‘Ready Player One’: Willy Wonka meets ‘The Matrix’

If you think things are bad, do yourself a favor and read Ernest Cline's much anticipated and weirdly visionary debut novel. This unabashedly geeky view of a 2044 dystopia provides an enchanting escape from today's economic crisis, dreary politicians and international turmoil. Not that anything's better 33 years hence, but like the best science fiction, Cline's universe is both entertaining and foreboding.

Life is so grim in this poverty-encrusted, resource-depleted future that people spend most of their waking hours logged-on to the utopian OASIS, a free massive multiplayer game that has evolved from decades of video-game design and high-tech progress into the daily online role-playing reality for much of humanity. Anyone can live whatever life they want as their avatar inside OASIS, from getting an education and finding love to making a fortune and escaping to any of thousands of planets that range from life-like to pure fantasy, magical to Star Wars tech.

Few novels set up an engaging plot as fast as this one. In the first three pages, Cline cleverly lures readers into the crux of the story. The brilliant, reclusive, multi-billionaire James Halliday, universally known as the creative genius behind OASIS, has died and left as his will a worldwide contest. Hidden in OASIS's endless virtual worlds is a treasure. First to find it becomes Halliday's sole heir, gaining his fortune and control of OASIS. Yet, after several years of searching OASIS for Halliday's "Easter egg," as it's called, hundreds of thousands of egg hunters ("gunters") have made no progress.

In its charmingly odd manner, this is Willy Wonka meets The Matrix. Wade Watts, a nerdy computer-wiz high-schooler living in Oklahoma City's "stacks" (ghettos), is the story's narrator and unlikely hero determined to win Halliday's contest. After years of unsuccessful searching, Wade solves the first of several riddles and breaks open "The Hunt." As the contest's front-runner, he gains instant global respect, new friends and deadly enemies.

Adding cultural context is Halliday's obsession with '80s pop culture. OASIS brims with '80s references, icons, trivia and nostalgia — Pac-man, WarGames, Zork, Duran Duran, AC/DC, Rush, Star Wars, Star Trek, Blade Runner, Dungeons & Dragons, anime. So does the entire novel, which in its quirky way is fun.

Cline is an ingenious conjurer talented at translating high concept into compelling storytelling. That wizardry was evident in his screenplay Fanboys, a geeky tale made into a so-so 2009 movie, about four high school nerds on a road trip to California to filch a pre-release print of Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace from George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch.

In Ready Player One, he comes up with another quest, though this one is epic compared to Fanboys. He manages to make its ever-present duality (real and virtual) intriguing throughout this action-packed adventure. Its geeky characters are geeky cool. And its action is imaginative, always cinematic (you will be visualizing scenes in the upcoming movie as you read; Warner Bros. bought the film rights). He even weaves a sweet romance into this hero-vs.-villain tale.

When it comes to geeks, it probably takes one to know one. This novel undoubtedly qualifies Cline as the hottest geek on the planet right now. The good news for readers is it's no revenge of the nerds. You don't have to be a geek to get it.