What makes this story so incredibly prescient is not the prediction of a collapse of our natural resources, that’s a tale we’ve been telling for decades and is pretty much a given. No, it’s the OASIS technology, a free virtual world open to a variety of entertainments driven by micro-transactions and curated walled gardens. With the Oculus Rift being purchased by Facebook, Sony investing heavily in Project Morpheus, Microsoft’s rumoured VR initiative, and even Valve rumoured to be getting in on the act, VR headsets are something that is coming and soon. The addition of Haptic technology to allow for a more lifelike interface is what is going to take it to the next level, and that is coming. Things like gloves and treadmills are real things you can buy and are directly referenced in the story years before they were announced.
That’s the hard science in the fiction, but what about the soft part? That’s made up by Wade Watts aka Parzival, an 18 year old orphan living in “The Stacks” (mobile homes now inert and piled one atop another in communities scattered around America). 18 he attends a virtual school located in the Oasis his sole escape from the misery that is his life living in the trailer of his abusive aunt. One day the reclusive billionaire James Donovan Halliday the creator of the OASIS passed away initiating a challenge to all OASIS users, somewhere in the OASIS systems he has hidden three keys to three gates. The first person to complete all his challenges wins his fortune including his shares in his Gregarious Simulations Systems which owns the rights to the OASIS.
Parzival along with the millions of other disenfranchised people out there see this as an opportunity and “gunter” culture is born (a play on egg hunter itself a reference to video game Easter Eggs). The search goes on for years before Perzival stumbles on a clue that sets the wheels of the story in motion, along the way his relationship with his friend Aech, Art3mis his online girlfriend and Daito and Shoto two Japanese Gunters whom he forms a bond with. They are facing off against Nolan Sorrento corporate Gunter for Innovative Online Industries, a corporation trying to find Halliday’s treasure and assume ownership of the OASIS system.
The twist that makes this novel so special is Halliday (a mashup of Howard Hughes and Richard “Lord British” Garriot) is a pop culture addict, his entire hunt for his fortune is a love song to classic arcade games, movies of the 80s, and prog-rock. The entire gunter culture is built around an obsessive geekly worship of pop culture resonating with my own life (as a child of the 70s) and what’s more Cline presents them in a way that is not only believable but also humanizing. Shoto and Daito are hikikomori a Japanese word for shut-ins and a real struggle in contemporary Japanese culture. Wade is impoverished, and Aech and Art3mis both have their quirks. None of this is ever cruel or belittling their geeky nature but true human failings and struggles. This should be hardly surprising given Cline himself could be described as a geek. The man wrote a fan sequel to the classic Buckaroo Bonzai, his big break out work was Fanboys staring Chris Marquette, Dan Fogler, Sam Huntington, Jay Baruchel and Kristen Bell recounting the road trip of a group of Star Wars fans trying to get to see the first prequel movie before one of their friends died. His work to date has dealt with the subjects of love, mortality, and humanity even in the face of wanton geekery.
Is this high literature? No, it’s a rip roaring adventure with some heroes with hearts of gold against a big bad evil that’s willing to stop at nothing to get what they want. This is a great book for the young adult (or not so young adult) in your life looking for a male answer to Katnis in a miserable future that’s far more likely to become a reality than Panem ever will.