This book was written for me. Well, not expressly for me, but the fact that I was born a couple years earlier than Ernest Cline and grew up in the same era, also playing games on an Atari 2600, frequenting pizza parlor arcades, and imaginatively constructing my own Dungeon and Dragons campaigns, makes this novel immediately appealing to me. Although I was not a fan of Wargames or (dare I write it) Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I did locate in the Atari game Adventure that magical pixel which unlocked the secret room containing the name of the game designer. Since I grew up in the culture that this novel praises, it is easy for me to give myself into the temptation all these references are important.
Cline effectively blends these pop-culture references into a young man’s quest to win the greatest of scavenger hunts. Wade Watts seeks to escape the dark existence of living in the “stacks” (mobile homes piled on one another to share the limited resources outside American cities in 2044) by entering the massive online virtual-reality the OASIS. He becomes one of billions online who dream of winning the contest video-game-programmer-mogul James Halliday left behind at his death. Why? Because the prize is ownership of the OASIS and a fortune of billions.
The quest comes in three stages or gates, each involving the decrypting of a poetic clue Halliday has left behind and the completing of a video game challenge Halliday has programmed (playing Joust or Pac-man or completing a VR reconstruction of one of Halliday’s favorite movies). Wade, or Parzival as he is known in the OASIS, is the first to complete the first gate, sending him into immediate competition with other “gunters” and the evil corporation IOI.
The novel is an enjoyable race to the finish line, heavy on action and nostalgia, as Cline drops yet one more reference to the pop culture in the 1980s and 1990s. Even having grown up in this time, I did not recognize all the allusions, particularly the Anime ones, so I do wonder how younger readers would receive this story.
It is mostly an “entertainment” (to borrow Graham Greene’s distinction), but there is some limited social commentary along the way–in Cline’s description of corporate greed (giving birth to a new form of indentured service) or the escalating environmental crisis or the repercussions of spending one’s life plugged into a digital world. But these meditations, including Parzival’s argument with love-interest Art3mis over what to do with the prize money, are always secondary to the nostalgia trip.
I enjoyed following these characters through this fully realized world. Although my personal taste is for deeper philosophical and social commentary, I still come away from this novel smiling. Well done, Mr. Cline.