Man, it has been a long time since I’ve had this much fun reading a novel. For some reason, over the last 6 months or so, I’ve had a hellova time getting into any fiction book I’ve picked up. I’ve started and discarded at least a dozen, even making it about 85% of the way through the new Sarah Waters novel, The Paying Guests, before deciding I just didn’t care enough to want to keep going.
When I picked this one up a week or so ago, however, I was sucked in almost immediately. Which is funny because it’s not particularly well-written, and if it weren’t for the heavy 80s references, I’d say it’s more a YA novel than a grown-up one (YAs aren’t old enough to get the jokes, I’d wager). But a book doesn’t have to be a brilliant work of creative writing to be incredibly entertaining. And that’s what this book is in a nutshell: incredibly entertaining.
It’s set in the year 2044, and the star of the story is high school senior named Wade Watts. The Earth has practically been destroyed — cautionary tale about fossil fuels — and as electrical grid after electrical grid has fallen, people have flocked to the cities, living in stacked towers of mobile homes where they can wire themselves together for limited power and utilities.
The vast majority of mankind has begun to spend most of their hours awake logged into a virtual reality world called The Oasis — sort of like Second Life, only cool (sorry, Second Life). The creator of The Oasis, a mega-billionnaire with a heart of gold named Halliday, recently died and, in his will, announced to the planet a complex scavenger hunt of sorts he left behind in the code. Figure out the clues, solve yourself to the end of the puzzle, and you inherit everything he owned, including The Oasis itself. Thing is, in order to fulfill this quest, you have to be an expert in everything Halliday loved — almost all of it 80s computer, gaming, or pop culture-related.
As the novel opens, we’re a couple of years into the challenge and nobody has managed to solve the first clue. That is, until now. Wade, who spent most of his earlier teenage years devouring everything from the 80s he could lay his hands on, is the first to unlock the first of three magical “gates,” reigniting the contest. Meanwhile, a nasty mega-corporation, Innovative Online Industries, is on the scene, stocked with hundreds of employees, each trained into expert-dom on a single 80s-related game, TV show, film, or other element. Using complex computer systems, IOI is able to call on the nerdy superpowers of their entire workforce at any moment through a single avatar, and has announced to the other gamers that if they win, they will take over The Oasis and do whatever with it they damn well please.
Can Wade, and the other individual gamers he ends up befriending, solve the clues and get to the end before IOI? Or will they be destroyed by the greed of an evil corporation determined to use its powers for evil?
It’s not much of a plot, I suppose, and the game itself is a little on the cheesy side at times. But the characters are a delight and the 80s references were a total blast. Lots of stuff I’d forgotten about and was so happy to recall, as well as, I’m sure, a ton of references, especially related to gaming, that went riiiiight over my head.
If you’ve been looking for a light read and you’re on the nerdy side, this is a book you should give a shot. And if you have any teenagers who like this kind of stuff, I especially highly recommend it to them because, again, it really did seem better suited, writing-wise, to a YA audience (even if they don’t get all the references, they’ll get enough to be able to follow along, and will probably be charmed by some of the old-school tech). Highly, highly recommended! Can’t wait to see what this author puts out next (I’ve read his next book is due out soon, and also rumors this one is being made into a movie as well, by the way)!