Ready Player One, rather than trying to be a timeless classic, pinpoints its theme to late twentieth century gaming culture. Its audiobook narrator, Wil Wheaton of Star Trek: TNG fame, is the embodiment of that theme. With full knowledge that this puts me right in the audiobook’s crosshairs, I will attempt a nerd-free (well, nerd-dialed-back-to-a-minimum) review of both the novel and the audio performance.
The story takes place in the 2040s. Natural resources are exhausted, infrastructure is crumbling, and humanity has retreated from real-life misery into a massive multiplayer game reality called the OASIS. When the game’s creator dies, he leaves his fortune, as well as control of the OASIS, to anyone who can solve a massive online quest. Since the quest is drawn from his devotion to early 80s video games and pop culture, society becomes obsessed with all things 80s. Players and corporations alike scramble to solve the quest, but it is so difficult that no progress is made by anyone for years. That is, until High School student Wade Watts, AKA Parzival, uncovers the first of the quest’s hidden Easter Eggs.
Ready Player One has a lot going for it as a story. It is a unique and plausible look into a dystopian future in which world society lets reality fall apart in favor of a virtual existence. The pacing is good, keeping a quick forward momentum in the story, with only one misstep during the main character’s romantic pursuit of his rival Art3mis. The characterization is also excellent, and confronts the topic of online personas and appearances differing (often drastically) from those IRL. Its themes address personal identity and security, corporate control of wealth, resources, and the risks of eschewing reality in favor of a virtual, ephemeral utopia.
And, of course, there’s the fanboy appeal. Even if you’re not a fanboy, or from the 80s era, the story still has appeal (my wife and son still liked it). But the homage adds an extra dimension for those who appreciate it. The first Easter Egg is based on the classic Dungeons and Dragons module Tomb of Horrors, which any pen and paper geek like myself will goob over. Other references are rife throughout the novel, everything from War Games to Zork to Rush. And what geek could avoid a nerdgasm over a fight between Ultraman and Mechagodzilla? The correct answer is, no one. Though “your mom” is an acceptable answer as well.
However, for everything the story gets right, there are a few noticeable flaws. First, the book devotes long sections of narrative to infodumping, describing history, technology and backstory at length. Some is unavoidable in a science fiction story, but most could be conveyed to the reader through dialogue or context without telling us in long passages. Show the reader how the U.S. and its government have fallen apart rather than telling us the history. And some details the reader doesn’t need to know at all, like info on Wade’s suit that allows him to interact with the OASIS, or anecdotes on gaming history or characters. They are neat details, but slow the narrative down.
Also, once you get past the novelty of the world and the attraction of the theme, there are several major plot holes. First, Wade boasts of watching movies multiple times, completing countless games and consuming entire 80s TV series in his quest for the Easter Eggs. He is never presented as an unreliable narrator, but if we take his statements at face value, he would need most of his life to accomplish his claimed feats, assuming he never sleeps and does nothing but watch media and play games.
Second, the corporation IOI has an entire department dedicated to finding the Easter Eggs so they can control the OASIS. It is difficult to believe a multi-billion dollar corporation is unable to outpace individuals in the hunt, and must instead pursue them in their discoveries. IOI also has several in-game artifacts it uses to track the progress of their rivals, but does not utilize them until later in the story. There is no reason not to use these artifacts from the very beginning, other than to heighten tension for the reader and lengthen the hunt.
Third, the final Easter Egg can only be unlocked by three individuals combining their abilities. However, the importance of teamwork is absent in solving the subsequent challenge. This final challenge also separates the forces of good (Parzival) from evil (IOI). There is no direct head-to-head conflict, and we only know what the bad guys are doing indirectly, because Parzival doesn’t see it. This renders the climax of the story a bit of a letdown.
However, despite these drawbacks, the story remains a compelling action yarn, and its central themes relevant and impactful in an increasingly digital world.
Anyone who knows Wil Wheaton beyond his role as Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation should not be surprised he has the chops to narrate the audiobook of Ready Player One.
Like the story, Wheaton works on two levels. For the purposes of the audiobook, he serves as a talented voice actor. An important quality of any narrator is that their voices disappear into the text, meshing with the tone of the material and the characters within. There are few who rise to the level of Jim Dale, whose narration adds so much to the Harry Potter series that it’s preferable to listen to him rather than read the books themselves. Conversely, many fine actors such as Brad Pitt serve as poor book narrators, despite their talents. Their voices seldom fade into the narration or add to the auditory experience.
Wheaton never detracts from the material, and his voice serves perfectly as Parzival. He has a generous vocal range, adding unique sound and personality to other characters. His voice inflection is appropriate, consistent, and, most importantly, lets the material speak through his narration.
Then there’s the second level he works as narrator of this novel. Wheaton is utterly perfect to be the voice of Parzival. He is a video game and pop culture geek, and of the appropriate age to share many of the experiences hallowed by the novel’s material. I chuckled when he reached the point of the book where his older self is re-elected to the online leadership of the OASIS (referring to him as an “old geezer”), which reinforces his suitability as narrator.
Ready Player One, despite plot holes and infodumping issues, is an enjoyable read that keeps readers of any age engaged with its unique dystopian future. It is generally fast paced, and its thematic questions of online privacy and identity on the internet are relevant today. It has special appeal for those who remember the birth of videogames, the internet and modern geek culture. The audiobook version is also enjoyable, with the additional cache that Wil Wheaton’s narration brings to the material. Either sitting down to read the hardcopy (or ebook), or listening to the narration, is an entertaining experience that any science fiction fan will appreciate.
William Reid Schmadeka is a freelance writer, editor and stay-at-home father of three. When not writing, editing or reading sci-fi and fantasy (or changing diapers and cleaning up after a toddler), he loves cooking and playing board games.