It seems like every decade or so a science fiction novel comes along that sends a lightning bolt through my nervous system: Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971). William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992). Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003). And I recently discovered what my mind-blowing novel for the 2010s is: Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.
Cline’s first novel starts out in the year 2044. The Great Recession (the same one we are in right now) is in its third decade. Unemployment is higher than ever (there’s a two-year wait for a job at fast food chain restaurants), liquid fuel is extremely scarce, the climate is in awful shape, and famine, disease, and poverty are rampant across the planet.
The story is told by Wade Watts, an 18-year-old orphan who lives with 16 other people in trailer near the top of a tall stack of trailers in a crowded, crime-ridden trailer park on the outskirts of Oklahoma City (the suburbs are deserted, because hardly anyone can afford to buy fuel to travel by car). He doesn’t remember his father, who was shot by cops who caught him looting a grocery store for food after a power outage. And his mother overdosed on adulterated drugs when he was a kid. Wade now lives with his hateful young aunt and her creepy, fresh-out-of-prison boyfriend. They allow Wade to live in the trailer only because he’s worth a weekly ration of food vouchers.
Wade spends most of his time in an abandoned van in a nearby junkyard, where he uses his school-issued laptop to stay jacked-in to a Snow Crash-like metaverse called the OASIS, which was created in 2012 by a brilliant game programmer named James Halliday (“a nerd uber-deity on the level of Gygax, Garriott, and Gates”). Halliday’s OASIS is used all day by everyone with access to a computer, and according to Wade, it changed “the way people around the world lived, worked, and communicated. It [transformed] entertainment, social networking, and even global politics. Even though it was initially marketed as a new kind of massively multiplayer online game, the OASIS quickly evolved into a new way of life.”
I’m not spoiling anything by revealing that the reclusive Halliday dies early in the book (We learn that in the first paragraph). But before Halliday dies (of cancer) he announces to the billions of people who use the OASIS that he has created a treasure hunt inside the virtual reality universe. The first person to complete the quest (by finding three keys and retrieving a hidden Easter Egg) will inherit his entire fortune, valued at $240 billion, and will be placed in charge of the OASIS.
The contest is quickly dubbed The Hunt. Millions of egg hunters (“gunters”) devote every waking hour to solving the quest, either solo or in clans. The gunters study everything they can about the 1980s (which were the formative years of Halliday and important to solving the clues). The gunters become experts in the comic books, movies, music, science fiction and fantasy novels, movies, role playing games, and video games of the era.
Because the stakes are so high, people invest all their time and money to solving the riddles left by Halliday. An evil corporation called Innovative Online Industries —- which has long had designs on taking over the OASIS and ruining all that it good about it -— has an entire division (the Department of Oology) with thousands of employees looking for the egg.
But after five years of fruitless searching, interest in the contest fizzles. Only a few thousand diehard gunners, including Wade, continue The Hunt.
Then Wade finds the first key and the entire world goes batshit.
Wade’s discovery sets the stage for the rest of the novel, a rollicking, surprise-laden, potboiling, thrilling adventure story that takes place both in the OASIS and the real world. It is loaded with geek-culture references from the 1980s that resonated strongly with me — but they are all integral to the story and never feel gratuitous. You don’t need to know about 1980s pop culture to appreciate the story. I loved every sentence of this book, and was a little sad when I reached the end and re-entered reality. Ernie sent me some advance reader copies of Ready Player One and everyone I gave a copy to told me they loved it. My friend John Park took it on a vacation and read it, and he was about to give it to someone who was interested in it, but decided to keep it so he could reread it again immediately! I’m going to reread it again myself.