Yes, this review requires an '80s soundtrack.
Ernest Cline's first novel takes place in a dystopian future of economic and environmental collapse. Or, at least, that's somewhere in the background. Most of the novel takes place in a shared virtual environment called OASIS, which is basically an internet-encompassing MMORPG (or, to go to the sf roots, like Stephenson's Metaverse from Snow Crash). The creator of OASIS, James Halliday, became the richest man in the world, and, in his will, he left his vast fortune to whomever could solve a vast OASIS-spanning puzzle based on Halliday's own childhood obsessions. Since Morrow grew up in the '80s, what we get is a massive nostalgia trip that relies on '80s video games, tv, movies, music, and table-top RPGs.
Most of the book is a straightforward adventure revolving around the young orphan Wade Owen Watts and some of his friends as they try to beat an evil corporation to the prize. There is an interesting speculative idea here though - as millions of people obsessively consumed Halliday's favorite media, '80s pop culture has come to dominate the cultural landscape of 2044. People trade allusions to Star Wars, Indiana Jones, D&D, Pac-Man, Zork, and Ladyhawke (of all things) like past generations of classically-trained intellectuals bandied about Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and Shakespeare. It's a really promising idea, but Cline doesn't do much with it. There's no real sense of how these pop fossils have been reinterpreted in a very different future world, except for a few imaginative uses of the virtual OASIS environment. Instead of investigating this idea, Cline seems more interested in going to great lengths to create a world where his favorite stuff is put on a pedestal by the rest of the world. Cline is most famous for his geek movie Fanboys, and it's very clear that there's a lot of him in Halliday and young Wade. With some of his other ideas (trailer park skyscrapers, the megalopolis of Columbus, Ohio) it's hard to figure out exactly what tone the author is shooting for.
That said, if you share a lot of Cline's taste (I'm a few years younger, but if you've been following the blog, you'll know that most of this is in my wheelhouse), you can get a lot of joy out of the steady stream of references. And, the book is fun. Not only does Cline relentlessly talk about '80s adventure films and games in this book, he also does a pretty good job of re-creating their feel. They were full of plucky underdogs - kids (Goonies and others), rebels (Star Wars), nerds (John Hughes and others), losers (Ghostbusters and others), etc - who took on adult criminals or their social betters or interstellar empires or supernatural monstrosities and somehow managed to win. This didn't quite come out in my own '80s review, but the films of that decade really were optimistic. Maybe it's a Reagan thing? I love the '80s adventure film formula, and so part of me really loved this book.
On the other hand, those '80s films could be kind of shallow. Subtext is not one of George Lucas's great strengths. Or Robert Zemckis's. Or Richard Donner's. Or even John Hughes's. I wouldn't mind seeing a few more fun '80s-style adventure movies (hello, Super 8!), but I wouldn't want every film to follow that formula. And it's not really a formula I look for in award-winning novel's. On top of that, Cline is a first time novelist, and I wouldn't say that his prose really shines here. Most of the time, it's...adequate. There are probably more awkward turns of phrase than sublime ones, but there aren't many examples of either. The writing is just there.
So, while this was a nice nostalgia trip, there's not much else to this book. If you're not a fan of '80s media, you might find it downright terrible. Me? I had fun, but I can't blame Hugo nominators for passing this one by.