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Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One

This is a wild ride that seems to sneak into every corner of your brain. OK - I am a geek, and one who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, roughly contemporary with the character of James Halliday, who in the book created the most amazing and pervasive system that combines MMORPG with VR and social network and even e-learning... So I 'get' (or should that be 'grok' - or perhaps not, the one bit of pop culture that's neglected is the written word) just about every reference, even most of the videogame ones, despite my only ever becoming competent at a single one... which, of course, turns up at the heart of the final challenge!

The story is simple: geeky deprived kid figures out a puzzle that's baffled thousands if not millions of people ostensibly brighter and certainly better-resourced than he is, wins the prize and the girl. But the way in which it is told is as immersive as getting online in the OASIS system, engulfing you with 1980s icons such as D&D's Tomb of Horrors module, early primitive videogames and classic SF movies in a swirling synthesis that resonates with so many memories. Whilst I have the edge of having lived through the rise of the videogame, seen my characters fall in the Tomb, watched the movies and coded early websites, it doesn't matter if you didn't... the references are never so obscure that you cannot find them out quickly even when they're not explained then and there, and the whole basis of the geek mentality, obsessing over the gathering of trivia about shared interests is familiar even to those who don't share it to quite that extent.

Even if I do have to confess that when I got to the segment based on Tomb of Horrors I didn't need to open my copy to know what would come next... told you I'm a geek, and one with an eidetic memory come to that!

Never mind first person shooter, the whole tale is told from the standpoint of the hero, the geek kid living in squalor, his prized possession his OASIS interface provided by the public school system, much of which has gone online - a whole planet-full of identical virtual schools in which real students enrol and guide their avatars through virtual halls... at least you don't get a wedgie or a swirly, even if there are as many jocks and rich kids and beautiful ones to be found here as in a real bricks and mortar school. And you can see it all in your mind's eye, as vividly as he - Parzival - sees it projected onto his retinas.

The characters, too, are richly portrayed, be they real or virtual; both Parzival's friends and rivals, you have no difficulty imagining that this could all be... I was about to say 'real' but is that the right word for a virtual reality? There's a sense of 'this could be' - even one of wishing it was... this encapsulates a lot of the magic that is found in a shared world, one based on common knowledge and pursuits, that can be referenced and argued about with the passion that we geeks reserve for what we all like: and this book has joined the list.

For the role-player: If you play any of the 'cyberpunk' genre games, there's plenty that could be incorporated - you could even run the entire plotline for your players, or create your own adventures that mix real and virtual worlds in a similar manner. Even if you shy away from the online part of things in your games, there's flavour in abundance to be had.

Return to Ready Player One page.

Reviewed: 17 August 2011