“Shall we play a game?” – WarGames (1983)
Set in a decidedly dismal near future beleaguered by an ongoing energy crisis and economic recession, it’s an overcrowded, poverty-stricken world that people just don’t want to exist in. That’s why millions spend all of their time in the OASIS, a free massively-multiplayer online game encompassing thousands of virtual worlds that has irrevocably transformed entertainment, social networking, business, and even global politics – it’s become “a new way of life” for millions of disillusioned humans seeking escape from their depressing lives, albeit temporarily.
“Before I died… I created my own Easter egg, and hid it somewhere inside my most popular videogame – the OASIS. The first person to find my Easter egg will inherit my entire fortune.”
Thus begins a worldwide frenzy – à la the search for the golden tickets in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – where video gamers all over the world began their quest to find Halliday’s egg. But years pass and still no one has even found the first of the three keys that open up the secret gates that lead to the egg.
Then Wade Watts, an 18-year old living in a trailer park on the outskirts of Oklahoma City with his aunt, finds the first key. But in doing so, he makes himself the prime target of a ruthless corporation bent on finding the egg and taking control of the billion-dollar prize. Thus begins a breathtaking virtual quest that will lead to the “most epic battle in video game history”…
“A woman with a giant ozone-depleting hairdo bobbed her head to an oversize Walkman. A kid in a gray Members Only jacket leaned against the wall, working on a Rubik’s Cube. A Mohawked punk rocker sat in a plastic chair, watching a Riptide rerun on a coin-operated television.”
Additionally, Cline’s novel is constructed upon a remarkable foundation – a treasure trove – of hardcore geek trivia ranging from obscure Dungeons & Dragons campaign details to quotes from movies like Monty Python and the Holy Grail to how to pull off a perfect game of Pac-Man.
It’s pure geek gold – there’s no question about that – but Cline’s fluid and intelligent narrative makes this novel palatable for a potentially huge audience: young readers will identify with the teen protagonists, older readers will embrace the nostalgia, hardcore science fiction and fantasy aficionados will revel in the abundance of references (Gary Gygax, THX 1138, Cory Doctorow, etc.), and mainstream fiction fans will be more than impressed with the story’s social commentary and deeply profound theme.
Bottom line: Ernest Cline’s debut novel is a masterwork of fiction that transcends categorization – underneath all of the geeky pop culture references and nonstop adventure is a chilling cautionary tale: how many of us are seeking escape from reality inside of our virtual gaming realms as our world collapses around us? And what will the ultimate consequences of our mass departure from reality be?
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for the last two decades and has written thousands of reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, Kirkus Reviews, and BarnesandNoble.com. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
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