Taking place in 2044, this novel follows the adventures of Wade Watts, or Parzival as he is known in OASIS, the virtual reality/internet/gaming network that has come to dominate pop culture, media and recreation in the future. The creator of this virtual reality, Halliday, died over five years ago, and in his will, he left his 240 billion dollar fortune to whoever could win the game he created in the OASIS and complete his quest. Halliday afficionados know that to solve this quest they need to have an extensive working knowledge of all things '80s, Halliday's major obsession, and Wade is one of many "gunters" or egg hunters that has studied Halliday's life and the '80s in preparation for his quest. Unfortunately, Wade comes from a poor background, and it affects his ability to travel in this virtual world (he has access to books and media files for free) where transportation from one planet to the other requires money (real or virtual) or a vehicle of some sort. Access and usage of the OASIS is free but within that program everything has a cost. Wade only has access to his one world where he attends school and has no idea how to get more money or how to narrow down on which of several thousands of worlds the first challenge is located. However, while lost in thought in his OASIS Latin class, Wade finally makes that first connection that will allow him to discover the first key and be the first person to show up on the score board.
Wade's accomplishment leads to renewed interest in the quest, and also makes Wade a person of interest for the "Sixers" and IOI, a corporation that has a whole staff section dedicated to the search for the egg since this would allow them to make even more money off of the program - considering how much money people spend within the game on luxury items and what not, they have already made a good chunk selling things. When their recruitment efforts fail, the corporation resorts to death threats, and even sets off a bomb in the trailer stacks Wade lives in. I thought the second part of the novel dragged a little bit because Wade got distraced from his quest for the second key and the second gate. The first part or "Level 1" included a good set up of Wade's world, the concept of the OASIS and his discovery of the first challenge. However, in the second level he spends a lot of time talking about his new fame, buying things, going on side quests and attempting to romance a fellow gunter named Art3mis who was the second name on the score board rather than trying to solve the quatrain/riddle pointing to the Jade Key
When taken simply as an adventure quest story, the novel was a lot of fun though occasionally cheesy - I mean, anything focused on '80s culture is going to have some cheese. Evil corporation, plucky young hero, sassy love interest - they are all there. However, I feel like there were implications in the novel that either weren't dealt with, simply brushed off or addressed with one little sentence at the end along the lines of "don't confuse virtual reality with reality." I know the things I'm about to bring up weren't even the point of the novel but it is definitely what came up in my head. As much as I wanted to root for Wade, in other cases I also wanted to shake him as a representation of the future. Wade mentions a few times that things in the future have gotten very bad so most people spend the majority of their time in OASIS, avoiding reality for the virtual world. Most of these people don't even have the excuse that they're gunters and hunting for the prize. Instead, there is a whole Brave New World situation where the OASIS has become the drug that people use to avoid the reality (although, I'm not completely sure how this works after being told that there is an energy and power crisis). Instead of trying to fix the world, they just escape to a fake one. Wade doesn't really talk about this much, focusing on the positives of this system. He doesn't vote in the real US elections because they are pointless but he votes in the OASIS one? Does Cline even realize what he is saying there? Am I as a reader supposed to want Wade to stop caring only about what is going on in a game and maybe try to make a difference? I mean obviously if he wins, he could use that money for good, but the only character to mention this is actually Art3mis, the love interest. It's easy enough to root for Wade over the corporation but in the end, will it change anything? Will Wade make a difference that actually matters? Still, the idea of the OASIS is rather amazing - the ability to have all kinds of knowledge at one's fingertips, the ability to at least see representations of the world whenever desired. Unfortunately, in the world portrayed most people aren't using it for this type of self improvement and are instead using it as an escape and a status symbol. However, as long as one can avoid philosophical thoughts, it's a simple and engaging story.