Narrator: Wil Wheaton
Published by Random House Audio on 8/16/11
Genres: Science Fiction
It’s 2044 and the world is in an economic and ecological collapse. Mega corporations hold much of the power and the majority of the population disconnects from a depressing and failing physical world by donning special suits, gloves, and visors to immerse themselves in the globally-networked virtual reality known as OASIS. OASIS allows users to not only seek entertainment but also earn money, attend school, and live a virtual life without having to worry about fixing the real world they live in. This massive electronic world was created by James Halliday, a reclusive videogame designer obsessed with the 1980s. Upon his death Halliday’s unimaginable wealth and controlling stock in his company, Gregarious Simulation Systems, was put in escrow until the single condition of his will was met: someone had to find the “Easter egg” hidden in OASIS by completing a virtual quest for three keys. The quest begins with a riddle that has to be deciphered, leading the egg hunters (known as “gunters”) on an adventure that requires an in-depth knowledge of 80’s pop-culture to progress and pits them against their fellow gunters and against the corporate might of IOI (Innovative Online Industries) who wants control of OASIS. Wade Watts is an orphan living with his aunt in the stacks (think a vertical trailer park) and attending high school in OASIS. He’s a gunter known by his OASIS avatar’s name of Parzival. When Wade discovers the location of the first key, the race to complete the quest is on between him, his only friend Aech, another gunter named Art3mis, the gunter duo Shoto and Daito, and the minions of IOI.
Ready Player One is a enjoyable story with a likable protagonist in a future world that is uncomfortably plausible. As a woman who grew up in the 80s, fondly recalls programming on a TI-99 and backing it up to a cassette tape, played Zork, and who still occasionally starts singing “Conjunction Junction, what’s your function?” from the Schoolhouse Rock TV show there was a lot to feel nostalgic about in this book but even without that reference point, the story still stands on its own. I initially struggled to sink into the story. The book started with a lot of info-dumping and I prefer to discover the history of a world gradually through the character’s experiences. Getting the spiel in large chunks from Wade/Parzival was boring. I really liked the realism of how the world (or at least the U.S.) turned into the mess it is in the book because it was uncomfortably realistic and there were moments in the story when I was drawing direct parallels to current aspects of my life/country. The virtual world of OASIS was intriguing and had me wondering what it would be like to navigate a virtual reality.
While I found the audiobook a pleasant diversion, my biggest issue with it is that Wade/Parzival is a character who seems built completely out of wish fulfillment. He’s the geek who isn’t very adept socially and who has a single (virtual) friend. Through the course of the book, he gains money, boosts his character level and skills at a rapid clip, meets a girl, finds fame, tells off the corporations, is suddenly revealed as a particularly adept hacker (excuse me, that should probably be “l33t hacker”), and… I’ll leave you some mystery about whether he wins the prize and gets the girl. He’s also very chivalrous and has a strong sense of honor. All of those are fine qualities but don’t reflect a well-rounded character. That left all the dramatic tension residing in the good vs. evil / geeks vs. greedy mega-corporation paradigm, which I would have liked to be a little more nuanced. In the end, I enjoyed it but can’t rave about the book.
The narration was good. There wasn’t a lot of character voice differentiation via pitch which was a problem when the conversation was between multiple characters who were speaking in single short sentences but was less of an issue when multiple sentences were spoken by a single character because there was a very nice subtle differentiation according to the character’s personality. American and Japanese were the only accents used in the audiobook and the Japanese character voices were very nicely done in a manner that hinted at the accent rather than attempting a strong one. Wil Weaton has the ideal voice for this type of story, managing to capture the youthfulness of the main characters and the geeky nature of the world in which the story takes place.