When I attended the American Library Association meeting in the summer of 2011, I was able to get a review copy of this novel. I've read it about 3 times already but have not had the chance to review it until now.
It's 2044 in Kansas City. Wade Watts is an orphan, living with relatives and other people on the top level of mobile homes, that have been stacked up, one home on top of the other. He is still in high school, but his life is not like a typical American boy of this time. He attends school in OASIS, an online world (similar to Second Life). He has no idea whether his classmates are even in Kansas; everyone has an avatar. However, since he is poor in the offline world, he can't explore OASIS like the other teens. He crawls into a car, buried under a pile of other rusty cars, in order to log into school; he can't do that at home, because his clunky laptop would be stolen by his aunt or someone else living in the mobile home.
This is Wade's World: "The ongoing energy crisis. Catastrophic climate change, widespread famine, poverty, and disease. Half a dozen wars..."
James Halliday, one of the designers of OASIS, had died. He left no heirs and announced a contest. The winner will receive a lot of money! All the players on Earth start to play.
The key to winning the contest is to know what Halliday liked: 1980s movies, music, and video games. All the players had to go back to Anorak's Almanac to discover what detail of Halliday's interests and life could allow the players to proceed to the next level. The players also watched all the movies that Halliday like and played the early versions of the video games.
Even though there are no illustrations, save for the cover art, Cline's writing really captures the virtual worlds where the players are. Wade also meets some of the more famous players in the world. But, all is not fair in this game. The largest company in the world wants to win so they can buy OASIS. Free things, like education, would not be available anymore. The Corporation players hire Halliday experts to try to solve the puzzles in the games.
The novel made me realize how quickly the gaming technology had changed. I was never a gamer, but I remember seeing the early games and how addicting they were.
If you are not familiar with the references in this novel, a wiki has been built.
Despite spending most of his time in the online world, Wade learns to live on the outside some more and finally meets real people who really like him.