Volume 30, Number 4, Summer 2012

Ready Player One

By Ernest Cline

Crown, 2012
Reviewed by Chris Hibbert

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One takes place mostly inside a virtual reality/MMORPG, though as usual with the recent spate of books in this genre, the action bleeds back and forth with physical reality. The setting is pretty familiar: it’s 2044, and the economy has bifurcated into haves and have-nots, and most people seem to spend the bulk of their time in the OASIS. James Halliday, the billionaire founder of the company that runs the OASIS has died, and has set up a contest inside the system that will determine who gets his company shares, his wealth, and control of the OASIS itself. It turns out Halliday was hugely into eighties trivia, and most of the story involves the main character, Parzival, and his on-line friends finding and devouring movie, music, video game, and science fiction trivia from that decade. If you’re not averse to geeking out on this stuff, it’s a fun romp.

Parzival is the first to find the Copper key, the first step on the quest that Halliday built. Others soon figure out how to backtrack on Parzival’s location which gives them the clues they need to follow on his trail. This starts a race to complete the quest and beat Innovative Online Industries, a company that wants to win the contest in order to exploit OASIS’s business possibilities. The action is fast-paced, the settings are widely varied, and I enjoyed the references to familiar games, movies, and bands. The character development is fairly shallow, with Parzival maintaining a close friendship with one fellow gamer and a crush on a female-named character that lasts throughout the story. He’s convinced he knows that it’s someone he could love in real life, and never takes seriously the idea that people can have very different personalities and appearance than their avatars.

The major element of libertarianism is that the central struggle is over whether the game’s virtual world will be under the control of the main character and his friends or the bad guys. If you think the OASIS will be all the reality that matters to most of its denizens, you might want to cast that as a struggle over governance. But the choice isn’t between any kind of freedom and some kind of authoritarianism; it’s between a faction that has one particular corporatist view of how things should be run, and another that has no explicit goals other than keeping the VR out of the other’s control. No mechanism is suggested for preventing the games’ owner from doing whatever he wants. Maybe that’s a libertarian outcome, in that it’s private property, but that’s not what the story’s struggle is about.

The science fiction element in this story, like a lot of this genre, is thin. The particular capabilities of the VR software are beyond what we can do today, but not very far. The economy and society depicted outside the OASIS aren’t a straight-line extrapolation from today, but they bear a strong resemblance to what some mild pessimists seem to expect.

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