“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. 


 Keep up with all of my blogs – as well as all of Barnes & Noble’s exclusive reviews, authors interviews, videos, promotions, and more – by following @BNBuzz on Twitter!

by on ‎09-05-2011 03:18 AM

Sound good Paul, very good! But my geek credentials are sadly lacking. The 80s though, well, that decade is indelibly impressed on by cerebral cortex. I definitely won't get the Dungeons and Dragons references and the arcane gamer stuff, but this book appeals to me. Plus, I was very good at Pac Man. When I'm in the mood for 80s nostalgia combined with a fantasy quest, I'll remember your fantastic review of this book and order it.  

by on ‎09-05-2011 08:58 PM

Thanks for the great article. I had looked at this book and was undecided. It will go in my list now. I will definitely like the geek side of the book.

by B&N Bookseller melissas on ‎09-07-2011 10:22 PM

About 7 booksellers on my staff have read this one, and have been speaking very highly of it. To top off the pure geekiness of the book, Wil Wheaton is voice of this audiobook, a joyous event for those of us geeks who religiously watched Star Trek: The Next Generation many years ago, and not to mention are avid fans of the comedy web series, The Guild. Boy, I can't wait to relive the 80s. I did end up dating a guy who had a DeLorean some time ago, but I don't think that counts.

by Moderator paulgoatallen on ‎09-07-2011 11:58 PM

Melissas wrote: "I did end up dating a guy who had a DeLorean some time ago, but I don't think that counts."


No way.

by Moderator Melissa_W on ‎09-09-2011 03:08 PM

I've been listening to the audiobook in the car - about 60% done.


Love how Cline has managed to name-check all the geek novels in his own geek novel.  It's a very meta trip down memory lane (he hasn't played paddlepong on the atari quite yet, tho)

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