Set in a dystopian near future where humanities desire for bigger and better entertainments and lifestyles has exhausted the planet, and a massive multiplayer virtual reality video game playground ‘the Oasis’ gives escape to the masses, this is perhaps best known for its extremely liberal geek referencing.
Owen Watts lives in a high-rise trailer park with a bitter, dysfunctional Aunt. Like many his escape is the Oasis, a massive immersive video game that takes our current Virtual Reality Technology and stretches it to the bounds of what could be achieved- the ability to travel to entire theme park worlds, build up a virtual fortune, and even attend school in a VR environment.
Then the Oasis’s creator, James Halliday, or ‘The Anorak,’ dies and leaves a amazing bequest; whoever solves a series of progressing quests will win the ultimate ‘Easter egg,’ ownership of the Oasis, and a fortune, enough to change the world.
Wade has a flash of inspiration and solves the first quest using his Avatar ‘Parcival,’ meeting a fellow questor, Artemis, along the way. Along with his best friend H and a rag tag band of questors, Wade must solve further quests and riddles and beat a murderous Corporate Behemoth IOI, with arch-baddie Sorento at the helm, for control of the Oasis.
The books main kicker is that Halliday was an 80’s pop culture obsessive, and he has themed his VR creation accordingly. So, to find the ‘Egg,’ questors must be word perfect in all aspects of 80’s pop culture lore, from movies, through to tv shows, video games and music.
And this is what gives the book it stylistic flourish that has alienated some but that others have embraced; it is a deep bath of pop culture referencing, and, if like me you grew up in the 80’s, it is massive fun having your favourites referenced, and being reminded of other chestnuts you long forgot.
It is a pacy story, energetically told, and for me the 80’s lore helped to give the book much of it fun and charm and was a crucial competent in its world building.
Less successful are the chunks of adolescent philosophizing in the book, and a real creaky tin ear for human relationships. It’s had to put your finger on it, but the real-world segments are grating, the characters become irritating when they take off their VR headsets and haptic gloves. A shame, because the whole thrust of the book is that we ignore our real lives to live in our virtual or digital ones at our peril.
Overall, though, this is massive fun, and Will Wheaton is a great choice of narrator for the audio book, capturing the spirit of an 18-year-old geeky guy out on an adventure.