remember playing Tomb of Horrors. I didn’t remember it before reading the book, but as the scene was described I was thinking to myself “isn’t that the module with the sphere of annihilation at the end of the first corridor?” and sure enough, there it is, in the next paragraph.
I can also remember coming home from school and turning the antenna toward Charlotte to bring in this UHF station that carried Japanese shows (yes, kiddies, back in the day television came in over the air and not in on a little wire). One I remember involved a giant gold robot/rocketship named Goldar and his wife, a silver robot/rocketship named Silvar. Apparently that was The Space Giants. There was also an animated show involving a World War II era battleship flying through space. That, apparently, was Space Battleship Yamato.
There were also copious references to 80s music and movies, all of which really resonated with me. At one point the video game Tempest is referenced, and I was once part owner of a Tempest machine when I was at Harvey Mudd.
Cline even uses the term “open source” on a number of occasions. The bad guy in the novel is the IOI corporation, a services provider that has made a lot of money in the OASIS. From the book:
Like most gunters, I was horrified at the thought of IOI taking control of the OASIS. The company’s PR machine had made its intentions crystal clear. IOI believed that Halliday never properly monetized his creation, and they wanted to remedy that. They would start charging a monthly fee for access to the simulation. They would plaster advertisements on every visible surface. User anonymity and free speech would become things of the past. The moment IOI took it over, the OASIS would cease to be the open-source virtual utopia I’d grown up in.
Now the OASIS is in no way an open source product or platform. It just isn’t, but I so much prefer someone misinterpreting the term to mean “freedom” instead of “well, all I have to do is just expose the code”. The heroes in the book do embody a lot of what is sometimes called The Open Source Way in their behavior, goals and interactions with others.
Cline claims that the first ever Easter Egg can be found in the game Adventure for the Atari 2600. He states that back then, game designers were never recognized or given credit for their creations. This changed when Warren Robinett hid his name in Adventure.
There is a secret room in the game. In order to get to it, a number of things must happen. First, you have to retrieve a tiny, one pixel object hidden in a maze. Second, in the room next to the hidden room, you have to bring a number of objects (I think it is three). When you do this, the objects will start to flash. That has nothing to do with the Easter Egg but is instead an artifact due to the processor in the console being so slow that it couldn’t refresh more than two objects at a time. It is the same reason that the aliens in Space Invaders sped up as you kill them – the processor could then make fewer aliens move faster.
Once the barrier on the side of the room is flashing, and you have the “grey dot”, you can pass into a room that looks like this:
That was taken from my Atari Flashback machine – I didn’t want to have to dig out the old CRT television to hook up the original one I have.
Since so much of my enjoyment came from the fact that I lived through this time period, I am not sure how younger people will find the book. At one point in time I thought I’d figured out a plot point that would have really disappointed me (think deus ex machina) but I was wrong. I think the story stands enough on its own that geeks of all ages will enjoy it.