November 25, 2012
I like to listen to podcasts, lectures, and audiobooks as I hike. My two hikes on Thanksgiving Break 2012 were accompanied by a fantastic audiobook of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I’ve heard about this book, often described as a “nerdgasm”, repeatedly on technology podcasts and online articles. It blends the Willy Wonka plot device from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with the virtual reality of Snow Crash and mixes in heaping helpings of 1980s nerd culture. Sounds scrumptious, except that I’ve never been much of a video game player and the plot revolves around them.
But there have been repeated rave reviews and I succumbed when I saw the audiobook was narrated by actor and author Wil Wheaton. His irreverent nerd humor blossomed after his early years as the cute protagonist of Stand By Me and annoyingly written Ensign Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Wil has earned much “cred” with me from his enjoyable books Just a Geek: Unflinchingly honest tales of the search for life, love, and fulfillment beyond the Starship Enterprise along with Memories of the Future – Volume 1, the latter being a hilarious send-up of the first half of the first season of The Next Generation. (Hey Wil, we want more!) I’ve also enjoyed Wil’s brief stint co-hosting a slick technology webcast and his fun appearances on The Guild, the hilariously nerdy independent sitcom web series about a group of online gamers, which stars Felicia Day.
Yes, I’m hyperlinking in this article like crazy, because that was what listening to Wil’s splendid rendition of Ready Player One was like for me; time and again the plot drew upon nerdy experiences from my youth, popping out in my mind with hyperlinks to memories from my junior high years into college.
The author, Ernest Cline, embedded his own favorite nerdy experiences into the plot, and many of them match up well to my own:
- He had a Color Computer 2 and references the Dungeons of Daggorath game from that system; that was my second personal computer (preceded by an original TRS-80 Color Computer) and I hand coded in BASIC my own graphical adventure game for it during my freshman year in college. (And though the source code is long gone, I still have an old VHS videotape walkthrough of it which I recorded back in the day.)
- He prominently features the classic arcade games Joust and Pac-Man, which are among the very few I enjoyed with my severely limited skill set.
- The Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game’s adventure module Tomb of Horrors is replicated in the story, and I was a dungeon master for that module back in high school.
- His story utilizes characters and situations from such classic science fiction movies and personal favorites like The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the 8th Dimension, Brazil, War Games, Blade Runner, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, Heathers, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (of course!), and on and on as delineated here. I already own most of those movies on DVD (or, in the case of War Games, VHS!).
- Cline draws upon some of my own televised guilty pleasures like Ultraman and at least name-checks my favorite Henshin show: Gatchaman, which I can assure you is best watched in the original Japanese version and not the bowdlerized Battle of the Planets. You’ll be surprised to find who Zoltar’s sister really is when you watch him as Berg Katse! [I’m racking up nerd points here.]
For me the story was a sweet nostalgic romp with a fast-paced storyline and several characters one could relate to and care about, even though they were virtual avatars most of the time. However, the two Japanese characters were clichés, and perhaps that is part of the humor: Wheaton’s portrayal of them is straight but his accent is tongue-in-cheek. In fact, Wheaton’s narration was a major contributor to my enjoyment of the book, especially when he would alter his voice to briefly imitate an old computer game. His enthusiastic and youthful reading of the dialogue is spot-on for the characters driving the plot.
The book has a dark opening, in stark contrast to the virtual fun which abounds when the protagonist is online. Here’s an excerpt courtesy of NPR, but don’t worry, the whole book isn’t angry gloom and doom; Mr. Cline is just setting up a contrast for the fun that will follow. Think of the excerpt as the black-and-white Kansas you need for Oz to really pop when Dorothy opens the door…or, in Ready Player One, when Wade dons his haptic outfit to enter the OASIS online universe.
Cline is having too much fun to preach for very long about the dangers of our current pathways of global warming, class division, and online escapism; and thankfully he avoids providing any pat answers to the dilemma of the real world in his story – only the online simulation has a built-in deus ex machina, although one character is close to being one in the novel’s real world to set up the climax.
It took Cline years to write Ready Player One, so I won’t hope for another novel from him soon. But I hope he will someday tap into those reservoirs of nerdiness with another rollicking adventure.