book club: ‘ready player one’.

by Michael King

This summer, in New York City, I read a bit prolifically. I read The Gilded Razor, Sarah Silverman’s autobiography, and the ending pages of Love May Fail. As I sat on the train, reading these, I noticed a common novel in people’s hands: Ready Player One. One morning, following breakfast with my friend Phil, we traveled to McNally Jackson. There, I picked up my own copy.

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Ready Player One establishes its premise quickly: In a post-apocalyptic world, humans have found solace in an immersive virtual reality called the OASIS. The inventor of the OASIS, James Halliday, passes away, but he leaves behind a video message for OASIS participants. In it, he shares that he has decided to will his fortune to whomever can first clear three gates and obtain ‘the Egg.’ Naturally, the virtual world exploded with activity as everyone begins the hunt, but years pass without a single step of progress.

“Whenever I saw the sun, I reminded myself that I was looking at a star. One of over a hundred billion in our galaxy. A galaxy that was just one of billions of other galaxies in the observable universe. This helped me keep things in perspective.”

It’s important, I think, to say that reading Ready Player One might be a challenge for someone who doesn’t have some working knowledge of ‘gamer’ culture. The characters within the novel, including the leader character, are known by their OASIS character names: Parzival, Art3mis, Aech, etc. As lead character Parzival works his way through quest after quest, he picks up armor and takes on bosses – lichs, dragons, etc. – and this is all stated rather matter-of-factly. For readers with that knowledge, particularly as it pertains to the culture of the 1980’s United States, there’s no shortage of easter eggs to enjoy.

“Very well!” he said. “You shall prove your worth by facing me in a joust!” I’d never heard of an undead lich king challenging someone to a joust. Especially not in a subterranean burial chamber.
“All right,” I said uncertainly. “But won’t we be needing horses for that?”
“Not horses,” he replied, stepping away from his throne. “Birds.”

For me, Ready Player One took me outside of my normal literary fare. It is not overtly sentimental nor contemplative, and the story moves at a pretty swift pace. As I read, I considered how easily it might have been crafted into a miniseries, in the vein of The Hunger Games or the Divergent series. It is, perhaps, the literary equivalent of watching a Die Hard film.

“As we continued to talk, going through the motions of getting to know each other, I realized that we already did know each other, as well as any two people could. We’d known each other for years, in the most intimate way possible. We’d connected on a purely mental level. I understood her, trusted her, and loved her as a dear friend. None of that had changed, or could be changed by anything as inconsequential as her gender, or skin color, or sexual orientation.”

But don’t take that to mean Ready Player One has nothing important to say. As a post-apocalyptic novel, it gives warning to where our world could go if we don’t take better care of it. Perhaps predictably, it approaches themes of how much our lives can truly be lived through electronic means. And, in brief spots, it ruminates on love and identity and the parts of ourselves we conceal when we create digital identities. Even if you haven’t taken part in gamer culture, it’s more than likely you’ve built a digital profile on some social medium, some dating app. How do we present ourselves? What parts do we leave out?

Overall, Ready Player One was an engaging, inventive read. As soon as I finished it, I reached for something a bit more in my wheelhouse – something contemplative, vulnerable, and sentimental – but I enjoyed the quest with Parzival and his friends. And, somewhere along the way, I gave life some thought.

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