The Short Version: In the future, a massive online universe has begun to supplement reality. The OASIS, as it’s called, is full of everything and anything you could want – a perfect escape from the dystopian reality of life in the 2040s. When James Halliday (the creator of OASIS) dies, his will sparks a treasure hunt with the grand prize of Halliday’s entire fortune. Then, when a young teen named Wade makes the first breakthrough in the hunt after years of worldwide futility, Wade and his online friends are drawn into an epic battle for the future of OASIS – one that puts their actual lives on the line as well.
The Review: It has been quite a long time since I’ve stayed up to finish a book. I’m exhausted right now – it has been a long week and I’ve got travel coming up and I saw a weird play tonight… but from when I got on the subway to head back to my apartment, all through cooking a late dinner, and straight up to now, I’ve basically been reading nonstop.
I was never all that much of a videogamer. My parents were pretty good about keeping video games out of my hands – I had a Gameboy for roadtrips but often much preferred a book and my computer games were either Carmen Sandiego, the Myst series, or Heroes of Might & Magic (turn-based strategy… with swords). Sure, I loved to play Mario Kart or Smash Bros or Jet Moto when I went over to a friend’s house, but I was never all that wrapped up in them. I would not qualify myself as a “gamer” – but I am most decidedly a nerd. And if you’re not at least one or the other, chances are you’ll find this book a little frustrating. It’s chock-a-block with references to… well, everything. Movies, music, games, books, fashion, culture-at-large – and nearly all of it is from the ’80s. So actually, the real target audience for this book would be… John Mayer. And his ilk. Kids of the late 70s. But anyway, I digress.
The book itself spends very little time focusing on the dystopia of this all-too-realistic future – and I rather liked that. We get the setup: everyone spends most of their time jacked in because the real world kind of sucks, with stacks of trailers as living arrangements and Mad Max-esque roving bands of marauders in the space between cities. But OASIS sounds… well, it actually sounds kind of amazing. It’s scanned directly onto your retinas, making it seem more realistic than reality – you can even set up smell and sound and motion devices to make it feel like you are, in fact, actually on some alien planet. And anything that can be coded can be created – so there are planets based on everything you could imagine. Every planet from the Star Wars universe, every world from fantasy and science fiction, just about anything else you can think of – it exists and you can go there.
But the concept isn’t necessarily all that exciting if there weren’t a plot behind it. And what a plot there is. I don’t know if this ring bells with readers over a certain age… but readers my age, you likely remember (at least vaguely) a wonderful novel called The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. Westing dies and his 16 heirs are left a sort of puzzle to figure out and solve in order to win his inheritance. Similarly here, the creater of OASIS has died and left a puzzle open to all OASIS players. Solve it and you win his fortune – several billion dollars.
We pick up with our young hero – orphan, living with his aunt, just sort of trying to exist in a shitty world. Wade, somewhat through luck and circumstance and somewhat through brains, discovers the answer to the first riddle of Halliday’s puzzle – and immediately becomes something of a legend. It’s actually pretty neat to see how realistically that overnight fame thing plays out. He’s a teenager – of course he’s going to sign endorsement deals and rake in the dough. Of course he’s going to get in over his head with an evil multinational corporation. Of course he’s going to have his e-friends and realize that no matter how close an online friendship is… it’ll never beat the real thing. The morals of the story are worn on its sleeve and they’re important morals to pay attention to, especially in this increasingly tech-based age. A throwaway line about no one caring for the results of the real-world elections but being deeply invested in the OASIS elections… it’s food for thought. We talk of reshaping our democracy to fit modern life – but what if we did, in fact, just start over? Create a virtual society where we can rejigger the laws and maybe make it better? It’s a scary thing to consider an e-universe like that (I’m thinking WALL-E) but at the same time… And there’s also a lovely subplot about the way that virtual reality allows us to create ourselves in our own image – but what does that do to a person’s psyche, if they think someone is falling in love with their idealized self instead of their real self? It was a little clichéd the way it was all handled… but at the same time, it was beautiful. And an important lesson – it’s about who you are, not what you look like. We say it all the time but in an increasingly virtual society, what’s more important than remembering just that?
Anyway, back to the story. The adventure aspect is a mix of the best of everything – you’ve got videogame adventure, you’ve got swords and sorcery, you’ve got spaceships… hell, you’ve even got a sequence where the characters go through line by line two of the greatest movies of the 80s: WarGames and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s not all in the book of course but you’d better believe I was quoting right along with Wade in both instances. The book is a huge love letter to a simpler time – when we were kids and it was cool to learn your favorite movies line by line and to wake up early before school to get in an hour of trying to get to the next level of that game. And man, it whips by – the pacing is spectacular and, while it’s pretty high-octane, you never feel tired out.
Rating: 5 out of 5. Just a perfect slice of fun. It flies by, it’s well written, it tips its hat in a really unique way to pop culture in general (what other book is going to use a Rush concept album… as a setting?), and there’s even a message to boot. The idea of creating a world where literally anything is possible could’ve been a disaster – too much stuff, too little focus, etc. But instead, it all works out – because Cline sets his cap and follows the path directly. It’s a remarkably self-assured debut novel – and just a damn good time.