The word epic has become undervalued. An epic should be a story of a hero who does mighty deeds, saves the weak, and destroys evil. That could be taking on Trojan warriors, killing a cannibalistic monster, or traveling to the underworld to save one’s beloved. Nowadays, people use the word epic as an adjective for things that are distinctly not epic. In fact, it’s hard to imagine what an epic would look like in our day and age, now that monsters are all psychological and the underworld is a cultural/religious belief meant to comfort the dying and their loved ones. And yet, authors can still manage to create wonderful adventure stories that could be our generation’s epics. These new heroes may not be fighting actual monsters, but it sure feels like they are. Yesterday, I started reading Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, expecting a fun story set in a virtual reality. I knew there was some kind of contest. I just didn’t realize how much it would feel like Beowulf or The Odyssey. Critics will probably take issue with my comparison here. My response is: just because it’s fun doesn’t mean it can’t be epic. So there.
Wade Watts is a teenager living in a slum in mid twenty-first century in a dystopian America. Flu has wiped out a lot of people. The Great Recession has rolled on and on. The American government is increasingly irrelevant. Most people live and work in OASIS, a virtual reality so robust that it can support millions of players in millions of quests on millions of worlds as well as support the global economy. OASIS was created by a highly talented geek named James Halliday. When Halliday dies, after amassing a large fortune, a video is released in which Halliday offers his fortune to the person who finds the easter egg he placed somewhere inside OASIS. There are three tasks that the winner must pass before they can find the egg. Players around the world have looked for five years for the first key and task by the time Ready Player One begins. Wade is surprised to stumble upon that key after his Latin teacher says something that helps him figure it out. Being poor has put Wade at a disadvantage because he can’t afford to travel much inside OASIS or buy cool gear. But once he earns that first key and gets on the trail for the second, Wade finds himself playing in an entirely new class.
Finding the easter egg depends on being able to puzzle out riddles based on Halliday’s encyclopedic knowledge and love of the American 1980s pop/nerd culture. There are times when Cline goes a little overboard talking about various text adventure and early video games or WarGames or some other bit of 80s trivia and you’ll have to plow through a few pages to get to the next part of Wade’s adventures. This is the only flaw I saw.
The hunt for the easter egg is a geek’s version of the quest for the Holy Grail. The quest was designed by Halliday to find a “worthy” successor. Wade keeps a diary of Halliday lore that he calls his grail diary, where he puzzles through the tasks. As if this weren’t difficult enough, Wade and his friends and allies have to fight off paid players from a company called IOI. Halliday’s will didn’t say anything preventing a company’s representatives from trying to find the egg. If those players, known as Sixers win, they’re contractually obligated to turn over control of OASIS to IOI. It’s well known that the company will start charging for access to OASIS and change it from a geek paradise to a corporate cash cow. The Sixers are quite willing to stalk and even murder any other player they think has a shot at finding the egg before they do.
Like the original Grail quest, the search for Halliday’s easter egg is also about Wade discovering who he wants to be and what’s really important to him. Ready Player One works on so many levels. I went looking for fun, and I found it. But I also found a book that I’m going to recommend to a hell of a lot of people.