As always, the standard warning: I am going to relentlessly spoil this book.
Oh, what a joy it is to be able to write a glowing review.
(First, a note. I am going to refer to the main character as Wade throughout this review. This is not the name he uses for most of this novel, as it takes place within the virtual reality of the OASIS and everyone within uses a cyber-pseudonym. However, "Parzival" is not a name I care to spell reliably and the end of the novel leads me to believe it is a more fitting one than his screenname.)
My initial description to others of this book to others was that it was like a transcript of Roald Dahl and Neal Stephenson getting together over beers in 1989 to discuss the works of Kurt Vonnegut (or, less opaquely, what would happen if Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Snow Crash had a love child atop a pile of Atari games). Aside from Stephenson, all these references are so plain as to be spray painted on the side of a starship (no, really, Wade names a spaceship the Vonnegut).
The execution of the premise is inspired, even if the premise itself is baldly derivative. In the not too distant future (2044), humanity has ground to a halt owing to peak oil. Vehicles - aside from those with solar panels - are worse than useless. The world is a desolate and overcrowded place. Wade lives in a stacked trailer (with so little living space and such rampant poverty, trailers are stacked and connected with rickety girders) with his indifferent aunt who steals from him whenever possible. He is eighteen and well-versed in the only world that matters, the OASIS, a virtual reality that almost everyone alive is connected to most of the time. Even though he is poor, surviving entirely by finding and fixing computer equipment, he always makes sure to have a reliable connection to the OASIS.
The creator of the OASIS, James Donovan Halliday, died years prior after outlining in his will that the first person to find an Easter egg in the game will inherit the entire OASIS and all the goes along with it. This is less a matter of finding a needle in a haystack as finding a needle in Russia, since there are so many worlds in multiple zones in the OASIS. No keys are found in the intervening years and most of the smatterers have given up the search. The only clues anyone has are the video will and the 1980s-soaked diary he left behind, both of which become matters of no minor obsession among egg hunters, soon shortened to the portmanteau "gunters", and the villains of the book, Innovative Online Industries, a corporation that wishes to seize control of the OASIS and curtail its freedom for profit. These villains, called the Sixers (or Sux0rz) by the gunters, operate identical avatars and have all possible advantages within the OASIS, since they have the collective wealth and knowledge of their corporate masters.
I thought Cline's devices to avoid dealing with what a future world would be like were clever. There's no need to explore that dystopia outside because they have the best video game even created at their fingertips, free to play. There is no need for Cline to make up any history beyond the early 2000s, since everyone we care about is fixated on the minutiae of the 1980s. If you are disinterested with either video games (the vast majority of this novel) or 1980s culture, you would be best advised to look elsewhere.
Some of the physics of the OASIS were grand, such as the fact that different worlds allow and prevent abilities. Your ninetieth level wizard is going to be nearly useless in a technology only zone, your Firefly-class spaceship is going to conk out on the edges of a magic only zone and need to be towed back by a price-gouging mage in a psychic bubble. As in our world, virtual loot and gold is worth real money, though it is clear that Wade and the other gunters value the currency of the OASIS far more than legal tender (it can be used to buy products in the real world). I appreciate that there are rare artifacts that are worth the equivalent of millions of dollars and which are far too powerful given that they were inserted into the OASIS when it was just a game. I love the idea of online schools, something that is already peeking into our reality, as a means to combat social anxiety and inequity (of course, instead of people obsessing over who has the coolest new shoes, it is about who has the shiniest accessories for their avatar). I like that an avatar dying still has consequences, as this means the player must start again from level one with none of their loot. Otherwise, it would be only too easy to drown the enemy beneath digital corpses and regenerate at full power.
It is not that some of the seams are still not visible in the final product. I can see where Cline backed his characters into corners and then had to revise the book to get them out again. I can detect where one of his beta readers must have said, "Well, this doesn't make much sense." Sections of the novel seem more like the descriptions of action being seen in a movie than as if the characters are immersed in it; it is showing, not telling. On the other hand, these characters are jacked into a virtual reality, avoiding the horrors of their actual reality, so this might be less laziness than a stylistic trick. Wade is not used to a world that doesn't involve a screen and haptic gloves. The overall experience is such a delight that I am inclined to be forgiving.
This book doesn't provide many surprises. If you do not understand by the tenth page that Wade is going to win in the end and learn an important lesson about love and friendship after triumphing over adversity, you clearly grew up in a very different culture than I did. At the very least, you haven't seen many 80s movies (or Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory), which provide the moral backbone of this book. But knowing the inevitable destination doesn't detract from enjoying the scenery on the way, and it is some pretty scenery. This is a book rife with space battles, eighties music, magic, mazes, puzzles, comic books, giant robots, and pretty much every fandom worth knowing. I am a child of the eighties in a literal way, but I cannot promise to have understood all (or likely many) of the allusions and references. Thankfully, these tend not to be subtle. This is, after all, an entire virtual reality made by an eighties geek with an Easter egg hunt predicated on his obsession. You may not get the clues before Wade does, but it does not really matter. This is an adventure novel, not a mystery.
One thing that struck me as an afterthought (but which undoubtedly struck dozens of studio execs immediately) is that this book is, despite its filmic nature, downright unfilmable. It is not that the visuals wouldn't lend themselves to being on celluloid. As I've said, this is some pretty scenery and I'd love to see a three dimensional interpretation of it. The issue is exclusively one of licensing. Cline's characters inhabit a world obsessed with the 1980s and not a one of them is shy about namedropping, buying, waving about, or outright reenacting intellectual property. There is a battle between mechas of multiple studios, the lawyers of which would undoubtedly look askance at seeing them all fight in a movie. There are sections of the book where the gunters play a game consisting of perfectly acting out character's parts in movies, down to the gestures and with whom they are interacting. I suppose one could just make near copies of the properties mentioned to avoid paying out tens of billions for the rights, but it seems to defeat the purpose of the exercise. There is a reason characters in movies tend to either drink prop brands or deal in product placement.
That being said, the movie is already stated to be in development.