A few generations from now, fossil fuels have run out for good and most of humanity lives in grim squalor, with few jobs and little hope of change. Most people have turned to living in OASIS, an immersive & sprawling cyberuniverse. The one hope Wade Watts, an orphaned nerd living in a stacked trailer park, has of getting out of poverty is to win the easter egg hidden somewhere inside OASIS. But he's not the only one looking for the egg--so too are millions of other desperate people, as well as the sinister corporation IOI.
1980's American nerd culture is key to solving the easter egg's riddles and quests, and 80s references fly hard and fast. Cline is not particularly adept at explanations: they all seem dumped into the text and are usually absurdly detailed. Does anyone reading sf YA really need the concept of Dungeons & Dragons explained for three pages? I don't think so--most will already know, and besides, it's pretty damn simple.
Problems are solved really easily and quickly: Wade is so poor he can't even afford to travel in OASIS, which provides tension in the first few chapters, but then he gets an endorsement deal and can pay for even the priciest luxuries without worry. Or, later, Wade realizes spending all his time in OASIS has made him obese in the real world, and so he quickly gives himself a 6-pack by making his computer bully him. Transforming his entire body and lifestyle takes up about a paragraph, and he seemingly has no real feelings about it at all. Or, even later, Wade has been inside for so long that he has an agoraphobic attack from leaving his apartment. A few weeks later, he wins the game and casually declares he's going to spend very little time in OASIS ever after. How did that decision happen?
Cline drops the ball on a number of larger themes and plots, too. Periodically Wade will notice how the world is falling apart while everyone immerses themselves in OASIS. It's a vicious cycle: the world sucks, so people escape into virtual reality, but since they're not putting any effort in the world just gets suckier, so they spend more
time in OASIS...Even the founders of OASIS make numerous comments about it. Yet in the end, nothing changes, nor does it seem that Wade will make any real effort to change the status quo. Another subplot that comes up is that people's OASIS personas do not necessarily match their "real world" characteristics, and the tension this causes. Art3mis makes a huge deal about being hideous and unlovable in the real world, and the narrative goes to impressive lengths to keep Wade from meeting her in the flesh until the very end. He swears that he loves her for her mind&personality, and that he doesn't care what she looks like. And then, it turns out she's a super pretty girl around his age, albeit with a birthmark on her face. Phew! Guess Wade doesn't have to decide whether he actually doesn't care about her physical characteristics, since she's exactly what he'd hoped for. What a cop-out!
Overall, it's an ok quest novel, but it has far too many infodumps and a main character I never cared about or believed in.