Ready Player One: Simple Extrapolation
Minor spoilers for Ready Player One below
The key to a successful imagined world is not “what if this this happens?”, but “if this happens, then what?”
Ready Player One takes place in a semi-dystopic future where most people spend their time in a vast virtual reality/MMO called OASIS, while the rest of the world goes to pieces. It’s filled with nostalgia winks to the pop culture of the 80s, one of the main features of the book (note that Ernest Cline’s definition of “the 80s” is a little broad, and maybe better defined as “the stuff that Ernest Cline likes”. For example, a list of favorite science fiction authors from the 80s that is mentioned early in the book sounds like someone saying Cervantes, Austen, and Hemingway are their favorite authors from the 1800s.).
It is is carefully structured to reflect the teen underdog films of the 80s along the lines of Wargames (young down-on-his-luck protagonist with an unusual skill, absent/apathetic parental figures, evil establishment rival, quest from an unusual mentor, one-note comedy sidekicks, a love interest with some kind of secret who abandons him halfway through and later comes back, etc.). In other words, it's the Hero's Journey blended with screenplay basics, a winning formula since well before the 80s.
I believe one of the reasons Ready Player One hooked so many readers was because the worldbuilding was good enough to be believable, but not dense enough to slow down the plot. Not that dense worldbuilding is bad-- Tolkien has earned a permanent place in the English literary canon primarily due to the majestic depth and enthralling richness of Middle-Earth-- but for a plot-driven novel, the longer people stop to gawk at the scenery, the less they’ll be paying attention to the action.
Science fiction is a field with very few truly new ideas (between Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick most of the good ones were already old by the 1960s), so simply building a novel around a high concept isn’t interesting***, unless you put together a melange of dozens or hundreds of them a la Alfred Bester, which is incredibly difficult to do well. Where SF/F authors can make their mark is in the execution of those ideas, by answering the question “if this happens, then what?”
In Ready Player One, OASIS is a pervasive virtual reality that has supplanted many real-life gatherings, like school. In and of itself, this is interesting for a moment, but cliched. What Cline does that is interesting is his aside that school in VR affords more control to teachers than real-life school does (e.g. they can force student avatars to pay attention and look at the board instead of texting by disabling the VR distractions), and therefore teaching has become a less stressful and more sought-after position. It’s a neat little factoid that makes the reader feel like the world is recognizable yet different, but doesn’t bog them down. We get the umami of worldbuilding without losing the sweetness of breakneck plot.
Later in the novel, the protagonist becomes an indentured slave (by design), which is obviously a riff on the insurmountable credit/debt racketeering practices so endemic today--- one day they’re garnishing your wages for student loans, the next day they can actually sell you into slavery for it (eek!). Again, not particularly novel (if hitting close to home), but Cline puts a neat spin on it by having the work be tech support. In an increasingly automated future, the bucket of “types of labor that you need a human for (ideally an indentured human for)” will keep shrinking, because slaves are mostly good for simple things, and robots can do most simple things better than humans can. But tech support is not a Turing-complete operation (as anyone who’s ever spent time trying to explain how to operate a computer can attest), meaning that Cline believes we will still need humans to do it in the future. This has implications for AI and other computer development in Ready Player One’s future, but they’re not explored (again, the plot!).
Charles Stross once pointed out that miniaturization of GPS isn’t in and of itself a life-changing thing- it’s that because of that technology, a whole generation will grow up not understanding the concept of “being lost”, or what maps are for. “If this happens, then what?” is such a powerful way to do simple worldbuilding because it focuses not on the idea or the tech, but on the human implications- and the human implications are what we read SF for.