Ready Player One, about a video game Easter Egg hunt with life-or-death stakes, wears its influences proudly. The references to various other sci-fi/fantasy, including but hardly limited to Neuromancer and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, feel variously like witty meta-fiction or loving homage. Unfortunately, they also stop the novel from ever finding its own voice.
This is 80s-child geek culture whizzed in a blender: old-school video games, Monty Python, and John Hughes movies all play a role. And it’s undeniably sweet for anyone of a certain age and a certain (nerdy) mindset. I found Ready joyously compulsive as I was reading it, but now that I’ve finished it… I’m almost beginning to forget why I liked it.
At its best, Ready is a thrilling adventure ride (sold as a movie before its publication, and gosh you can see why). At its worst, Ready feels like one long in-joke. There were times when I genuinely felt like I was reading fanfiction for a movie I’d never seen.
As a nerdy homage, it’s successful. (I’d give it kudos on AO3!) But, as a novel, it’s merely serviceable. A lot of the characterization is achieved in shorthand, while the central love story is told rather than shown.
What’s more, the apparently dire state of the world in Ready’s dystopian future is mere background noise, never developed by Ernest Cline into anything more than the equivalent of one of those Oxfam ads featuring wretched African children. Cline introduces some big themes, but never really finds anything profound to say about them. His conclusion, that everyone should just log off the internet and go outside, is laughably simplistic.
Negatives aside, I did like Ready. I found it worth my time and my money. But rather than recommend it to others, it made me want to re-read and recommend better books. Start with Neuromancer. Then move on to Little Brother…