My policy is to never read anything (implying manga and ranobe) that has a good chance to be animated in the foreseeable future. Basically, I prefer to watch anime adaptation first and then read the original. It's just that anime as an art form currently has a higher priority for me than manga and ranobe. Even though, originals often left better overall impression than anime adaptations. Speaking of Reki Kawahara, I've read the first four volumes of both SAO and AW barely managing to resist temptation to continue, due to a hope for the second seasons of both shows. I think that I grasp the general idea of what that man is doing.
Kawahara Reki is actually a man who sold the same thing twice. Both of his series revolve around single phenomenon scientifically called brain–computer interface (BCI). And also, both of his series are about games. Virtual reality massive multiplayer online games to be precise. The genres would be VRMMO RPG for Sword Art Online and VRMMO fighting game for Accel World. A peek into the distant future of the current computer gaming. There are ongoing debates on imageboards and anime forums on whether SAO and AW set in the alternative worlds or just in the different timelines (events of SAO begins in the year 2023 while AW describes the year 2046). But the technologies involved are clearly the same. I must note that Kawahara-san obviously have neither even the slightest technical background in neurobiology, nor the knowledge of the computer science. He does have experience in the MMO gaming, though. He understands and appeals to gamer's psychology to the degree only insiders could do. If that's the case, one could guess that gamers are Kawahara's natural and most faithful audience. I have an impression that it's actually quite the opposite. Gamers are people who understand better than anyone else how roughly and incompetently Kawahara's virtual worlds are made. The real Kawahara's audience is much wider and way less meticulous, fortunately. And his strength lies in his ability to depict humans, not computer games.
|Sword Art Online Volume 1 cover|
|Accel World Volume 1 cover|
As for the recent anime adaptations, I'm going to review both of them in the near future. Right now, I would say that Sunrise did a great job, making the Accel World anime an example of what can be called "perfect adaptation". Staying 95% faithful to the original, omitting only the most insignificant details and reworking a couple of scenes into those with the same meaning but even stronger touch. Unfortunately, I can't say that A-1 Pictures did a good job as well animating SAO. They didn't cut any scenes (for the first story arc at least), but they lose tons of important information, especially regarding character's thoughts, emotions and motivation. They also simplified the composition, inserting side stories from the second volume into main plot in chronological order. As a result, the SAO anime turned out to be extremely messy and spasmodic, leaving very confusing impression. So, if you have interest in Reki Kawahara's stories, I strongly recommend to go with the anime for Accel World, but as for Sword Art Online reading the books is the only choice.