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Monday, August 14, 2017

Reading List: Ready Player One

Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. New York: Broadway Books, 2011. ISBN 978-0-307-88744-3.
By the mid-21st century, the Internet has become largely subsumed as the transport layer for the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a massively multiuser online virtual reality environment originally developed as a multiplayer game, but which rapidly evolved into a platform for commerce, education, social interaction, and entertainment used by billions of people around the world. The OASIS supports immersive virtual reality, limited only by the user's budget for hardware used to access the network. With top-of-the-line visors and sound systems, body motion sensors, and haptic feedback, coupled to a powerful interface console, a highly faithful experience was possible. The OASIS was the creation of James Halliday, a legendary super-nerd who made his first fortune designing videogames for home computers in the 1980s, and then re-launched his company in 2012 as Gregarious Simulation Systems (GSS), with the OASIS as its sole product. The OASIS was entirely open source: users could change things within the multitude of worlds within the system (within the limits set by those who created them), or create their own new worlds. Using a distributed computing architecture which pushed much of the processing power to the edge of the network, on users' own consoles, the system was able to grow without bound without requiring commensurate growth in GSS data centres. And it was free, or almost so. To access the OASIS, you paid only a one-time lifetime sign-up fee of twenty-five cents, just like the quarter you used to drop into the slot of an arcade videogame. Users paid nothing to use the OASIS itself: their only costs were the hardware they used to connect (which varied widely in cost and quality of the experience) and the bandwidth to connect to the network. But since most of the processing was done locally, the latter cost was modest. GSS made its money selling or renting virtual real estate (“surreal estate”) within the simulation. If you wanted to open, say, a shopping mall or build your own Fortress of Solitude on an asteroid, you had to pay GSS for the territory. GSS also sold virtual goods: clothes, magical artefacts, weapons, vehicles of all kinds, and buildings. Most were modestly priced, but since they cost nothing to manufacture, were pure profit to the company.

As the OASIS permeated society, GSS prospered. Halliday remained the majority shareholder in the company, having bought back the share once owned by his co-founder and partner Ogden (“Og”) Morrow, after what was rumoured to be a dispute between the two the details of which had never been revealed. By 2040, Halliday's fortune, almost all in GSS stock, had grown to more than two hundred and forty billion dollars. And then, after fifteen years of self-imposed isolation which some said was due to insanity, Halliday died of cancer. He was a bachelor, with no living relatives, no heirs, and, it was said, no friends. His death was announced on the OASIS in a five minute video titled Anaorak's Invitation (“Anorak” was the name of Halliday's all-powerful avatar within the OASIS). In the film, Halliday announces that his will places his entire fortune in escrow until somebody completes the quest he has programmed within the OASIS:

Three hidden keys open three secret gates,
Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits,
And those with the skill to survive these straits,
Will reach The End where the prize awaits.

The prize is Halliday's entire fortune and, with it, super-user control of the principal medium of human interaction, business, and even politics. Before fading out, Halliday shows three keys: copper, jade, and crystal, which must be obtained to open the three gates. Only after passing through the gates and passing the tests within them, will the intrepid paladin obtain the Easter egg hidden within the OASIS and gain control of it. Halliday provided a link to Anorak's Almanac, more than a thousand pages of journal entries made during his life, many of which reflect his obsession with 1980s popular culture, science fiction and fantasy, videogames, movies, music, and comic books. The clues to finding the keys and the Egg were widely believed to be within this rambling, disjointed document.

Given the stakes, and the contest's being open to anybody in the OASIS, what immediately came to be called the Hunt became a social phenomenon, all-consuming to some. Egg hunters, or “gunters”, immersed themselves in Halliday's journal and every pop culture reference within it, however obscure. All of this material was freely available on the OASIS, and gunters memorised every detail of anything which had caught Halliday's attention. As time passed, and nobody succeeded in finding even the copper key (Halliday's memorial site displayed a scoreboard of those who achieved goals in the Hunt, so far blank), many lost interest in the Hunt, but a dedicated hard core persisted, often to the exclusion of all other diversions. Some gunters banded together into “clans”, some very large, agreeing to exchange information and, if one found the Egg, to share the proceeds with all members. More sinister were the activities of Innovative Online Industries—IOI—a global Internet and communications company which controlled much of the backbone that underlay the OASIS. It had assembled a large team of paid employees, backed by the research and database facilities of IOI, with their sole mission to find the Egg and turn control of the OASIS over to IOI. These players, all with identical avatars and names consisting of their six-digit IOI employee numbers, all of which began with the digit “6”, were called “sixers” or, more often in the gunter argot, “Sux0rz”.

Gunters detested IOI and the sixers, because it was no secret that if they found the Egg, IOI's intention was to close the architecture of the OASIS, begin to charge fees for access, plaster everything with advertising, destroy anonymity, snoop indiscriminately, and use their monopoly power to put their thumb on the scale of all forms of communication including political discourse. (Fortunately, that couldn't happen to us with today's enlightened, progressive Silicon Valley overlords.) But IOI's financial resources were such that whenever a rare and powerful magical artefact (many of which had been created by Halliday in the original OASIS, usually requiring the completion of a quest to obtain, but freely transferrable thereafter) came up for auction, IOI was usually able to outbid even the largest gunter clans and add it to their arsenal.

Wade Watts, a lone gunter whose avatar is named Parzival, became obsessed with the Hunt on the day of Halliday's death, and, years later, devotes almost every minute of his life not spent sleeping or in school (like many, he attends school in the OASIS, and is now in the last year of high school) on the Hunt, reading and re-reading Anorak's Almanac, reading, listening to, playing, and viewing everything mentioned therein, to the extent he can recite the dialogue of the movies from memory. He makes copious notes in his “grail diary”, named after the one kept by Indiana Jones. His friends, none of whom he has ever met in person, are all gunters who congregate on-line in virtual reality chat rooms such as that run by his best friend, Aech.

Then, one day, bored to tears and daydreaming in Latin class, Parzival has a flash of insight. Putting together a message buried in the Almanac that he and many other gunters had discovered but failed to understand, with a bit of Latin and his encyclopedic knowledge of role playing games, he decodes the clue and, after a demanding test, finds himself in possession of the Copper Key. His name, alone, now appears at the top of the scoreboard, with 10,000 points. The path to the First Gate was now open.

Discovery of the Copper Key was a sensation: suddenly Parzival, a humble level 10 gunter, is a worldwide celebrity (although his real identity remains unknown, as he refuses all media offers which would reveal or compromise it). Knowing that the key can be found re-energises other gunters, not to speak of IOI, and Parzival's footprints in the OASIS are scrupulously examined for clues to his achievement. (Finding a key and opening a gate does not render it unavailable to others. Those who subsequently pass the tests will receive their own copies of the key, although there is a point bonus for finding it first.)

So begins an epic quest by Parzival and other gunters, contending with the evil minions of IOI, whose potential gain is so high and ethics so low that the risks may extend beyond the OASIS into the real world. For the reader, it is a nostalgic romp through every aspect of the popular culture of the 1980s: the formative era of personal computing and gaming. The level of detail is just staggering: this may be the geekiest nerdfest ever published. Heck, there's even a reference to an erstwhile Autodesk employee! The only goof I noted is a mention of the “screech of a 300-baud modem during the log-in sequence”. Three hundred baud modems did not have the characteristic squawk and screech sync-up of faster modems which employ trellis coding. While there are a multitude of references to details which will make people who were there, then, smile, readers who were not immersed in the 1980s and/or less familiar with its cultural minutiæ can still enjoy the challenges, puzzles solved, intrigue, action, and epic virtual reality battles which make up the chronicle of the Hunt. The conclusion is particularly satisfying: there may be a bigger world than even the OASIS.

A movie based upon the novel, directed by Steven Spielberg, is scheduled for release in March 2018.

Posted at August 14, 2017 20:40