The 1980s–a magical time to be alive. In my case, I don’t remember much of the decade; I was born in early 1986, and my earliest memories start around ’89. What I do recall is probably heavily influenced by VH1 specials, cartoons (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; G.I. Joe; Transformers), and Sci-Fi flicks (E.T.; Star Wars; RoboCop). Who could forget when Luke discovered Leia was actually his sister (’83), or when the Ghostbusters first encountered ectoplasm (’84)? Some other important things happened during the 80s: Reagan made a few speeches (something about a wall?), Wall Street went gangbusters, and Carl Sagan sagaciously compared our world to a “pale blue dot.” Oh, and big hair was–well–big. I think that about covers it.
If you’re a fan of the 80s, you won’t want to miss Ernest Cline’s novel, Ready Player One. It reads like a love letter to a decade full of regrettable fashion trends, synthesized music, and corporate blunders–New Coke, anyone? You’ll also want to check it out if you’re at all interested in video games.
Cline’s novel can best be described as part bildungsroman, part nostalgia-riddled panegyric, and part dystopia. The protagonist, whose real name is Wade but who goes by Parzival, lives in the year 2044. Our planet is buckling under the pressures of overpopulation and destructive climate change. The world’s economy is in shambles, and poverty is rampant. The only thing that most people can afford to do is plug in to a virtual world known as OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation). In OASIS, everyone has an avatar that is controlled in the real world with a visor and haptic sensory gloves. Business, education, and recreation occur within the confines of OASIS. While the real world burns and people starve, most are pacified by their access to the alternate, virtual reality.
We enter the narrative just as the creator of OASIS (a reclusive genius named James Halliday) passes away. He leaves behind a cryptic video message containing a final challenge: somewhere in OASIS, Halliday has hidden three keys that open three gates. Whoever deciphers his riddles, finds the keys, and opens the gates will be awarded a huge sum of money. Anyone can play.
Like many, Parzival is enchanted by the prospect of finding Halliday’s secret stash. Halliday was a huge fan of 80s popculture, so Parzival becomes somewhat of a savant concerning films, television shows, video games, and comic books of the 1980s. This knowledge comes in handy as he relentlessly pursues Halliday’s keys.
I really loved this book, but I’d like to shift from summary to talking a little bit about why I think books like this one have such a strong appeal. For me, Ready Player One is in the same category of books as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. These books share a key ingredient: they are all set in richly detailed, fantastical worlds. Books are naturally vehicles for escape (similar, in some ways, to Clines’s OASIS). But when books have at their heart a space–maybe, even, a home–for the reader’s mind to inhabit, they become uniquely appealing. Our imaginative minds love to exist in realms different from the one in which are physical bodies reside. Harry Potter has Hogwarts. The Hunger Games has Panem and the arena. Ready Player One has OASIS.
The massive popularity of certain video games (like Minecraft) might be partially attributable to our minds’ proclivity for playing in a separate space. Minecraft is a sandbox style game, meaning that much of the game revolves around players altering, building, or destroying their surrounding environment. It is the quintessential interactive “mindscape” in that it allows players to bend the observable, virtual world to their whims.
For posterity’s sake, here is a screenshot of the Minecraft server on which I occasionally play with a few friends. We have a constitution, a capitol, private property claims, systems of arbitration, and laws/bylaws to boot. We might take it a little too seriously. 🙂
Good fiction draws us in by enticing our minds with the promise of a new space in which to dwell. Spend some time in Cline’s, Ready Player One. You won’t be disappointed.