Set in a near future, this book often looks to the past – the glorious 1980s! Wade Watts lives in a dingy, crowded trailer park and goes to virtual high school. His joy in life is found through the OASIS, an on-line universe created by James Halliday & Ogden Morrow. You can discover space aliens and ride unicorns or play for hours in a 1980s arcade. In fact, after Halliday’s death, his final message was released to the world: He had built a quest into the OASIS, one that required the players to uncover secret, hidden clues (or Easter eggs). The prize is his fortune, and the prize is still unclaimed. Now Wade has discovered one of those clues and the hunt for the ultimate prize has heated up again as more competitors join the game.
Lynn from Lynn’s Book Blog told me I would love this book and she was right. This was just all kinds of fun. The future is a kind of stagnant, bleak place. Technology only went so far and then it petered out. With most of the world’s fuel supplies used up, people abandoned the countrysides and gathered in ever-increasingly congested cities. The OASIS allows many people to log in from home and go to virtual schools or virtual offices. Yet folks often stay connected to this virtual reality for their entertainment as well; so society is becoming less and less connected to each other in the real world.
Wade is a high schooler I could relate to – not popular with any clique but decent at his grades. I especially liked that in VR high school you can mute anyone but the teacher – so even if some jerk is calling you names, you don’t have to listen to them. His personality comes alive when he logs on to the OASIS and can zip around with his VR friends saving worlds and doing dungeon crawls. It’s not to say that the VR doesn’t have it’s cliques and bullies. If you have the funds, you can spend them in the OASIS on cool equipment for your avatar. So there’s always some amount of ‘fitting in’ strife for Wade to maneuver through. However, he does have stalwart friends in the OASIS, like Aech. They’ve been on dozens of missions together and spent hours and hours discussing every thing. They’ve been on-line friends for years, and that friendship really means something to Wade who has few people in the real world.
Then we have the whole 1980s nostalgia thing going on. Halliday, who built the ultimate prize game into the OASIS, was a big fan of the 1980s. He loved several things about it and built those things into the OASIS here and there. From the music to the arcade games to the TV series to the SFF books of the time, this story is a smorgasbord of 1980s trivia. I was born in 1978, and then I was raised on country music. MTV was not allowed in my house, but I married a man who loves his 80s music, so I have picked up some of it over time. For me, I loved nearly all the 1980s references. Some of the music references I didn’t recognize and some of the Asian anime I haven’t seen, but for the most part it was all recognizable. Sometimes the references would just be a one-liner from a movie and you’d get it if you’ve seen the movie. It made this book one of those stories you can geek out over.
Of course, the over-arching plot is for Wade to find all of Halliday’s Easter eggs, complete the quest, and win the prize. However, it was far more complicated than that. Halliday’s quest has been around for many years now and thousands have been trying to find the next clue and it hasn’t happened. Even Wade has spent many, many hours searching the OASIS for the next scrap of intel on the Easter eggs. But now Wade has a hunch and he, as his avatar Parzival, acts on it and he’s rewarded with the key to the first gate. Of course, once he accomplishes this, his name appears on the public OASIS scoreboard and now everyone is tracking his avatar’s doings. The race is on to complete Halliday’s quest and win the prize!
Along the way, Parzival makes some new on-line friends such as Art3mis, Shoto, and Daito. Aech is along for the ride, being Parzival’s trusty sidekick. I really loved the interactions among these teens. Well, Wade makes some assumptions about their ages and such – it’s almost impossible not to. Pitted against them are Nolan Sorrento and the Sixers. These players are corporate funded and there are thousands of them. They have been paid to hunt for the Easter eggs. They have more equipment (both real world and in the OASIS) and they have this wealth of experience to draw upon for any situation. They are intimidating competitors. Also, their corporation isn’t above bribing, paying off, threatening, or physical acts of aggression. Sadly, Wade learns this the hard way.
I found myself cheering Parzival/Wade on throughout this book. I also did a few face palms when I thought Wade had lost his way or made a stupid move. The book has so many great scenes! I love how the beauty, wonder, and infinite possibilities of the OASIS are paired with the dingy, crowded, hopeless reality of the real world. Wade just wants an escape. I totally get that. Later in the book, he meets a character who wants to change that and make the real world something to look forward to and use the OASIS as a tool to help mankind get back on it’s feet and perhaps out into the stars. That was a great touch too because it gets Wade to consider the possibilities.
This was a most enjoyable book, perhaps one of my top 5 for the year. The fancy VR world coupled with all the 1980s nostalgia made this story unexpectedly fun. By twists and turns, I would be caught up in a fond Atari game memory one moment and completely entrenched in the next Easter egg challenge the next moment. And I bet this book is just as good on the second read.
The Narration: Ah, Wil Wheaton, you were born to narrate this book! Wheaton was the perfect fit for this novel. He makes a very believable teen Wade. His female voices were good. Each character was distinct. He was especially good at imbuing the characters with emotion and there is quite the range of emotions in this book. Great performance!