>> Thursday, June 28, 2012
It's the year 2044, and the real world has become an ugly place. We're out of oil. We've wrecked the climate. Famine, poverty, and disease are widespread.It's the near(ish) future and everything has gone to hell. In an effort to escape a real world that, for the great majority, is ugly and unforgiving, people spend most of their lives plugged into a virtual world called OASIS. Wade Watts is one of them. About to finish high school, Wade has no real prospects, other than his determination (well, obsession) to find Halliday's egg.
Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes this depressing reality by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia where you can be anything you want to be, where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets. And like most of humanity, Wade is obsessed by the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this alternate reality: OASIS founder James Halliday, who dies with no heir, has promised that control of the OASIS - and his massive fortune - will go to the person who can solve the riddles he has left scattered throughout his creation.
For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that the riddles are based in the culture of the late twentieth century. And then Wade stumbles onto the key to the first puzzle.
Suddenly, he finds himself pitted against thousands of competitors in a desperate race to claim the ultimate prize, a chase that soon takes on terrifying real-world dimensions - and that will leave both Wade and his world profoundly changed.
So what's this business about eggs, you ask? Well, before he died, the reclusive creator of OASIS, James Halliday, programmed the ultimate easter egg into his universe. The first person to solve his riddles and find three keys that could be hidden anywhere at all in this massive universe, gets to inherit his megarich company.
It's been years, and although thousands have spent all that time obsessively studying up on all of Halliday's 80s-centric interests, no one has been able to even come close to finding the first keys. Not normal people, and not the minions of evil corporation IOI, whose bosses are determined to take over the immensely profitable OASIS in the only way they can.
Until Wade suddenly 'gets' it, and finds the first key. And before long, the once-blank scoreboard starts to fill up, and the hunt becomes really serious.
I'll say this: if you were alive in the 80s and are the slightest bit geeky, you must read this. You don't have to be the type that still wears leg warmers and shoulderpads, either. I'm not one for 80s nostalgia, but I still had a ball with this, and its homage to all that was good and fun about the 80s in America. And this was even though I probably only knew and could properly appreciate a tiny bit of this nostalgia-fest (I'm the right age for this, but from the wrong place). If you're my age and American, you'll probably like this even more than me (which means it will probably go on your 'best books ever' list).
In essence, this is a treasure hunt. There's stuff going on around the pure quest element (more on these later), but this is a book that would succeed or fail on the treasure hunt. And to me, it succeeded because that was brilliant. It's all very, very cleverly done. It's not repetitive, each puzzle is different and works great in the context of the story, and Cline manages to maintained the tension with barely a lull.
I did think it dragged a tiny bit in the middle section, maybe in between the first key and things starting to happen again on the Scoreboard, but this was only a small bit. There was also a bit of an infodump at the beginning, but it was all so fun and interesting, that I didn't mind much. And then things really go off! I basically read this in two evenings, and both times I ended up staying up really late. I just could not put it down.
As he hunts for the next key, Wade is not isolated (at least, not in the mental sense). He develops relationships with the other gunters ('egg hunters', get it?) who manage to get to the top of the scoreboard, and those were fantastic too. There's rivalry and respect and fondness there, as well as a bit of romance which was really sweet. And most of all, there's friendship and trust, all developed while playing the game.
These relationships bring up some really interesting issues about identity. Basically, how does living such a huge part of your life on a virtual world affect your real self and your relationships? Are you more you on OASIS or less you? Based on what I saw here, I'd lean to the first, in fact, and I was pleasantly surprised by how there wasn't a big moralistic message that OASIS was unhealthy and people need to go live in the real world. In his ending, Cline seems to propose a balance, and acknowledge that relationships created in OASIS can be just as strong and real as those created off-line, which I liked.
But even as their friendship helps Wade and the other gunters, they all have to contend with the evil IOI, which is willing to take the dirty tricks out of the virtual world. This ended up being a really good conflict. The whole thing could have come across as petty. What's at stake here, after all? Just a corporation taking on a company that runs a simulated world. But Cline manages to convince us that this is a really, really horrible outcome, worth the sacrifices that are made to prevent it.
This is not the first book that I've read recently presenting a corporation as the ultimate villain, and an apocalyptic vision of the future characterised by extreme privatisation. I find that a really interesting reflection of the general mood.
MY GRADE: An A-.