Uneasy Lies the Head That Is Plugged into a Virtual-Reality Crown

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Ballentine, 370pp. Maruzen price: ¥2,880 plus tax

A couple of decades in the future, a high school student named Wade lives with his aunt in a trailer in Oklahoma after his mother’s death from a heroin overdose. Climate change is catastrophic, and personal debt in America is so bad that indentured servitude has made a comeback. Wade and millions like him escape this dystopia by spending much of their lives logged into the Oasis, a virtual reality universe where most social life and commerce takes place.

That’s the setup for “Ready Player One,” a clever and entertaining 2011 novel by Ernest Cline that was made into a reasonably faithful 2018 movie by Steven Spielberg. Now Cline has written a sequel, “Ready Player Two.”

Oasis owner James Halliday, one of the world’s richest people, dies in the first paragraph of the first book. But he remains a ghostly presence in both novels. Halliday’s will sets up an elaborate treasure hunt whose winner will inherit his wealth and digital empire.

Halliday was an otaku fixated on late 20th-century American and Japanese pop culture, so his treasure hunt — and the first novel as a whole — is bursting with trivia about old movies and video games.

When “Ready Player Two” opens, Wade has won Halliday’s contest. He no longer lives in a trailer, but in a mansion. His sudden status as a young tycoon has turned him into a jerk, and he knows it. He’s lonely and miserable. But he still has the Oasis as an escape. He discovers that Halliday left behind clues for a second treasure hunt, again based on pop culture trivia.

At this point, you might expect “Two” to be a simple retread of “One,” but it’s not. Like the second volume of the “Hunger Games,” this book does the same thing as its predecessor, but differently enough to remain interesting.

One difference is an upgrade in Oasis hardware. People used to log in with visors and motion-sensing gloves, but now they can wire their brains directly into virtual reality via the Oasis Neural Interface, or ONI. Wade knows what “oni” means in Japanese, but that doesn’t stop him and most of his friends from plugging in. Only one of them resists: “Haven’t any of you rewatched ‘The Matrix’ lately? Or ‘Sword Art Online’? Plugging your brain and your nervous system directly into a computer simulation is never a good idea!”

A bigger difference is that “One” had a powerful villain who wanted Wade to fail, but “Two” has an even more powerful villain who wants Wade to succeed. Why? The mystery of the villain’s creepy motives is the main through line in a book composed of wildly disparate episodes.

Clues are hidden on a variety of “planets” in the Oasis universe, including a world-sized shrine built by fans of musician Prince. Another planet is based on the fictitious town of Shermer, Illinois, where movie director John Hughes set many of his films.

Knowledge of the oeuvres of such artists — and others, such as author J.R.R. Tolkien and video game designer Rieko Kodama — help Wade and his posse surmount one challenge after another.

Luckily, you don’t need to know as much as they do to follow the story. (I imagine few people on Earth know as much pop culture lore as Cline does.) I enjoyed a lot of the references, but many more flew right past me. The book does explain some of them, and a few others led me on rewarding side quests — like a trip to my local video store, where I rented a copy of “The Thirteenth Floor,” a 1999 sci-fi thriller based on a pioneering 1964 novel about virtual reality.

Cline clearly enjoys rummaging in his bottomless toybox, and it’s often fun to look over his shoulder as he does. It helps that his enthusiasm is not entirely uncritical. One character decries Shermer as a “lily-white hellscape,” and another writes off much of the Oasis as “the wreckage of a past generation’s nostalgia.”

Be that as it may, the ruins are often scenic and you may enjoy a tour. For best results, start with “Ready Player One” and then level up to “Ready Player Two.”