The year is 2044, and the world of this future is unpleasant compared to today, to say the least: overpopulation has, not surprisingly, brought all the expected problems, starting with starvation and malnutrition. There is overcrowding to the point of stacking mobile homes one atop another because laid out side by side they take up valuable space…and then multiple families are crowded into what is today considered a single family dwelling. There are fuel and power shortages to the extent that there are no gasoline driven vehicles on the road in the U.S. Joblessness has skyrocketed. The only escape for the masses is retreat into OASIS, a virtual reality so far advanced from anything available today that it is (forgive the pun) virtually indistinguishable from reality, or rather to an idealized dream of what the world might be, that it’s a functional alternative to the bleak “now” in which the book is set. OASIS resembles the Internet of today as Farmville resembles Super Mario Bros; it contains literature, music, education, games and more, the likes of which any MMORPG user today would sell his avatars for.
Our protagonist is Wade Watts, a seventeen year old orphan grudgingly allowed space in his aunt’s double wide mobile home solely for his food ration tickets as the trailer is already crammed with two other families—he is fortunate to have found a hideyhole in a half-buried wrecked van in the nearby junkyard just big enough for a space heater, his laptop, the battery to power both, and a stationary bicycle to recharge that battery. He attends school in OASIS because the brick and mortar schools available to him are under-funded, over-studented disasters, and socializes there.
The central plot device is a contest combining modern virtual reality technique with extensive knowledge of the roots of these online games back in the computing Dark Ages of the 1980s and the popular culture of that long vanished decade, ended two generations before the birth of our protagonist. James Halliday, creator of OASIS, left behind a will constituting simply this: solve a series of puzzles and riddles to find three keys—Copper, Jade, and Crystal—each of which will unlock the next stage, culminating with inheriting Halliday’s by then extensive estate. At first there is an upsurge of interest—Halliday’s estate is a great deal of money even in this future world—but attention wanes as the game proves too challenging for most OASIS participants. Wade, obsessed with the 1980’s, is the first to decipher the first riddle, attracting worldwide attention and competition. He soon faces competition not only from individuals, many of whom he numbers among his friends, but also the future and typically heartless megacorporation, IOI. His knowledge of the popular culture upon which, however, allows him to reach the solution and ensure a stereotypically happy ending.
I’m neither a fan of gaming or of the 1980s—I never saw War Games, never thought Matthew Broderick cute or John Hughes cutting edge and find video games no more than diverting—but I sopped up this book in an afternoon. However, I will confess to a brief fling with “Dungeons and Dragons” as a teenager and a pre-Internet version of the Sims, and that was enough to suck me into this book. It’s well written, though with the usual amount of typographical errors typical for modern books.
Overall, this strikes me as a YA book, though the references are to a generation earlier. How many teenagers today know what Zork is? I suspect the book will appeal to people in their 40s who never really outgrew their teen years: many of the characters seem drawn from the classic stereotype of online gamer geeks bordering on social disabilities who molder in their parents’ basements never interacting with real life or flesh and blood humans. That said, I would wholeheartedly recommend it to teenagers of today. It diverges from the fiction marketed to teens in its subject matter; I’m not sure how many kids would get all the references to the 80’s much less find them appealing.
What to read next? Well, it depends on what exactly appealed to the readers. Specific books that might appeal to those who liked the ‘geek the software’ or paranoid theorizing in this book are Neal Stephenson’s Reamde or Daniel Suarez’s Daemon. If it’s the escape into an alternate reality, I’d suggest Philip K. Dick. If it’s the fandom of the ’80s, well, there’s a world of pop culture out there to learn of! Start with arcade games and cheesy movies…