REVIEW SUMMARY: A fast-paced story in a bleak future, where escape into virtual worlds is driven by a contest based on 1980s trivia and culture and the winner gets billions.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Wade Watts hides from the nasty real world of the mid-21st century inside the virtual world/MMORPG called OASIS. Like many, he searches for the clues that will grant the solver the fortune left by the will of the founder of OASIS. When he is the first one to solve the first of three main puzzles, the real world and the virtual starts in hot pursuit.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Any book that ties in Rush, Zork, Monty Python and other relics from my past into a Second Life meets World of Warcraft virtual reality gets my vote.
CONS: A made-for-Disney-movie ending; if you don’t like 1980s trivia and culture, you may not dig this book (if it’s too loud, you’re too young)
BOTTOM LINE: With a high geek and 80s factor, this book won’t appeal to everyone. But Cline lays down a well paced-plot with some good twists, and doesn’t spend too much time buried in the minutia of 80s trivia, making this an enjoyable read.

I do not propose to trivialize any book with an outline, but let’s do a quick plot summary exercise:

  • Guy builds virtual reality, combination of Second Life/World of Warcraft/(insert name of fave MMPORPG here); guy makes billions;
  • World has energy crisis meltdown;
  • People get poor, depressed, escape into virtual reality.

So far, sounds like lots of other books and movies, don’t it? Tron, Surrogates and many others come to mind (and while we are talking Surrogates, can we all just agree that any SF movie Bruce Willis is in rocks?).

Author Ernest Cline adds the following twists to this well used base plot:

  • Guy who built virtual reality dies. But his last email to all users of this world, he describes a contest in which the winner will get all of his billions;
  • Contest is built on 1980s trivia, and involves finding three keys;
  • People get excited, dive into virtual reality world;
  • Corporations are formed, just to get expertise and win the prize;
  • Little guys versus big guys, in reality and in the game.

Creator of OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation) James Haliday dies, leaving his fortune to the person who can find his hidden “Easter egg” within OASIS. Through his avatar, Anorak, he leaves a parting message:

“But don’t worry. I’ve left a few clues lying around to get everyone started. And here’s the first one.” Anorak makes a grand gesture with his right hand, and three keys appear, spinning slowly in the air in front of him. They appear to be made of copper, jade and clear crystal. As the keys continue to spin, Anorak recites a piece of verse, and as he speaks each line, it appears briefly in flaming subtitles across the bottom of the screen:

Three hidden keys open three secret gates
Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits
And those with the skill to survive these straits
Will reach The End where the prize awaits

Of course, there is a flurry of interest and search, but no results. Until several years later homeless and poor student Wade Watts figures out the first clue, catapulting him (or his avatar at least) from obscurity to world-wide popularity. This gives him resources to continue the contest…and sends people and corporations tracking him in the real world.

The challenges are all based on culture trivia from the 1980s. From playing live games of the video game classic Joust, to acting out the parts in movies like WarGames and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Wade and his fellow “gunters” try to move through the three “Gates” that the keys unlock, staying ahead of the corporate-backed “Sixers”.

While not the first occurrence of using the world’s greatest band Rush to unlock a secret (I believe that was the episode of Chuck vs. Tom Sawyer), Cline throws in classic video games (Zork, PacMan), TV shows (Family Ties), anime, along with the afore mentioned movies (LadyHawke? really?) and music. Wade and his friends banter about the 80s like they had been there, which the author obviously was. Sometimes the trivia is a bit over the top, as is the knowledge and apparent genius of the players. Cline mixes in a bit of young love, heartache, adding in a bit of social commentary.

But in this story, the game is the thing. Of course it all comes down to the individuals vs. the collective, the “gunters” vs. the “Sixers” and the battle Royale doesn’t disappoint.

When’s the movie?

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