Ready Player One (2011) by Ernest Cline
I'm an idiot. I spent the whole of October working through a pile of supposedly 'light' books which often turned out to be anything but. Meanwhile, I'd been avoiding this, an almost-400-page novel about videogames (a subject I know next to nothing about and have never been much into) because, despite having heard very good things, I wasn't convinced it'd be to my taste. It turned out to be exactly what I'd been after for the past month - light and fluffy, incredibly readable, and fantastic fun.
The story is set in 2044. The real world is a mess: poverty, unemployment and drug addiction are widespread. The majority of people spend most of their time in the OASIS, a hybrid of a virtual reality simulation and an online multiplayer game, invented some years before by a pair of game programmers, James Halliday and Ogden Morrow. Halliday is now dead, but prior to his death he recorded a video message bequeathing his multi-billion-dollar fortune to anyone who can solve a number of clues and riddles he has programmed into the OASIS. 18-year-old Wade Watts, the protagonist and narrator, is one of the many thousands of OASIS users determined to attain this prize - they're known as 'gunters', short for 'Easter egg hunters', the prize being considered the ultimate videogame Easter egg. The twist is that Halliday had a lifelong obsession with the 1980s pop culture of his own youth, and so the clues, along with many of the numerous worlds within the OASIS, are focused entirely on said culture. This makes for a slew of references to 80s films and TV, music and, of course, games.
Familiarity with the cultural references would, I'm sure, enhance anyone's enjoyment of this book; I vaguely understood, rather than really 'got', most of them, but this wasn't particularly a problem. Regardless of whether you share the characters' (and, presumably, the author's) all-consuming obsession with the 80s, this is a wonderfully enjoyable adventure. In my eyes, it's primarily driven by its plot and characters, and is more of a traditional 'quest' kind of story than a meaningful vision of the future. I'm not sure I can see something like the OASIS becoming an integral part of life within the next few decades, although the idea of individuals' online lives increasingly taking precedence over their 'real' existence is more recognisable. In fact, all the meaningful relationships in Wade's life take place in the virtual world - he has never met his best friend, Aech, or the girl he has a crush on, Art3mis, and they only know him as his avatar, Parzival. Thankfully, despite all this online-only interaction, the book's portrayal of friendship and love is powerful and touching.
My only real problem with the story was the idea of Wade/Parzival, Art3mis et al being SO well-versed in every single piece of pop cultue from Halliday's entire life. No matter how much time they spent in the OASIS, these teenagers had to get an education, eat and sleep, and I just didn't see how it was physically possible for them to have amassed such knowledge (and to have remembered it all!) at such a young age. Wade mentions having watched certain 80s films over a hundred times, memorising the dialogue and actions of the characters. Alongside reading all of Halliday's favourite books and comics and playing endless videogames until he knew them by heart, how could he ever have had the time to accomplish this within the few years he'd been a gunter?!
Nevertheless, this is a minor concern, and after all this is a fun fantasy novel; it won't work if you take it too seriously. The language can be a bit annoying, but slang and abbreviations work much better here - many of the conversations are conducted via chatrooms - than they would in most fiction, since the context almost demands them. Ready Player One is everything an adventure novel should be: fantastical, exciting, involving and moving, complete with a great, heartwarming ending. It also conveys a rather unexpected, but very pleasing, message of equality. It's bound to be a big success, and I wouldn't be surprised if there's a sequel; if there is, I will happily read it. This was precisely what I needed after a long run of average and/or harrowing books - it was the most fun I've had reading in ages.