Thirty some years from now we have trashed our planet and life is grim for most people. With such an unpleasant reality, many people have retreated almost entirely into a utopian virtual reality world called OASIS, a kind of combination of massive multi-player online game like World of Warcraft, Facebook game apps, and advanced social media. OASIS has become more than just an escape from the famines, wars, poverty, and all other social ills; for some, OASIS has become a quest on a par with the search for the Holy Grail. Just prior to the opening of the novel, the creator of this alternate reality died and left his massive fortune to the first person to collect, unlock, and successfully navigate the tasks behind three special, hidden gates in this gigantic, utopian world.
Wade Watts is a high school senior living with his aunt and her nasty boyfriend, both of whom begrudge him the living space. So he finds his own hidden and secure space in the cab of a car buried beneath a tower of other junk. He is obsessed with finding the "Easter eggs" that James Halliday buried in the game, proudly naming himself a serious "gunter" or egg hunter. But he, like everyone else, has been unsuccessful for the five years since Halliday's death despite becoming expert in 80s trivia and pop culture as he tries to decipher the very first clue to the whereabouts of the first key. When he does finally crack the code and retrieve the key, he is the first person to do so but is quickly matched by several other gunters and the large corporation hell bent on finding the eggs so it can take over control not only of Halliday's fortune but also of OASIS itself.
Wade, who goes by the avatar name of Parzival in the OASIS world, makes virtual connections with his best friend Aech, a blogger named Art3mis with whom he is more than a little in love despite never having met her in the physical world, and two Japanese brothers Daito and Shoto. And although all of these characters, anti-social geeks huddled in their solitary lives, are essentially hunting on their own, they forge a tentative allied nerd herd when faced with the corporate bullying tactics of IOI and their willingness to kill for ultimate control of the game. But Wade is the main focus of the narration and it is his hunt and experiences through the games and movies of the 80s which so captured the imagination of Halliday that the reader follows, all the while knowing the ultimate outcome.
Because Cline spent so much time describing OASIS, it takes a very, very long time, 150 pages or so, before any sort of real action takes place but once it does, the plot becomes entirely a quest plot. This means the story as a whole is in actuality fairly thin, especially when much of the description is of the nostalgia inducing movies, video games, comics, and music which should already be familiar to those who lived through the era (unless they are like me and lived in a bubble). The baddies, called the Sixers, working for IOI are sinister but fairly incompetent, enabling our hero to prevail in every instance, despite his own occasional ineptitudes. The dialogue between the characters is stilted and unrealistic and it is clear that these are people unused to other people, content in their isolation, which perhaps is the big take-away from the novel. We are becoming too reliant on our technologies to the detriment of real social interaction. Living in virtual worlds may be an escape but it can also blind us to connection and to the bigger issues on which we need to focus. Everything about this novel screams movie script although with such reliance on earlier pop culture, the permissions costs to make this faithful to the novel will be steep indeed. For those who lived through the 80s, and specifically boys who lived through the 80s, this will be a grand ride. For others like me, or including those for whom the 80s are ancient, this will probably not wear as well.