|The paperback cover, better than the hardcover, IMO|
Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes this depressing reality by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia where you can be anything you want to be, where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets. And like most of humanity, Wade is obsessed by the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this alternate reality: OASIS founder James Halliday, who dies with no heir, has promised that control of the OASIS - and his massive fortune - will go to the person who can solve the riddles he has left scattered throughout his creation.
For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain his prize, knowing only that the riddles are based on Halliday's obsession with 80s pop culture. And then Wade stumbles onto the key to the first puzzle. Sudddenly, he finds himself pitted against thousands of competitors in a desperate race to claim the ultimate prize, a chase that soon takes on terrifying real-world dimensions - and that will leave both Wade and his world profoundly changed.
The main narrative arc is not even remotely new: boy goes from rags to riches, meets girl, break-up happens, he repurposes his life and finally wins the girl and a fortune with his special snowflake abilities, while he destroys the most evil big company in the world. But his abilities are the nerdest thing ever: vast knowledge of the 80s pop culture.
Cline's writing is nothing special, but he can tell a story, and this was a riveting one. No wonder it kept me awake during the read-a-thon. Wade is a nice character, although a very typical nerd one. Luckily for him, he lives in a world where nerd is cool since James Halliday, founder of the MMPORPG OASIS, created his Easter Egg hunt. The hunt is a game within a game, a standard quest story. I recognized many of the 80s references, which I think is an important factor in enjoying the book as much as I did (and also in making me feel old). Wade's sidekick, Aech, is my favourite character, though, with his snark and his tenacious temperament. The girlfriend is not such a great character, but alas, many a nerd's dream.
The dystopian background was an interesting aspect of the book. Wade's point of view as an IOI indentured servant put some weight into the novel. Until then, the bleak world was almost inexistent - only told, not much shown. You then realize that, as cool as it is, OASIS has become the ultimate drug and people are not trying in any way to save their world. This message is repeated a couple of times at the end, but not really stressed upon. The novel just never ends being something different than an adventure book. But! This doesn't mean I didn't like it. In fact, I really really liked it! It was so much fun!
END OF SPOILERS
So basically: it is fun and geek! When I try to describe it to people it ends up sounding as an adventure quest D&D-like with arcade games, space travel, samurai-like people, the Monty Pythons and an epic mecha battle between good and evil! And it comes with its own crappy 80s OST! No wonder Cline sold the film rights even before being published.
If you don't find that super exciting, skip this one.
Rating: 5/5 - loved it.
Edit related to Arcade games: Google celebrates Breakout 37th birthday with their own Easter Egg. Type 'Atari Breakout' in Google Images to see it for yourself. Perfect timing!