I've had this one on my virtual book pile for about a year now since I read a glowing review of it upon it's release but only now got around to it a couple days ago. I wish I hadn't waited so long; it is just a wonderful book for those of us in the target audience. Who is that? Well, let me run down the story setup and it will become apparent.
It is now the year 2044 and the world is still running, but not well. Economic depression is worse than ever, and wars are being fought for food and resources. But what most people do all day, both for fun and for jobs is play a computer game. This game, named OASIS, is the state of the art virtual worlds simulator that is the future equivalent of massive multiplayer games of today like World of Warcraft or Ultima Online added to social content sites like Facebook and Twitter, along with all the saved data of every book, movie, song, and everything else that mankind has created and digitally stored. And best of all, it's free, at least to start. People can create anything that they can think of, or visit the stuff that others have already created. Doing advanced things costs game money and using transportation costs money too, which keeps the company in business, but all that is optional and affordable if you are good at playing. Children go to school using the game interface, and people get virtual jobs in the game to earn real money (like tech support for noob players, or actual in-games jobs crating items or being a virtual designer, entertainer, hooker, etc.)
But that is all just setup for the story; the real push is to find the hidden Easter Egg in the game, left by the old creator (and sole owner) of the whole thing, a kind of Bill Gates/Steve Jobs type who dies and states in his will that whoever finds this extremely well hidden reward will be the new outright owner of the game company and an instant billionaire on the side.
As the book begins it has been five years since the start of the Egg Hunt, and 17 year old Wade Watts is one of the millions who call themselves "gunters" (egg hunters, shortened). He lives in a slum of trailers stacked up to save ground space and is a poor orphan in an neglectful family. When not going to school, he uses his salvaged virtual computer rig to play the game, socialize, and study the prime influences in the life of Not Bill Gates (I forget his name, but it doesn't matter) for clues to solving the riddles and finding the 3 keys to the egg. Those things are all the music, movies, books, and especially games that Not Bill loved during the prime of his life. The merits of the John Hughes movies, The Atari 2600 home game system, Monty Python, Oingo Boingo, Nintendo, Devo, arcade Tempest, Joust, Aklabeth, Richard Garriot, Steve Wozniak, Speed Racer, Zork, and an endless list of 1970s 80s and 90s trivia and pop culture.
Do you know Wargames by heart? Do you own dice with more or less than six sides? Can you recite all of The Holy Grail? Did you ever hit level 255 in Pac-Man? Own a TRS-80 computer? Watch Japanese Anime on Saturday mornings? Did you get the Babel Fish in the Infocom text game of HHGTTG? If you are of the age to know and love those things too then this book will be a sparkling burst of nostalgia and breathless fun. If you fall outside that range it is still good but you will miss a lot of references that really hit your hidden youth happy buttons.
Young Wade, our hero, soon finds the clues to the hidden first key, and suddenly his life is complicated by fame and hindered by a group of evil corporate players for hire who are desperate to get the egg first so that their rival company can acquire OASIS and turn it into a ad-filled, soul-less, money making machine. Not gonna go into all that happens in the story, but the journey is fun to read and has a couple requisite twists and setbacks, and the ending is satisfying if not wholly unexpected. The real fun is in the details.