I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Could it be? Do mine eyes deceiveth me? After a few months of sporadic updates are we actually getting two updates in one week?” If that’s not what you’re thinking, you’re probably thinking something along the lines of, “Honestly? Another fucking book report?” Just bear with me. I’ve been busy, for fuck’s sake! The holiday season will take the fight right out of you and what has felt an awful lot like Major Depression or at the very least Seasonal Affective Disorder has pretty much sapped my will to watch horror movies and there isn’t a whole hell of a lot that I’ve really given a shit about lately. Everything I watch has sucked except for the few TV shows that I’ve been keeping up with. Every time I try to write anything, I get a thousand words in and find that I hate every single one of them. Bummer, I know. I’ll cut the shit.
I was once interviewed by a writer from one of the local free papers about horror in literature and comics and the then-sudden resurgence in books and comics about zombies. Because I’m local horror blogger numero uno in New Hampshire, the conversation inevitably drifted toward my favorite horror novels because I’m such a strong local resource in matters such as these. I was confronted with a problem, however. With the exception of my eternal devotion to H.P. Lovecraft, I don’t really read much horror. My bag when it comes to books is science fiction. Truth be told, at the time I didn’t read much at all. When it comes to lit I’m easily distracted and my progress when reading is typically very slow so it’s very easy for me to throw my hands up and shake off the entire notion of reading, leaving me to feel like some kind of moron because I can’t seem to make it through four hundred measly pages. Then one night I find myself in the home office of author Joe Hill (Locke & Key, Horns) and he shows me ‘The Shelf of 10′, an OCD collection the next ten books he’s going to read and the next ten movies he’s going to watch. In order. At first it strikes me as a little weird and then it clears a bit and strikes me as the sort of thing a working author might need since free time is a valuable commodity when you’re as busy as a Bram Stokers award winning author but then it dawns on me. Maybe this is what I need. A little organization coupled with the same force of will it took to quit smoking to pick ten books I want to read in order and then marry myself to that list. I go on and on about it but there’s a thin line between a self-effacing sense of humor and an obnoxious line of self pity. So maybe I don’t need to be so down on my reading habits. I just need a code to follow. I quickly put together a list on Goodreads and got to work. I began with Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, a title that I’ve seen tossed around liberally in the Twitter feeds of Wil Wheaton, Cory Doctorow and Patton Oswalt. With some of my favorite nerd-culture gurus namechecking it, I figured I ought to knuckle down and check it out. I couldn’t have been happier with this decision. Kicking off my own personal Shelf of 10 got me off to a good start and gave me the momentum to roll into another title right away.
Such is the way with a lot of speculative fiction with a sci-fi bent, it’s the future and the future sucks a dick, man. Fuel shortages, staggering unemployment, rising crime and widespread poverty have made America a really terrible place to live. An MMORPG called OASIS was developed several decades back as a competitor to World of Warcraft and then evolved into a deeply immersive front end for the entire internet. So if you’d like to party up and raid a dungeon, you can do that but you can also go to school there and spend your day in a huge library called Wikipedia. The designer of OASIS is James Halliday, an amalgamation of Richard Garriot and Steve Jobs and as our story begins, Halliday has died and released his last will and testament to all users of OASIS promising his entire estate, hundreds of billions of dollars and the entire company behind OASIS to the one person who can find three keys that open three gates in OASIS, each hidden cleverly with a series of clues. Halliday, being devoted to 80′s pop culture, laces his quest with obscure and deeply nerdy references to 80′s music, movies, video games and role playing games. The OASIS community springs into action and for years, Egg Hunters search OASIS for the first key before giving up, leaving behind only the most dedicated of the Gunters. Key among these is Wade Watts, Parzival, a teenager living in the oppressive settings known as the Oklahoma City stacks, literally towering stacks of RVs. Watts devotes his life and every available neuron to memorizing the life and times of James Halliday and every piece of 80′s pop culture, significant or insignificant so that he can escape his dire situation and live a life of luxury. Like everyone, he spends all his time in OASIS and has befriended other Gunters in the quest for Halliday’s keys. After years of no results, Parzival finally makes a crucial connection and makes his way to the first key, tipping off Gunters everywhere and a race begins to find the other keys as Wade and his friends struggle against the Sixers, agents of a tyrannical ISP that wants the OASIS all for themselves, feeling as though Halliday and his company never took full advantage of OASIS’ financial potential.
Ready Player One is making the rounds on blogs and lit review sites everywhere, garnering praise for what is, essentially, VH1′s I Love The 80′s couched in classic cyberpunk conventions. It’s a clever bombardment of pop culture with plenty of explorations of The Net with a heaping dose of ‘jacking in’. Every single page is saturated with nods to old school video gaming, John Hughes movies, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Saturday morning cartoons, etc. I mean this shit is nonstop. From cover to cover, you’ll be overwhelmed with nostalgia and that’s sometimes the problem. Protagonist and his friends, are drawn up to be complete characters with compelling stories of their own taking pace in a dreary, nasty setting that’s as compelling as our main characters and their motivations but all of these positive qualities are constantly contending with Cline’s constantly winking eye and nudging elbows, trying to remind those of us who grew up in that bygone era of how cool things used to be and while I don’t necessarily disagree – being a kid in the 80′s fucking ruled – There’s a lot at play in Ready Player One and it’s constantly being drowned out by lengthy walks down memory lane with regards to the Atari 2600. This quality is not a deal breaker. Hardly, in fact. It’s just a bit tedious and because the book’s main trait becomes its constantly shifting pattern of nostalgia, the second act sags as the tragedy builds among a rising tide of Family Ties and Wargames references. I won’t lie, though, a sprawling homage and an entire gameworld devoted to Rush’s album 2112 brought a huge smile to my face.
Mildly negative criticism aside, though, Ready Player One is hard to put down once you get started. Few books have ever driven me as hard as this one and the fact that it’s so deftly written and swiftly plotted makes it easy to hurtle to the finish line, all the while dreading the inevitable conclusion. Cline’s characterization of the extremely resourceful and quick witted Wade Watts left me wanting to live in his collapsing world forever in spite of its fatal flaws. As long as it was possible to log in to a game where I could have a physical fight with Godzilla and pilot the Milennium Falcon around as my personal mode of transportation, that is. Books don’t often make my heart race in anticipation nor do they often make me laugh out loud. The only other book to hold such titles is Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.
Look, it’s a few days after Christmas and I’m sure you’re sitting there with at least one gift card to a major book retailer or there’s a local indie shop in your neighborhood that could use your cash. Why don’t you grace them with your patronage and ask the person at the counter for a copy of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. The nostalgia net is cast so incredibly wide that no nerd fetish escapes its gravity and if you’re reading this – and my analytics are correct – you’re probably just the right age for this book to properly tweak your 80′s nostalgia gland. It’s fast, it’s furious and it’s a lot of fun. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Take my fucking word for it.