There's this conceit that keeps popping up in sci-fi dystopia novels that it is only a matter of time before we will all be glued to our virtual reality goggles 24 hours a day as elaborate MMPORPGs slowly take over the world.I think this is stupid. No matter how increasingly ubiquitous computers become, I just don't foresee Second Life replacing the first one (FarmVille may have replaced actual farming, but that conversation involves a lecture on government subsidies that I just don't have time for at the moment). But all of these books are written by sci-fi authors, therefore geeks, therefore gamers, therefore open to this kind of concept. If they are of a certain age, it probably seems like an extension of the D&D-fueled fantasy sessions that sustained them through high school. I wasn't a D&D geek (though admittedly in a "there but for the grace of God" way). I have never played an online quest game -- I am not drawn to the fantasy. I don't have that strong a desire to escape the real world, as dissatisfying as it can be sometimes, as much as I'd rather be a Han Solo avatar flying around in the Falcon.Ernest Cline, by all accounts, was exactly that geek, getting lost in fantasy worlds. And I give him credit: he goes to great lengths to justify the replacement of the virtual for the real, and he makes it sound damn plausible. Imagine the world forty years from now: we have run out of oil. Corporations have replaced governments with puppet regimes (all voting is online, so only celebrities and reality stars have a shot at office). The environment is in shambles, the Great Recession is in its fourth decade, overcrowded and dangerous cities are surrounded by suburban wastelands. Would not you rather stay in your efficiency apartment and play virtual reality?Wade is an overweight and unattractive teen who barely has a life outside of OASIS, a web platform that, by 2044, has totally replaced the internet (with travel dangerous and difficult, most everyday commerce is virtual). His real life sucks. His parents are dead, and he lives in a teetering 200-foot-tall stack of trailers with his cruel aunt and her abusive boyfriend of the month. He was getting beaten up too much at school, so now he goes to classes online. All he lives for is OASIS, and the search for the Egg.See, when James Halliday, the Bill Gates-like inventor of the OASIS, died, he hid his will (and the rights to his fortune and control of OASIS itself) somewhere inside the game, on any one of thousands of virtual worlds. For years, no one has been able to crack even the first clue to its location, though not for lack of trying: a whole community of gamers has sprung up in search of it. Some are lone wolves like Wade; others band together or go corporate and work for the evil IOI Corp. (Corporations: Your Friends in Evil Since 1601).Most of their efforts are focused on studying the obsessions of Halliday's youth, which they figure are key to winning the hunt. Conveniently for Cline, his and Halliday's obsessions are one and the same: everything nerdy about the 1980s. Gaming, TV, movies, music -- if someone has gotten into a heated debate over it in a basement somewhere, or painted a mural of it on the side of a van, it's in here.Look, this book is a lot of fun. A lot. I read it compulsively, like few books in recent memory. But... I don't think it is very well written. I have a lot of problems with it: Wade is a cypher, a blatant audience surrogate (provided the audience is or has been an introverted teen boy, which...). There is this whole romance angle between Wade and another hunter, Art3mis, that is just there because the plot needs a love interest. There is frequent, blatant exposition that often makes no sense (Wade tells his story in the first person, presumably to his contemporaries, so why is he explaining very basic things like what OASIS is and how you operate within it?). The background of various geek properties is often given in exhaustive, Wikipedia-like detail. I find it hard to believe that the solutions to the puzzles went undiscovered for five years, since they seem pretty obvious to me and my limited experience in online alternate reality games has taught me that there is no puzzle so complex that the internet won't solve it given 20 minutes and a Yahoo message board (read up on "The Beast" sometime for an interesting example). Oh, also there are several blatant continuity errors within chapters or even from one page to the next (minor example: at one point Wade freaks out about getting to class because if he doesn't, he will lose his school-issued OASIS machine; a few chapters later he stops going but it's fine because he already has the credits to graduate).All that stuff: basically doesn't matter. At all. I still loved the crap out of every page. The plot is as propulsive, structured and satisfying as The Hunger Games. The corporate villains raise the real world stakes when they start murdering gamers offline. And Cline takes full advantage of an unlimited sandbox of geekdom, dreaming up some very cool scenarios (want to literally immerse yourself in your favorite '80s movie? How about transform into Ultraman to fight Mecha-Godzilla and Voltron?).What's most fun is waiting around for Cline to name-drop your geek property of choice. Will there still be annoying Browncoats in 2045? Looks like it: Wade zooms around virtual space in a Firefly class shuttle. Lightsabers, transporters (Stars, both Wars and Trek). Giant robots (Voltron, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ultraman). More video games than I can count (but no classic Nintendo! Where is Mario in all of this?). Blade Runner. Brazil. Back to the Future. Indiana Jones. Ghostbusters. Rush (Really? People like Rush?). One* almost needs footnotes to place them all.*I mean, not me. If this book taught me anything, it is that I am a bigger geek than I ever imagined.Can you enjoy this book without getting all the references? I think so. But... do you even want to? That is where I am confused. I believe this is being published as a YA title, and it's certainly written as one. Yet today's Ys think the '80s sound like they happened a looooong time ago, and I haven't read a YA book packed with jokey references to obscure 1960s pop culture lately.I mean, do kids even know what a "modem" is? If you gained sentience post-2000, the internet has just always been there, floating through the air. What do you mean, they used to require a phone line and made annoying noises? What's that? A computer that uses a tape deck instead of a floppy disk drive? A) What is a "cassette tape"? B) What is a "floppy disk"? (Ooh, is it dirty?)This book will probably make you feel old. I am not even old and it made me feel old. Remember dial-up? Remember AOL busy signals? Remember when no one had cell phones? Remember when no one but engineers, the military and Matthew Broderick had the internet? Remember the NES, Atari 2600, Colecovision?I do. But how long until I'm senile? Probably not that long.