Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline
(Penguin Random House, 2020)
Reviewed by Kate Onyett
Welcome to an overcrowded, polluted, highly iniquitous Earth of the future where humanity plugs into a virtual reality called OASIS to be educated, socialise, trade, escape and explore, limited only by their imaginations. In Cline’s first OASIS novel, Wade, poor and unremarkable, undertook an epic gaming quest across multiple virtual worlds. He and his friends won, Willy Wonka-style, the corporation that created and maintained OASIS.
However, a new technology has been unlocked from the company vault; a headset that literally plugs into a user’s brain activity and places them into the environments of OASIS with full sensory immersion. It sounds too good to be true; and it proves addictive as hell. But while most people are celebrating and tuning in, a threat rises in theform of an AI lurking in the machine that will do anything—even hold millions of headset users physically hostage—to obtain the object of its obsession.
Cline struck narrative gold with the idea of OASIS: a series of lurid and luscious dream-like-scapes based on the geekiest of popular culture, painted richly with fond nostalgia and built on gaming rules. In such an environment, the quest trope is perfect. Wade is the archetypal hero, having to overcome his own fallacy and learn lessons in order to succeed. In this second book, this comes with the added urgency of a strict time limit; this is a sequel, after all; the ante needs to be upped! The final battle and the juicer parts of the quest keep the pages turning with a breathless excitement. But there is more going on here. There are bigger questions at stake, and Wade’s quest is not just for a digital prize, but for maturity.
Sci-fi is rich with doomsday prophesying around AI, and AI development raises awkward questions around what constitutes human-ness and the ethics of the human-machine border. Do we cross it, and mesh humanity with machine in the next stage of evolution? The arguments for this in the novel seem practical; OASIS elevates the poor and the voice-less into a place that holds out a hope of greater meritocracy. It’s the leveler of online gaming; only by doing better will you gain status.
Counter this with fears over just how much of our accountability would we be willing to hand over to machines that are becoming ever more intelligent. And as Samantha, the counter to Wade’s unquestioning tech believer, puts it; shouldn’t they be trying to fix the mess they’ve made of the planet, instead of retreating further away from it like spoiled kids?
So threading through all the action is a story about growing up and facing responsibility, not running away. The first time around, Wade and the gang were kids playing a game; just that. A dangerous one when Wade was threatened and harangued in the real word outside the VR, but basically it was an adventure story. Now everyone is a little older, and it’s time to grow up. Through his relationships, Wade’s character shows what it is to learn what our responsibility is to others, to our world(s) and the people reliant on us. More impressively, how to react to a new form of life; do digital lives matter? If great power comes with great responsibility, and all life has power, thus all life has responsibility. Even when a childhood hero proves to have feet of faulty, fallible clay, it is the responsibility of the fan to learn from the mistakes and do better.
For such a personal story, the narrative scope is admirably ambitious. Human emotional development is mapped out in a gaming scenario bigger than the internet; ironic given the shouting down of games and gaming as brain-rottng by certain schools of thought. And the way navigated between machine and man seems ridiculously simple: in order to make progress, we all have to grow up and take on our autonomy.