This is a book that many people have adored, and it should have been right in my wheelhouse as well, but while I enjoyed it, I didn’t love it as much as I thought I did. While I understood the majority of the references, I was not really a gamer in the 80s, and those people are definitely the target audience.
Earth has suffered a seemingly catastrophic ecological disaster, and people are living in very cramped conditions, in stacked containers and generally very hungry. However, technology is very advanced, particularly in terms of a virtual universe called the OASIS. People spend entire days in there, as there are no jobs, and attend school there as well. There are not a lot of details about what happened to Earth, which is kind of a relief – it doesn’t really matter in terms of the story, so Cline doesn’t spend a lot of narrative time explaining it and the characters don’t dwell on it. This is nicely illustrated at one point, when the main character has jury rigged an electrical system that he powers by riding a bike at the beginning of each day – a very old fashioned way to generate electricity so that he can spend his day in an enormously advanced virtual universe.
The main character, Wade Watts or Parzival, sets off on a quest much like one that would be played in a video game. There is an genius master programmer who sets up a extremely complicated game, the winner of which inherits the OASIS. Parzival, with assistance with his friends, comes from out of nowhere to compete against an evil megacorporation for the prize. There is a little bit of romance, an enormous amount of cultural referencing (including Wil Wheaton and some great 80s movies), and things progress fairly predictably. The details are nice, and the characters are not detestable (as they are in The Magicians), but the plot is easily anticipated and therefore not all that exciting.