The year is 2044 and the world is in near-ruins. The Great Recession has taken its toll on the world’s economy, and resources are scarce. The Internet and gaming culture have evolved into a creation known as OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a massively multiplayer online simulation game created by James Halliday and Ogden Morrow of Gregarious Simulation Systems (GSS), formerly known as Gregarious Games. Halliday, with no heirs or other living family, dies suddenly and leaves a video will to those in OASIS and a book that was dubbed Anorak’s Almanac, a journal written by Halliday himself containing all his thoughts. The video says that whoever can collect three keys (Copper, Jade, and Crystal) that are hidden throughout the universe of OASIS and pass through the matching gates will receive his fortune and controlling stake in GSS. This becomes known as the Hunt and people immediately begin the search for Halliday’s Easter Egg. Those searching for the Egg are referred to as “gunters,” a portmanteau of “egg hunters.” Gunters devote an enormous amount of time to studying 1980s pop culture, the decade Halliday grew up in and was perpetually obsessed with, in the hope it will assist them with locating and solving the puzzles involved with the egg.
As the book opens, many years have passed since Halliday’s death, but none of the keys have been found. The public frenzy about the hunt has receded into a gunter subculture, while Innovative Online Industries corporation continues to operate a task force dedicated to solving the puzzles and seizing control of GSS.
A fun, quick read. I blew through this book in about three sessions. What keep things moving was the fact that it is an riddle-driven quest story with well defined steps and a race to the finish line among the competitors. Since most of the story takes place with a virtual reality called OASIS, the settings and props are wild and interesting. Avatars have superhuman powers, pilot spacecraft, have lairs, etc. You get the picture.
But there’s a method to the madness. Abilities and props cost real money. Time consuming travel via spaceship is done for economic reasons, since teleportation is very expensive in OASIS. Superhuman abilities cost money. A fashionable avatar costs money. Real-world economics is very much alive and well in virtual reality.
It’s the near future. Real life is hard – economic hardships have affected everyone, unemployment is sky high and life it brutish and unpleasant. To add to these economic and resource troubles, corporate power has increased immensely to the point where indentured servitude (debtors prison) is back. Most people escape into OASIS.
OASIS started as an massive online game and eventually evolved into the the next generation of the Internet. Entering OASIS is free and is done via goggles and haptic gloves, but once inside, pretty much everything except education costs money. The difference between real currency and online currency seems irrelevant and both are equivalent.
The author does a good job of juxtaposing the harsh unpleasantness of the real world with the wonder that is OASIS. Given this difference, it seems much more plausible that a huge portion of humanity spends its time living, working and playing within OASIS, while in reality people become emaciated or obese shut-ins. So the setting is highly engaging.
This book is full of 80’s nostalgia because the quest for Halliday’s Easter Egg demands it. Halliday was one of the original founders of OASIS and a huge geek fan of the 1980’s. As a result, anyone attempting to solve his riddles and quest needs to understand that era as well. For the 35-50 year old crowd it’s definitely a trip down memory lane. I think this is the main reason why this book is so popular.
As far as criticisms go, the writing is fair and acceptable but not great. There’s a lot of exposition to fill in the gaps in people’s knowledge of the 1980’s. Usually this would be tedious, but since it’s about some obscure historical geek fact, people tend to rabbidly absorb this eagerly.
However, a bigger annoyance awaits you at the end of the book. The challenge for the final gate (playing Tempest and acting out Monty Python and The Holy Grail) where an uninspired rehash of the first challenge (playing Joust and acting out War Games). I really wish the author came up with something unique.
Furthermore, since the prize was Halliday’s personal fortune ($240 billion) and control over OASIS, arguably one of the most important jobs on the planet, I would have hoped to see a moral lesson in the challenges. Yes all the nostalgia and deep geek knowledge is great and in keeping with Halliday’s character, but to simply allow the best video game player and trivia expert to win seems shallow. The closest it got to this is the need to have all three crystal keys turn at once to gain entrance to Anorak’s castle.
There is a message that real life is more important than virtual reality, but not when it comes to looks. A person is what’s inside their head and not what they look like. This was brought home since Parzival’s best friend Aech turned out to be a fat black lesbian and Art3mis had a large facial birthmark. Despite this, Parzival saw them no differently than when he only knew them through their Avatars. As for reality being more important – the best/only example of this is at the end when Wade/Parzival and Samantha/Art3mis finally meet and person and it becomes the first time that Wade isn’t interested is getting back into OASIS (despite his superuser abilities). Love trumps all other hardship?
Despite the uninspired final challenge and lack of a moral test (that probably bothers me more than most) I would recommend this book. While the nostalgia value is a huge attraction to this book, be warned that is likely starts falling off for those outside the 35-50 age range. And if they’re not geeks, but they probably wouldn’t pick up the book in that case anyway.
(Amazon) Ready Player One