What’s it about: When eccentric and introverted billionaire James Halliday dies, he leaves an “Easter egg” hidden in his online game OASIS that grants the finder his fortune. Egg hunters (gunters) devote their lives to seeking out his egg using clues left by Halliday. As Halliday was a child of the 80’s, the best way to work through this scavenger hunt is to become completely engrossed in 80’s pop culture, gaming, and music. For five years, no one finds anything and only the most hardcore gunters continue to look. Then the narrator, Wade Watt (yes, the alliteration is a shout out to comic book heroes names) finds the first key and the hunt fervor starts up again.
My thoughts: As the USA Today quote on the cover says, the story is “Willy Wonka meets The Matrix” populated by a wish list compiled by a geeky male child of the 80’s. The bulk of the story, three-quarters perhaps, is spent with Wade walking though clues and having pretty stereotypical interactions with the “all knowing evil company”, and “hacker dream girl” complete with rubenesque figure and cyber punk outfit. This is heavy on getting you though the plot and very light on character development. Wade himself seems an avatar for the reader, if the reader is a 30-40 year old male who played a lot of early video games and was into geeky pop culture. As a lady reader, I found this isolating despite being in the age range and having the subject matter interest, which was unfortunate because I’ve also seen Real Genius enough times to quote it (and do). It’s not that this book bashes female gamers, in fact it’s more the opposite. Wade places his gamer girl crush, Art3mis, on such a pedestal that she doesn’t feel real, therefore the main female character is reduced to male stereotypes, even being perfect in her imperfections. I suppose it’s a question of being able to relate to characters. While the story subject matter may be in my wheelhouse, there wasn’t any opportunity for me to see much of myself in the characters and Wade is a bit of a Gary Stu.
Cline spends a lot of time telling you what is happening – this is where his screen writing experience becomes more apparent – and not much time showing you how or if it affects or influences his characters. I could give Cline the benefit of the doubt on this lack of character development and say this is because Wade and his team of gunters spend the vast majority of their life online in OASIS interacting via avatars rather than in person. They don’t know who they are outside the game, so how can we? But in all honesty I’m not sure if that’s the case. Another reason for this could be that Cline is rushing to the 3rd act for the big climax.
The third act is where things really start to come together. This is also where characters do meet in real life. There is a fun reveal here (I’ll keep this review spoiler free) that made me wish for more back story and a broader view of the implications of OASIS, but it helped me to understand more of the richness of the universe Cline is trying to create. Unfortunately it doesn’t get explored as much as I would have liked, as the final battle takes center stage. And the final battle is fun, and cinematic. Cline seems more relaxed in writing it and as a reader I felt I hit more of a flow here. The actual ending itself is a bit cliché and doesn’t really surprise, especially if you are familiar with the source materials Cline is inspired by.
This is Ernest Cline’s first novel. As mentioned he also writes screenplays and this book has already been optioned by Amblin Entertainment to be made into a movie. So, take that as a tip all you screen writers – write your novel first. And yeah, Steven Spielberg is going to direct it. Which does seem pretty perfect.
I did enjoy reading this book in spite of itself, and myself. I do wish that the clues were written in a way that the reader had more of a chance to participate, and I could have done with at least one less deus ex machina. But it was still a fun beach read (literally, I was on the beach), and I think if done well this could be a rare instance where the movie is better than the book.