Somewhere in the distant past, a revolutionary technological change altered the state of mankind irrevocably. The discovery of writing and the possibility of preserving thoughts across the generations created new possibilities and caused anxiety for the traditional method of knowledge transfer. After all, what need is there of a teacher if one can read the works of great men of the past? Mankind, however, moved on and has found writing to be a blessing to existence. A further revolution came about when Gutenburg developed the moveable type printing press, enabling cheap creation of books and pamphlets for the first time in western history. His invention, coinciding with other historical developments of the Renaissance, sparked an intellectual flourishing which contributed to the Reformation. Today, it is hard to imagine a world where books had to be chained to desks to protect them from thievery.
In his novel Ready, Player One, Ernest Cline addresses questions of modern technology and its impact on human relationships. In one of the best examples of the science-fiction novel as a novel of ideas, Cline blends the creation of a unique world, themes of isolation, friendship, and gender with the creation of a literature of the 1980s. Through this story, Cline argues that ultimately humans are the same creatures regardless of technology, and are still “designed to live in a polis.”
Cline posits a world where a videogame designer develops a completely immersive online experience with infinite expansion capabilities. In the world of his novel, the OASIS has become as integral for life in the 2040s as Facebook has become today. Businesses, schools, and pleasure all take place in the OASIS. The designer, James Halliday, dies and in his death leaves a set of clues to the ultimate treasure: $240 billion, and control of the OASIS. The novel follows the protagonist as he solves the riddles, and ultimately defeats the evil corporation.
This novel could be read in a variety of ways. There is a contrast established between the free-range programmers who establish a capitalistic environment vs. the corporation which wants to turn the OASIS into a regimented marketing scheme. Halliday is contrasted with a friend named Ogden. Where Halliday is uncomfortable in social settings, Ogden thrives. Halliday’s anti-social nature drives him to build an intricate escape. The novel also contains a picture of online education worked out in detail, a vision which educators might appreciate.
Where Ready, Player One achieves something beyond the typical cyber-punk or space opera thriller, however, is its question of friendship. In the age of social media, western society is currently wrestling with what it means to be a friend. Could two individuals have a true friendship, but never physically meet? Is physical proximity necessary for friendship? The same questions apply to romance – an entire dating industry has developed connecting people through the internet. Cline points out the ability to deceive. At one point, Wade (the protagonist), finally meets his best friend Aech (pronounced like saying the letter “h”). They have been friends for six years through the OASIS, but as the novel climaxes they must meet in person. Wade then discovers that Aech is neither white, male, nor hetero-sexual but a black, overweight lesbian. Wade is taken aback, and feels a moral obligation to set aside his prejudices and accept Aech. He does this, and comes to see their friendship as a superior one, operating on a purely mental level unbothered by biological realities.
If friendship is complicated in the virtual age, romance becomes even more so. Wade falls deeply in love with a girl who goes by the screen name Art3mis, named for the Greek virgin goddess of the hunt. Wade is happy to date and profess love in the OASIS, but Art3mis is unwilling; if they have never seen one another, it’s not real. By the conclusion of the novel, they meet. Cline also emphasizes the connection between honesty and romantic love – because both Wade and Art3mis built their digital personas to resemble their actual selves, they did not have to overcome layers of deception.
By the conclusion of the novel, Cline concludes the both friendship and romance can begin in virtual space, but for the fullest realization of these human relationships they must also manifest in the physical world. He raises important questions in an era changed by Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. How will humans relate to one another with the possibility of digital interactions? Cline both highlights the complexities of friendship and romance, and points towards a solution in Ready Player One.
While addressing heavy themes and complicated moral dilemmas, Cline also has enormous fun using film, music, and pop culture references from the 1970s and 1980s. To solve the riddles and find the treasure, characters must learn all there is to know about the films and music loved by Halliday. The OASIS is populated by men and women of 2040s who are enacting a Renaissance of the 1980s. Players apply all the tools of literary studies to films, comics, books, and movies from 80s, certain that mastering this era will reveal Halliday’s clues. I find the idea of applying literary studies to such a field fascinating, and wonder if it points to the ongoing relevance of literature regardless of content.
A final fascinating element in Ready Player One is the religious component. The novel opens with Wade explaining that in the OASIS he learned the truth – that God is a lie, and evolution is the Truth. Throughout the remainder of the story, however, he develops his own religion. He has a sacred text – the diary of James Halliday – which he memorizes. He has a body of inspired literature – the films and music of the ‘80s – through which he interprets his life. And he has a God-figure who created the OASIS universe and is offering him a chance for eternal happiness – James Halliday. As Wade gets deeper into the contest, he even develops ascetic habits to enhance his performance in the contest. This quasi-religious structure also explains why Wade and Art3mis remain chaste. Neither articulates any morality of sex, but in the religion of OASIS, sex is a distraction from achieving the divine goal of winning the contest. To add in the religious overtones, Wade uses the screen name Perzival, derived from Percival, one of the knights of Arthur’s court who achieved the holy grail. For all his rejection of religion as an “opiate of the masses,” Wade constructs his own religious system complete with a deity, sacred text, liturgical duties, and purpose for his life.
While science fiction owes much to the many pulp formulas writers who fill the shelves of used bookstore, finding an author who uses allusions, plot structure, and wit to create a unique and enjoyable world is a pleasure. Cline achieves this in Ready Player One. He wrote a novel which can be read just for the story, which is certainly satisfying. For the reader who enjoys dialoging with an author, Cline is a helpful conversation partner when considering the ways online media affect our relationships. Ready Player One can stand alongside works by Stranger in a Strange Land or Cat’s Cradle as science fiction novels of ideas.