page updated on June 06, 2016
It's only fitting that cyberpunk was a movement of the '80s. Writers such as William Gibson (the Sprawl Trilogy), Bruce Sterling (Islands in the Net), and Pat Cadigan (Synners) brought to mind the apex of the Cold War, the global corporatism of the Reagan/Thatcher era, and the dehumanizing march of technology and automation. It was a chilling, anti-anti-septic reaction to the golden age of the Atom.
Then came the web.
Then Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash put cyberpunk to bed, pulling it all together louder, angrier, and more than ever before. The world grew accustomed to always-on broadband, with Wikipedia and Facebook and Moore's Law putting space age computing power in everyone's hands. We'd entered the cyberpunk age, where the only thing that was missing was the final Singularity step of complete immersion in virtual reality.
Then we forgot about it.
Sure, we had our MMOs: Ultima Online, World of Warcraft, Eve Online. We had our YouTube celebrities and our 24-hour news channels flashing our Tweets on screen.
But where was the fun?
Someone in the house subscribed to Loot Crate and left Ready Player One (from the February 2015 crate) on the dining room table. A couple of days later, it was over.
The book hits almost every checkbox this reviewer could have wanted. A global treasure hunt? Check. A scrappy everyman protagonist adolescent loner who feels closest to his online friends? Check. Riddles built on the nostalgia of a child of the '80s? Check.
In the alternate history of the book, a pair of brilliant nerds, equal parts Wozniak, Carmack, Garriott, and Branson create the killer Internet application: true virtual reality inspired by the Metaverse and Cyberspace and Xanadu and, well, every RPG you can think of, including Rogue and Nethack. It's free. It's educational. It's everywhere, and everyone is on it.
Of course the tragedy of the commons strikes, and everyone wants to get their hands on the controls, including a multinational corporation with nefarious motives. (It's not quite Comcast or Verizon or AT&T, but imagine if they bought out the ATF and you're on the right track.)
Standard issue near-future dystopia, right? You've seen this before in Wall-E, right?
Throw in a treasure hunt. The richest man in the world—the Wozniak/Carmack/Garriott—shuffles off the mortal coil, leaving only his avatar and the world's biggest treasure hunt: decipher his riddles and gain control of the multiverse. Godlike powers. Source code access. The on-off switch to the most important educational, commercial, communications tool the world has ever known.
You get the god-mode cheat codes.
If you were a child of the '80s—if you can hum the ending tune of The Breakfast Club, summon to your mind the initial maze of Pac-Man, remember the name of the robot in Short Circuit and the computer in War Games—you'll get the clues.
Sure, it's an obvious conceit. The story-outside-of-the-story of a dying man who wants everyone to experience what he loved the most is a thin veneer over an author who remembers his own childhood with fondness...
... but then again, who in the '80s would have thought that the actor behind the despised Wesley Crusher would go on to be the Vice President of the Internet (second in command to Cory Doctorow, of course)?
Maybe there aren't enough Alf references. Maybe there's not enough nostalgia for the blue and cyan hues of the Commodore 64. Maybe it's okay that ET makes no appearance, or there aren't any Star Wars action figures fighting GI Joe.
What you get is a scavenger hunt through some of the best (or most distinct) moments when cyberpunk was a mere warning, when the global Internet was for checking stock quotes, reading encyclopedia snippets online, and occasionally arguing Picard versus Kirk.
The world's not a gentle place. It's no Toontown. The main character locks himself in his tiny apartment, spray-paints the windows black, and has to program his network console to forbid him access until he's gone through an hour of exercise every morning (if there's a technology the world needs now, choose that one!).
However, as you should expect, his brains and tenacity and love of the world that made the world what it is today will win out.
In the hands of a less-skilled writer, references would be merely that: a laundry list of things that were popular thirty years ago. Yet Ernest Cline sets a good pace. You'll have trouble not telling yourself "Just one more chapter!" as you're lying in bed past midnight.
You should love video games. You don't have to remember lining up quarters on top of Pac-Man, Dragon's Lair, or Tempest. You don't have to know the air-speed velocity of a coconut-laden swallow. You don't have to remember to turn on the lantern to avoid being eaten by a grue.
But if you do, the smile that Ready Player One puts on your face will be just a little bit bigger.
Escape the near-future dystopia into a virtual reality treasure hunt populated by everything you love from the '80s: music, television, movies, and games.