Ernest Cline - Ready Player One
I was born on 1982. Which means that I was only 8 years old when the 1980s were over. My first personal computer came home on 1996. I never owned a game console.
And yet, one of the clearest memories of my childhood is the envy I felt for the kids who were playing at the the coin operated videogames in a bar I used to buy ice creams at. It was that sort of typical Italian bar including billiards, a television set, dusty football flags hanging on the walls, a bald bartender sweeping the counter always with the same cloth, old customers swearing, playing cards and ordering red wine or vermouth. Not a woman was on sight. The sort of bar made to stay forever unchanged, untouched by progress, unspoiled in its placid lull. But.
But at some point during the roaring geeky 1980s someone decided to push away a broken jukebox and a table from the dark corner at the left of the main entrance making little room for three mammoth-like coin operated videogames.
Don't ask me what videogames they were, because I don't remember it. What I do remember is that, due to some Italian law, kids who were under 14 couldn't play with these videogames. It was printed on the lower case of the videogames themselves, black over white:
VIETATO AI MINORI DI 14 ANNI
which meant and means
UNDER 14 NOT ADMITTED
I don't know how the bartender was supposed to check your age or if he ever bothered to do that, but I stuck to the law with that kind of sheepish respect for any given rule that shy, eye-glassed little kids may sometimes have.
I was forced to watch the other players play and sometimes I did, although those black screens where alien battleships were blown away, spiders from Mars killed and magic treasures discovered all in different beep variation were hard to spot from my poor 3 feet 9 inches tall perspective.
I remember how much the fact of being under 14 pissed me off at that time and what kind of magic aura of invincibility the self-proclaimed over 14 years old kids had. When I was at the bar waiting for the bartender to notice me, I could see these demigods when they approached the videogames chewing a bubble-gum, tossed a token into the slot of the shiny altar, stretched their fingers and then gave a jingling life to a whole world of exciting adventures hidden beyond my reach.
Words like "level", "bonus", "credits", "tricks", "final villain" and "death" became a part of my daily vocabulary thanks to those videogames watching sessions while the old customers playing cards shook their head mumbling complaints to the evil players.
And you know what happened when I finally hit the big 14? The coin operated videogames were gone. Game over. They had become relics of the 1980s. And let's face it, the 1980s were all but fashionable back in the 1990s when even in the steamy Bolognese summer you could see people wearing a flannel shirt chequered black and blue over Alice in Chains t-shirts.
The bar itself had closed down one year earlier. For a few months someone took it over renaming it "Odin's Cave" or something and trying to convert it into a gothic bikers' meeting point. But local gothic bikers had better places to spend their time in and the Odin's Cave was shut.
So when 15 years later I heard about a book praising the 1980s and the pop culture sprouted from coin operated videogames, Atari, Amiga and Nintendo consoles I was a bit sceptical about it. Because I missed all that stuff. I was born just 6 or 7 years too late, I guess. But, yeah, eventually I ordered the book after having read a few posts on the blog of its author. What I learned is that Ernest Cline is a cool nerd guy and the proud owner of a DeLorean just like the one working as a time machine in the Back To The Future movies, but including some Ghostbusters' stickers and a Night Rider's hood light which I found a bit too much.
Anyways, what Ready Player One is if not an eye-catcher just like the DeLorean of Ernest Cline? This book literally catches the eyes of the reader and don't let them go anywhere else till the story is over. If you think about that, it seems a bit scary and indeed it is. Some compared RPO to porn for geeks and being my knowledge of both, porn and geeks, pretty limited I cannot really say if that's true. It doesn't sound like a compliment.
What I can say is that while reading this novel on an actual paper copy, I sometimes had the weird feeling of being in front of my laptop hanging around: the same kind of headache brought by too many hours spent surfing the Internet without a real goal.
You know what I mean.
Ready Player One is at the same very original and extremely derivative. Personally, I had never read about a whole battle fought by avatars manouevring 200 metres tall Japanese robots in an alternative universe while their owners are sitting in an Oregonian-Rivendell in the year 2040 something.
And yet, at the same time, Cline plays way too much here with his notionism regarding hundreds and thoudands of 1980s related stuff. From tv series to pop music passing through cereals advertising, teen movies, sci-fi books and, of course, videogames.
There are many style lapses here (Pink Floyd and Monty Pythons in the 1980s? YouTube still operating in 2044? The adjective Rubenesque) and countless obscure references to stuff no doubt Cline is very familliar with but not the rest of the world. Not even in 2011.
But there are also many brilliant ideas and an excellent pace which makes you wonder what happens next and this is not easy to accomplish with a first novel.
On the one hand, nobody can deny that Cline had no second thought in casually borrowing around tons of cues, sometimes rather noble (Aldous Huxley, Roald Dahl, Douglas Adams) but also pretty obvious like the clear link which ties Minecraft to the OASIS, the alternative universe on the Internet where most of Ready Player One takes place. On the other hand, here Cline did an excellent copy and paste of all the stuff he loved, delivering a book which is enjoyable and led by a surprisingly convincing main character.
The author decided not to explore too much the topics he felt uneasy with (social and political life of the 2040s, climate change, power crisis, life out of the US) and his choice had a good impact on the plot of a novel which doesn't really need a serious background layer.
One may wonder what this nerd guy will be able to write after this novel and I think he will have a hard time in finding it out but no problems in getting a good literary contract now.
Now that I'm done with Ready Player One and I even managed to write an astonishingly long review about this novel, it comes the hardest part of the game: convinving my girlfriend that this is the right book for her, a self-proclaimed geek. I know it won't be easy divert her attention from her online strategy game setted in some pseudo-Greek world of oceans, islands, polis and alliances, but I will try to. She became an experienced player and has far more chances than me to find where Cline's Easter Egg really lies.