Ernest Cline’s 2011 science fiction novel Ready Player One combines expertise in pop culture with a deep understanding of our gamified, internet-centric society. The book was a bestseller, but it’s also polarizing; your enjoyment of the book depends largely on your tolerance for geeky, incredibly detailed references. In other words, if you’re the sort of person who gets excited when someone mentions Warren Robinett and the very first easter egg in video game history, this is very likely the book for you.
Set in 2045, Ready Player One describes a world in crisis. Climate change and flagging energy resources have decimated the world’s economies, leaving most people living in poverty with little hope. An incredibly sophisticated, global virtual reality called OASIS is both the primary escape from misery as well as a stabilizing force for society. When OASIS’ creator James Halliday dies, he launches a game within OASIS based on his own life and love for the pop culture of the past. Whoever wins will gain control over OASIS, instantly becoming one of the most wealthy and powerful people in the world.
If you enjoyed the lush, deep-dive references, the giddy freedom of OASIS—a world shaped entirely by the imagination of its users—and the game structure of Cline’s novel, here are 10 books like Ready Player One you will definitely enjoy.
1. Armada, by Ernest Cline
Armada shares many themes of Ready Player One, making it an ideal followup. A teenager named Zack is the top-ranked player of the titular video game in which you must pilot a spaceship for the Earth Defense Alliance against invading aliens. He is suddenly recruited into the EDA (which actually exists) and informed that the game was actually a tool to identify talented pilots, and the alien invasion is very real.
Armada features the fast-paced pop culture references and gaming structure of Ready Player One. Essentially, each of Cline’s novels pivots on that childhood sense that anything could happen—what if you were suddenly asked to pilot a spaceship? Where Ready Player One offered a rich ocean of pop culture references, Armada focuses largely on one, the obvious callback to the film The Last Starfighter, with which it shares an overall premise. If you’re the sort who thinks of that movie every time you fire up your PS5, this is the perfect book for you.
2. Ready Player Two, by Ernest Cline
It stands to reason that if you loved Ready Player One, you’re primed to love the sequel. Ready Player Two picks up shortly after the end of the original novel. Wade Watts is now in control of OASIS along with the rest of the High Five who helped him win James Halliday’s final game. He discovers one of Halliday’s last unreleased products which allows a user to record their experiences and memories. Overuse can lead to brain damage, and the decision to release the technology fractures the group—and sets Wade on another quest within the OASIS world.
As in the original, Cline plays with the intoxicating idea that imaginary worlds might be more real—and more important—than we know. After all, what if you could enter a virtual world where your knowledge of old TV shows and Dungeons and Dragons rules made you a superstar? Ready Player Two fits right back into that comfort zone perfectly.
3. The Running Man, by Stephen King
One of the key appeals of Ready Player One is the fun idea that technology and gaming rules could bring order to a disordered world. OASIS is presented as a “sandbox”-style game where players have a great deal of personal freedom—but underlying that freedom are fundamental rules that can’t be broken. It’s comforting. King’s prescient novel focuses on a different, more physical sort of game—a violent reality television program that very much exists in the flesh-and-blood world. But his vision of future America is similar to Cline’s in many ways. A dystopian hellscape of economic devastation drives a desperate man named Ben Richards to participate in The Running Man, a program where he’ll be hunted by law enforcement and rewarded for every officer he kills. Both novels explore how characters subvert games and their rules to change the world, but where Cline’s violence is mainly virtual, King’s is very, very visceral, making it the perfect follow up.
4. Warcross, by Marie Lu
In Lu’s future, Warcross is a worldwide phenomenon, a virtual reality fighting game whose champions become true celebrities. Emika Chen is far from those giddy heights, however. On her own since she was a kid, she makes her way in the world as a bounty hunter, barely scratching out a living that leaves her perpetually in debt. When she hacks a game of Warcross in which players enter virtual worlds using Virtual Reality (VR) gear and fight in various environments, she becomes an instant celebrity, and she’s invited to travel to Japan to play on a pro team. All of Emika’s dreams are coming true, and she quickly forms a familial bond with her team—but someone is sabotaging the games, and it increasingly looks like it’s one of Emika’s new friends. Aimed towards a YA readership, Lu’s novel sports intricate worldbuilding and a tense plot that picks up steam as it goes. Like Ready Player One, one of the chief appeals here is the story of the smart, scrappy underdog whose sole advantage is that they love (and understand) a virtual world better than anyone else.
5. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
Stephenson’s work is dense, and his vision of a virtual computer-based universe is somehow wilder than Cline’s. The anything-goes energy of Stephenson’s virtual world (called the Metaverse) bleeds out into a reality that feels just barely more grounded. As a result, you have a main character (hilariously named Hiro Protagonist) who is both a genius computer hacker and the world’s best sword fighter… and works as a pizza delivery boy for the mafia. Stephenson’s dystopia in Snow Crash is fairly standard in some ways—the government has been completely taken over by corporate interests, and a cabal of media moguls seeks to enslave humanity with a virus that somehow afflicts both organic brains and computer systems, crashing both. But it shares with Ready Player One a playful attitude towards reality, and the understanding that if you give people the ability to craft custom avatars, there’s no limit to what people will come up with.
6. Neuromancer, by William Gibson
Gibson’s classic novel Neuromancer, which launched the cyberpunk genre, established so many of the conventions of modern science fiction—most notably the concept of a virtual digital world. Henry Case was once a world-class hacker who lost his ability to access the virtual world of a dystopian future when he was punished for stealing from his employer, but he’s given a second chance when he’s recruited by a mysterious benefactor. Gibson’s vision of a future world where virtual reality is just as important as the physical world is both darker and messier than Cline’s; you can practically see the nests of wires holding everything together in Gibson’s old-school cyberverse. But if the concept of entering a virtual world where your power and your danger are exponentially greater is what appeals to you about Ready Player One, you’ll be well served to visit the novel that established the trope in the first place, even if it lacks Cline’s candy-coated video game sheen.
7. Omnitopia Dawn, by Diane Duane
One of the aspects of Ready Player One that grabbed readers was the glimpse behind the curtain into the mind of the genius behind OASIS, and the struggle of rival corporate interests to seize control of the virtual world for their own gain. Duane’s novel takes that piece and drills down into it. It’s the story of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) Omnitopia Dawn and its creator Dev Logan. Logan and his developers work to release a major upgrade while rival Phil Sorenson schemes to destroy Omnitopia Dawn for his own advantage.
This corporate skulduggery is a major part of Omnitopia Dawn, but the game itself is a big part of the appeal here. It is truly massive, with 200 million players, and it shares Cline’s sense of beauty in raucous creativity with its thousands of microcosms that offer everything from first-person shooters to virtual cooking competitions. Reading this after Ready Player One is like going back to dive deeply into one aspect of the story, making it the perfect companion novel.
8. We Are Legion (We Are Bob), by Dennis E. Taylor
Taylor’s novel is a bit of an outlier on this list because it doesn’t deal with a virtual universe per se. Software developer and genius Bob Johansson is hit by a bus and killed—but his brain is cryogenically preserved. 117 years later, he’s scanned into a digital system and resurrected in order to serve as an artificial intelligence. Unfortunately for Bob, he’s controlled by an evil, power-hungry theocracy.
When his masters upload him into a space probe and give him the ability to create duplicates of himself, Bob comes into his own. His mission is to locate and claim habitable worlds, but Bob isn’t the only resurrected intelligence racing to do so—and the others are perfectly willing to destroy him in the process. Taylor’s universe straddles the line between real and virtual, but the dizzy tone of boundless possibilities and real menace matches up well with Cline’s approach. If you loved the way Ready Player One presented a world without limits, you’ll find a lot to enjoy with Bob’s new limitless existence.
9. Otherland, by Tad Williams
Williams’ four-book series (City of Golden Shadow, River of Blue Fire, Mountain of Black Glass, and Sea of Silver Light) is set in a future where a virtual world known as the Net is simply a part of everyday life, and surgical implants enable people to experience it in full immersion. People begin to suffer a mysterious ailment connected to the implants that leaves them in an unresponsive coma, eventually revealed to be the work of a nefarious group trapping people in the virtual world in an attempt to take over the real one.
Cline’s virtual world is saturated with references and elaborate recreations, but it’s a relatively straightforward universe. Williams takes the opposite approach: Otherland is sprawling and contains many hidden levels that aren’t always immediately coherent. These are more challenging books that will require a bit more effort, but they hit the same sweet spot—and in many ways they hit more deeply because Williams gives more room to roam and linger over the course of four very long books.
10. All Our Wrong Todays, by Elan Mastai
Mastai’s exuberant sci-fi novel All Our Wrong Todays doesn’t deal with virtual worlds in the traditional sense, but rather alternative realities triggered by one disastrously bad decision. Every alternate reality story has at least one disastrous “darkest timeline” that shows just how bad things can get, and Mastai’s brilliant premise is that the world we know—the reality we the readers lives in—is that darkest timeline. Chrononaut Tom Barren—untrained and utterly incompetent in the role of time traveler—comes from a utopian 21st century that resembles the shiny world imagined by sci-fi writers in the mid-20th century, but an accident with the first working time machine destroys that wonderful future and leaves him stranded in this alternate one, much to his horror. The story of how Tom works to restore what he knows to be the “real” reality is a lot of fun, and if there are no virtual worlds or secret weapons plucked from pop culture, the light, fun tone and self-deprecating hero is spot-on for fans of Cline’s work.
11. Genius: The Game, by Leopoldo Gout
One of the joys of Cline’s novel is the way he presents the youth of his horrible future as the world’s best hope. The kids in Cline’s universe are certainly more than all right—it’s the adults who seek to dominate and destroy. Even the creator of OASIS, James Halliday, is presented as someone who never quite grew up, hanging onto his childlike sense of wonder and joy in fiction and imagination.
Gout shares this view in Genius: The Game. The Game is a global competition for the smartest kids on the planet, run by an 18-year old genius named Kiran Biswas. Three friends who have only met online—talented programmer Rex, engineering genius Tunde, and investigative prodigy Painted Wolf—play The Game, but come to suspect that Biswas is in league with—or controlled by—corrupt adults who might be using The Game for nefarious purposes. With the same sense of breathless enthusiasm as Cline’s work, Gout taps into the next generation’s natural suspicion of legacy platforms and any system controlled by old-school authorities and mandarins, and their boundless energy for defending fair play and rejecting corruption of all kinds.