Ernie Cline: ‘Geeking out transcends all boundaries’

I recently had the great pleasure of reading Ready Player One, the debut novel by Ernest Cline and was so enthralled by the story that I felt compelled to ask the author a few questions.  The book is an action packed adventure set within a world that is as much ruled by virtual reality as by the grim future its protagonist lives within and it is all wrapped up in a nostalgia for the 1980’s that is so perfectly handled that it is, quite literally, one of the best books I’ve read this year. Oh, and he owns his own supped up DeLorean – it doesn’t get any better!

It’s the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place. 

Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets. 

And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune—and remarkable power—to whoever can unlock them.   

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday’s riddles are based in the pop culture he loved—that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday’s icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes’s oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.

And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.

Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt—among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life—and love—in the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape. 

A world at stake.

A quest for the ultimate prize.

Are you ready?

 

BSFA – The near future world you created in your novel has some intriguing characteristics, especially the ‘stacks’ where Wade lives. What was your inspiration for these deft touches?

Ernie Cline – I was inspired by a lot of my favorite science fiction novels and films, as well as by the research I did into Peak Oil and Climate Change. The Stacks were inspired by the favelas in Brazil, and by my own experiences with trailer parks.

Can you give us a little insight into the genesis of Ready Player One and how it evolved?

EC – The initial idea came from imagining a Willie Wonka-eque video game designer who held a golden ticket-style contest inside his greatest video game. Everything grew out of that first idea. Then I began to imagine what sort of puzzles and riddles my eccentric game designer would leave behind to choose a worthy successor, and that was when I hit upon the idea of having them center on some of my own passions, such as classic video games and 80s movies and pop culture. The story evolved from there.

Whilst Ready Player One packs in a huge amount of 1980’s nostalgia, it also reads like an 80’s story  or movie (such as the Goonies or The Breakfast Club)– the gang of kids coming together despite their differences, the quest to overcome a great evil and huge obstacles – was this a conscious effort on your part?

EC – Definitely! In addition to having the plot elements deal heavily with 80s pop culture, I also wanted the story itself to feel like one of the classic 80s adventure movies I grew up loving. A few of my favorites are: Ghostbusters, The Goonies, Back to the Future, Real Genius, Buckaroo Banzai, and Iron Eagle.

Unlike an 80’s movie your characters are a diverse bunch-how did they come to be and what were your influences here?

EC – I was influenced by all of the different gamers and geeks I’ve encountered in my life. In my experience, there of geeks of every race, sex, and nationality, and geeking out transcends all boundaries.

Just how much of the 80’s references to gaming and culture was a natural part of your own world and how much was research?

EC – All of the references in the book were things I’d encountered naturally in my own life. I only wrote about things I personally remembered. None of the references came from research – unless you count my entire life as research.

The use of 80’s pop culture created a landscape that, for people of my generation, reads like a trip down memory lane – how much fun was it for you as a writer to use these cues to set your story within?

EC – It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun. Riffing on my own sense of nostalgia allowed me maintain my interest in the story through all the years I spend writing it.

There is a very interesting dichotomy at work in the book that looks backwards (1980’s) and forwards (2044) and this seems reflected throughout the novel with both the real and the virtual worlds as well as the characters and their avatars – is this idea of two opposites existing in one place something you sought to explore?

EC – Yes, that was definitely one of the themes I was interesting in writing about. My generation seemed to have a sort of accelerated nostalgia. We started getting nostalgic for our youth in the 80s during the 90s, shortly after the decade had ended. And one of the first primary uses of the Internet seemed to nostalgia, with websites devoted to every facet of our past popular culture. I wanted to extend that idea into the far future. I also loved the idea of people in the future studying the 80s the same way that archaeologists study ancient history.

How much has video gaming and virtual networking (social media, website forums etc) influenced your novel in how the characters developed and interacted?

EC - Most of the time I was writing the book, my day job was working in web design and technical support, so I spent nearly every day on the Internet and watched in evolve over 10-15 years. All of that time I spent watching people interact with each other online using this new global network had a huge influence on the book.

In some respects your novel seems to suggest that the virtual world is a great leveller of differences between race, gender, sexuality and can, in that sense, speak to a truer human nature (Aech and Wade’s friendship) yet on another it considers the effect that the virtual world allows anonymity and therefore falsehood – what are your thoughts on this?

EC - I’m fascinated by it. The Internet allows for a completely new kind of human relationship that never existed before its invention. Now people can meet online and get to know each other intimately, without ever setting foot on the same continent. The anonymity of the Internet can circumvent all sorts of cultural boundaries, but it’s also limiting in a way, since you often don’t know anything about the person you’re communicating with. I enjoyed exploring those dynamics in the story.

How important was it that Wade eventually discovered that reality was more important than OASIS?

EC - I think it was just the natural arc for his character. A person who spends most of their waking life inside a computer simulation eventually needs to learn the value of the real world, otherwise they are doomed to lead a very synthetic life.

The use of OASIS in the novel created a fascinating meta-world that allowed you to write space battles, sword fights and gigantic metal monsters within your own fiction –can you give us a little insight into how you developed the idea of an immersive VR?

EC – I was heavily influenced by the Metaverse that Neal Stephenson created in Snow Crash, as well as by modern MMO games like EverQuest and World of Warcraft. I also grew up playing a wide variety of Fantasy and Science Fiction roleplaying games that allowed you to jump between different storytelling genres, and I wanted to try and create the same kind of ultimate sandbox with the OASIS.

You’ve written about ‘geekdom’ before in the film Fanboys – is this a case of writing what you know or a way to explore a subculture that is becoming more and more popular?

EC - It’s just a case of me writing what I know. As a lifelong geek, I’m lucky to have lived long enough to see geek culture become part of the mainstream, which is something I never really expected.

How cool is it to own your own DeLorean?

EC – It’s pretty much the coolest thing ever.

Can you give us any news on the potential film version of Ready Player One? Are you involved in writing the screenplay and what is that process like compared to the novel?

EC - I wrote the first draft of the screenplay, but the project is still in the early stages of development at Warner Bros. Right now there in the process of finding the perfect director, which could take awhile. 

I liken your novel to a Simon Pegg film in that you referenced a huge amount of pop culture and created a really entertaining story yet the end result is a fascinating, gripping and intriguing tale that sticks with the reader for a long time – what can we expect from you next?

EC – Right now I’m working another science fiction novel that explores many of the same themes as Ready Player One. It’s another fun adventure story about downtrodden geeks who triumph over adversity because of their overt geekiness, not in spite of it. I think fans of my first book are going to dig it.

 

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