Summary (Amazon): In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade’s devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world’s digital confines—puzzles that are based on their creator’s obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them.
But when Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade’s going to survive, he’ll have to win—and confront the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.
My Review (Spoilers):
Executive Summary: creative
So this was the book that I picked for book club for this year. I had the “sci-fi/fantasy” category, and my husband has been suggesting I read this book for a couple years, so I thought it might be a good book club suggestion.
In my opinion, it was. This book was really impressive. It’s perfect for late Gen X’ers, but it’s written well enough that those of us who didn’t grow up playing Atari can still follow along!
James Halliday was the man responsible for designing the OASIS, the global virtual reality “game” that most everyone used on a daily basis (akin perhaps to the Sims except a lot more). Halliday was a major introvert and never married or had children. Upon his sudden death, a short video of his was released, inviting everyone in the world to find the Easter Egg that he had hidden in the OASIS. And whoever found it would inherit his fortune. Halliday had been born in the 70s and had grown up during the advent of video games. So most of the gunters (egg-hunters) spend all their free time beefing up on their 80s pop culture and video game knowledge. From the video, it is known that there are 3 keys and 3 gates. At the end of those, the egg will be there.
Now, five years after Halliday’s death, the Scoreboard of people who have found keys or gates still empty, the story begins of the first person whose name gets on that list–eighteen year old Wade (Parzival) Watts. Wade lives in Oklahoma City, which sounds like it’s actually gotten worse in the next 40 years. He lives in “the stacks”, a series of trailer homes stacked on top of themselves to conserve land. He lived with his aunt and 14 other people after his mother had died from an overdose. Apparently the world is in shambles due to an over-attachment to fossil fuels which collapsed the economy and extended the economic recession into a great depression. (This was a bit cheesy and dramatic but luckily the book spends almost no time in the real world).
Even though Wade was very very poor, he was able to get access to the OASIS through school. His grades were good enough that he was accepted at a virtual school in the OASIS and was therefore given the gloves, goggles, and access to get in. His avatar had the original clothes that it came with –a black shirt and pants–as he didn’t have the money to buy new ones. He spent all his time on the school planet, Ludus, as he doesn’t have enough virtual currency to travel from it. For a while, he was able to hop rides with his one friend, Aech (“H”), so that he could level his avatar and then have enough money to return to Ludus. But lately Aech has gotten too good, and he has missed too much school to make it work any more. And if he misses too much school, he has to relinquish his OASIS gear, which would defeat the purpose. Aech, whose avatar is a brown haired, brown eyed white man, makes a lot of money competing in PvP competitions. He has his own “chat room” in the OASIS (aka a place where invited people can go and hang out. And play video games.)
Wade has a secret hideout in an old van in a junkyard where he sleeps, catches up on his 80s trivia, and goes into the OASIS. The search for the egg is a salvation for him, and he spends every waking moment working on it. Meanwhile, he knows that even after 5 years, there are still others looking for it too. Aech, for one. A blogger named Art3mis who Wade has a mega-crush on. Numerous other gunter clans (groups of gunters working together who would then split the bounty), and also the Sixers. The Sixers were a group from IOI, a large conglomerate and the largest internet provider, who hoped to gain the egg to gain control of the OASIS. They wanted to cover the OASIS with advertising, start charging a fee to use it, and in general, make it everything that people hate. All the other gunters hated them.
As Wade is daydreaming in Latin class, he begins to think back on all he has learned since the original message from Halliday. He’s studied music, movies, TV, and video games. He scoured through Anorak’s Almanac (Halliday’s journal that was released after the video aired). Through that, he found a series of notched letters, that he put together to spell out the first clue:
The Copper Key awaits explorers
In a tomb filled with horrors
But you have much to learn
If you hope to earn
A place among the high scorers.
He’d already figured out the first two lines. The first one was obvious. And the second line referred to an old D&D pamphlet called Tomb of Horrors. (Halliday and his partner Morrow, the face of the operation, spent much of their youth playing D&D and is how they met in the first place). And as he is sitting in Latin class, he wonders who would have more to learn than students? And to top that off, the planet where all the schools are, Ludus, also means “school” but it also means “game”. After school, he searches the topography of Ludus for something that looks like the Tomb of Horrors, and to his delight, he finds it. It’s far away though, and he doesn’t know how he’ll get there, until he remembers that the school gives free inter-school teleportation vouchers to attend away game sporting events. He finds a nearby school that they are playing in football, and teleports there. He then runs the rest of the way to get to the Tomb, and finds a way inside. Wade has the pamphlet with him, which helps him navigate the monsters and traps. He knows there is one boss in there, Acererack, and he is surprised when he finds him somewhere different from where the pamphlet specifies.
Acererack challenges Wade to a best of three game of Joust–an old game where you joust each other while riding on birds. (Totally unfamiliar but sounds hilarious.) Acererack wins the first, and Wade is a little disheartened, but he knows he knows the game and asks Acererack if they can switch sides. Wade manages to eke out a win on game #2, and goes on to a solid victory in game #3. Acererack presents him with the copper key and tells hims, “What you seek lies hidden in the trash on the deepest level of Daggorath.”
On his way out, Wade runs into Art3mis who admits that she discovered the tomb 6 weeks prior, but isn’t very good at Joust. She’s been returning every night to try again. Wade suggests maybe she should try playing on the left side, and he heads to Middletown, the planet designed after Halliday’s hometown, Middletown, Ohio. (Wade loaded up on lots of money and items while on his way through the Tomb). Wade heads to Halliday’s home and inserts the cartridge of “Dungeons of Daggorath” into the computer and begins to play. At the end of the game, the printer (dot matix obviously!) printed a line of text: Congratulations! You have opened the first gate! Wade glances around and sees that there is now a wrought iron gate in the bedroom wall where previously there was a WarGames poster. He inserts the key into the poster and falls into the movie WarGames. Wade has to proceed through the entire movie saying the correct dialog at the correct time. Luckily he had seen the movie many times and makes it to the end where he gets the clue for the second key:
The captain conceals the Jade Key
in a dwelling long neglected
But you can only blow the whistle
once the trophies are all collected.
When he gets out, he sees that he has 110000 points on the leaderboard, and Art3mis has 9000. She has made it through Joust! The next day Ogden Morrow gave an interview about the sensation that not one, but two people have found the first key. He speaks directly to the camera telling them that they should not speak to the media especially because of the Sixers.
Wade calls Aech who has left him a million messages. Aech turns on his video feed to show Wade that he’s at the Tomb of Horrors. He knew that Wade didn’t have the cash to go anywhere so it had to have been on Ludus. He makes it through and adds his name to the leaderboard.
Wade receives a bunch of offers for endorsements and other things. He goes through them and calculates that he’ll have enough money from the endorsements to move to an apartment and live frugally for some time. He also has an email from Nolan Sorrento at IOI. They have a lucrative business proposition for him. Wade decides to meet with them via chatlink to see what they have to offer. They offer him a position to be the chief egg hunter over everyone else and a salary of $2million per year with a bonus if he finds the egg. He negotiates back and says that he wants Sorrento’s job. IOI offers Wade the job, and he proceeds to turn them down and tell them that he can’t be bought. They proceed to tell him that they know who and where he is and that if he doesn’t tell them how to reach the First Gate that they will kill him right now. (They think that he is in his aunt’s house when he’s actually in his hideout.) He thinks they’re bluffing and he logs out. And then he hears the explosion.
Wade goes to tell Aech what has happened and Aech tells him that the Sixers have figured out that the first key is on Ludus and have fully invaded the planet. They decide to warn the other on the Leaderboard (Art3mis, Shoto, and Daito) what is happening and they invite them to Aech’s chat room that evening. By the end of the evening, the remaining spots on the scoreboard had been filled with Sixers.
Wade changes his identity and moves to Columbus, OH (apparently it has the fastest internet) and vows to do nothing but search for the egg. Falling head over heels for Art3mis wasn’t exactly part of the plan. They get invites to Ogden Morrow’s 73rd birthday party (80s dance themed) and decide to go. Totally unsurprisingly, Sixers crash the party, gunning directly for Wade and Art3mis. Luckily Morrow’s super-powerful avatar vaporizes them, but in the confusion, Art3mis leaves and stops answering any of Wade’s communications. Wade slips into a depression and begins to just go through the motions for a few months…until Art3mis finds the jade key which shakes him out of his wallowing.
Wade decides to go to Archaide, a planet where all the trophies that Halliday had won for being game designer of the year were located. He’s trying to piece together the rest of the clue. When he gets to the museum where the trophies are located, he stumbles across Happytime Pizza, a replica of a pizza place in Middletown. In Happytime Pizza, there was a Pac-Man game displaying a high score of 3,333,350 points–10 points shy of the perfect score. Wade doesn’t have any other clues on where he’s supposed to be so he decides to try to get a perfect Pac-Man score. Eventually, after a handful of false starts, he manages to get a perfect score. And he adds a quarter to his inventory. Perplexed, Wade realizes he has an email from Aech who gives him the clue that he needed to get the jade key. And he forgets all about the quarter.
He goes to Frobozz to find a house similar to the one that Zork began the game outside of. Inside that house was a trophy case. He arrives and begins his quest. He collects all of the trophies and puts them into the case. At the end, he gets the whistle out of the Captain Crunch cereal box and blew it. The whistle transforms into the Jade Key. Wade is back in second place on the leaderboard. The key has the following clue etched into it: Continue your quest by taking the test. As he’s flying away from Frobozz, the Sixers begin to attack. His ship is damaged, but he doesn’t fare the worst. Daito is killed during the attack.
As Wade is debating the next clue, Sorrento jumps to the top of the scoreboard. He has made it through the second gate. Wade invites Shoto for a visit to find out what had happened with Daito. Daito’s avatar was ambushed by the sixers when trying to make it into the house to get the Jade Key. But that wasn’t all. He had also been killed in real life. Presumably by the sixers. As Shoto is leaving, he gives Wade the Beta Capsule that Daito had kept from a mission that they were on.
Wade begins analyzing the Jade Key’s package in a microscope when he figures out what’s next. He thinks of a final scene in Blade Runner and whispers “the unicorn”. The package folds itself into a unicorn, and Wade heads to the Tyrell Building to use a Voight Kampff machine to “take the test”. He arrives and inserts his key into the machine which drops him into the game Black Tiger. Similar to the movie, he is actually in the game. At the end of the game, he gets to choose a giant robot as his reward. He chooses Leopardon, a robot who appeared in Supaidaman. He watches all of the credits, and at the very end, the Crystal Key appears spinning slowly in a red star. Wade knows where the symbol is from–a Rush album called 2112. The title track of the album has lyrics that say
We are the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx
Our great computers fill the hallowed halls.
We are the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx
All the gifts of life are held within our walls.
Wade heads to the planet of Syrinx. Using other details from 2112, he finds a cave behind a waterfall where there is an electric guitar buried in a stone. He pulls the guitar out, gets a guitar pick from his inventory and begins to play the song “Discovery” from the 2112 album. A message appears in the stone:
The first was ringed in red metal
The second, in green stone
The third is clearest crystal
and cannot be unlocked alone
He returned to the temple he had found on Syrinx and as he did, the guitar changed into the Crystal Key. The key has a calligraphic A on it. It appears to be the same A that is on the gates of Halliday’s Castle Anorak–a place where no one had ever been able to enter. Wade heads to Chthonia, the planet where Castle Anorak is, and finds that the Sixers have shielded the castle. He realizes that he needs a new strategy and he concocts a plan. He emails Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto telling them where to find the Crystal Key and then initiates the rest of his plan.
The IOI (Sixer) police come to arrest Wade (seriously. I didn’t miss anything.) He wipes his hard drive and lets the police escort “Mr. Lynch” out of the apartment. The go to the IOI building where he begins his work as an Indent (Indentured Servant) as Bryce Lynch, his fake identity who owes the . He performs some aptitude tests and intentionally fails any regarding Halliday so as to not draw attention to himself. Wade receives the ankle monitor and eargear that all indents receive, and he heads to his room. He has an entertainment console, but most of the programming is blocked until he receives good performance evaluations. He’s also monitored by a camera. During the day, he works doing technical support customer service. And it’s awful.
Wade has figured out a system for every night. He watches Tommy Queue on his console until he falls asleep. Roughly the same time every night and then he sleeps soundly until morning. But what actually happens is that in the few seconds when he switches off the lights and his monitoring camera switches into night vision, he has found a way to override it with the feed from the first night where he is sleeping soundly. And he proceeds to get inside the IOI network by way of some black market passwords he obtained before his arrest.
He finds out that the Sixers know a lot about him, Art3mis, Aech, and Shoto. And they knew a lot about Daito but his folder has a red X on it now. He realizes that they know where Art3mis and Shoto live, and that they kept a video of them pushing Daito over his balcony. He copies as much data as possible to a jump drive and then programs it so that his ankle monitor and eargear unlock. He walks out of the IOI building and goes to a wireless point to alert Art3mis and Shoto to get out of Dodge. And he changes his identity back to Wade Watts.
He goes to an OASIS parlor where he logs in and meets Art3mis, Aech and Shoto. He tells them what he’s been up to. Together they watch the Sixers’ video that Wade swiped of trying to open the 3rd gate and they immediately figure out what the Sixers are missing. The door says Charity Hope Faith, and they realize that it is from Schoolhouse Rock’s song Three is a Magic Number. And that it will take 3 of them together to unlock the door. But they still have a problem–the Sixers.
Wade sends out an email to the entire OASIS and tells them all to arrive at the castle the next day at noon to take down the Sixers and the shield. (Wade has already programmed that the shield will come down at that exact time.) But they realize that it’s going to be tough for all of them to get there as Shoto and Art3mis are on the run. Wade is using a portal. And Aech lives in an RV. And then…SURPRISE! Ogden Morrow appears. His avatar can enter any chatroom invisibly and he has been listening in on them. He doesn’t want the Sixers to gain control of OASIS so he invites them to his home to try to find the egg. He arranges private jets to pick up Shoto in Japan, Art3mis in Vancouver. Aech is currently in Pittsburgh (Go Steelers!) and will drive his RV to Columbus to pick up Wade, and they will take a jet from there. They’ll all meet at Morrow’s house in Oregon.
When Aech arrives in his RV, Wade realizes that Aech is NOT as expected. He’s not a tall muscly white man. She’s a chubby black woman! Her mother had told her that life would be easier for her as a white man (ugh I hope we can fix this by the future) so she created her avatar as a good looking white man.
They arrive in Oregon and immediately go into their OASIS bays (they’re on a timeline). They arrive on Chthonia and to their pleasant surprise, many, many gunters are there to support them.They activate their robots (from the 2nd gate) but many of the Sixers also have robots, including Sorrento. He comes out and his robot is Mechogodzilla. It’s 11:59 and Sorrento has no idea that his shield is about to go down. 12:00 and the shield falls exactly as Wade planned. An epic battle occurs, and Shoto continues to fight Sorrento allowing Wade, Art3mis, and Aech to get inside the castle to get to the gate. Shoto’s name disappears from the scoreboard, and Wade realizes that he has been killed by Sorrento so Wade decides to use the Beta Capsule to kill Sorrento. The three go to the gate, recite the Schoolhouse Rock song and open the gate. And then they are killed!
Except Wade isn’t. The Sixers had used a device to destroy the castle and all the avatars in the area. All that remained was the Crystal Gate. And while everyone else saw “Game Over”, Wade had an extra life. From the quarter he got at the Pac-Man game. It was up to him alone to defeat the Sixers!
He’s still able to hear Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto, and he agrees to split the prize with them. (Duh!) He has to play the game Tempest, and he has to beat Halliday’s score. Before the Sixers do. It’s not one of Wade’s best games, but luckily the model of the game has a glitch allowing the player to gain a lot of extra lives, which Wade takes full advantage of allowing him to beat Halliday’s score eventually. But the Sixers are close behind him. As the game fades away, Wade finds himself in the midst of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He recites the appropriate words and makes it to the end where he appears in Halliday’s office and finds the final clue.
Three hidden keys open three secret gates
Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits
And those with the skill to survive these straits
Will reach The End where the prize awaits
Wade knows the egg is hidden somewhere in the office, but where? His link to the others has ended, so he is fully all alone. He tries booting all the computers in the office, and he finds that only one, the IMSAI 8080, will boot. The screen says “Login:” Wade tries “Anorak”, “Halliday”, “Og”, “Ogden”, a bunch of others, and then he remembers something. Ogden’s wife, Kira, was the one woman that Halliday ever communicated with. And he only ever called her by her D&D name. Wade tries “Leucosia” and the computer begins. He inserts the game Adventure and finds his way to the secret room in the game. It doesn’t contain the name of the programmer. It contains the egg! Wade picks it up, and Halliday appears.
Halliday congratulates Wade and transfers all the money and powers to him. Wade’s avatar can now do everything that Halliday’s could. Halliday tells Wade that he has now programmed the office so that only Wade can enter. He has the power to shut down the OASIS if there is ever a need. And Halliday gives him a bit of a life lesson. He tells Wade to not spend all his life in the OASIS like he did. And then he wishes Wade good luck and vanishes.
Wade reconnects with the others. He reactivates their avatars to their pre-death state and holds true on his promise to split the prize. Shoto and Aech log back into the OASIS but Art3mis doesn’t. She wanted to go outside, and Wade goes to do the same. But before he does, Aech shows him the news–Sorrento is arrested as the video of the IOI agents killing Daito has somehow been leaked. Wade logs out of the OASIS, leaves the bay, and thanks Morrow for all his help. He goes outside to meet Art3mis, and he tells her that he loves her. And that for once, he has no desire to log back into the OASIS.
Verdict: 4.5 Stars
This book was a lot of fun. It was an adventure and a love story, futuristic and historical, all wrapped into one. I really got absorbed into the book (which I always like) and was disappointed when it was over. Eventually the book will be turned into a movie (Cline sold the screenplay the day after he sold the book) and I definitely will want to check it out. In the meantime though, I need to catch up on some of my 80’s movies!