In an age when nerd culture has become the mainstream, no author revels in nostalgia like Ernest Cline. With an unreal ’80s-reference-per-sentence ratio, his virtual-reality sci-fi epic Ready Player One might be the most pop culture-dense novel ever written. It's a masterwork of digital adventure where the hero's greatest asset is his encyclopedic knowledge of all things that fanboys and fangirls geek out about. The book's pop culture reverence was enough to capture the imagination of a little filmmaker named Stephen Spielberg, who is set to direct Ready Player One's cinematic adaptation.
In the meantime, Cline returns with Armada, his new novel about a boy who must save humanity from an alien invasion using his video game skills to pilot drone starfighters. With government conspiracies, thrilling battles, and a treasure trove of old school video game and sci-fi cinema references, Armada manages to tap into the same nerdy bliss and fantastic adventure of its predecessor without feeling like a rehash in any way.
For the latest edition of our Points of Reference series, with Cline about five pop culture influences on Armada that stood out above the rest (since so many are right there in the text) and the craziness of having Stephen Spielberg make his last book into a movie.
The big influences that probably jump to everybody’s mind—Star Wars, Ender’s Game, and The Last Starfighter—were three of my favorite things growing up. And I think the latter two were inspired by the first Star Wars, which kind of invented blockbuster and created the whole mythology of my youth in 1977. So I grew up a child of Star Wars. And all the video games that I grew up playing, from Space Invaders onward, were also inspired by Star Wars: Asteroid, Defender, a lot of early space games. So I felt like for a big chunk of my childhood that I was being inundated with propaganda that made me want to be Luke Skywalker. I was part of the first generation that had home video game consoles or home computers, so I could play early space simulation video games at home and like make a cockpit in front of my TV and pretend that I was Ender Wiggin or Luke Skywalker. So that was a huge part of my childhood. I think all those things kind of fed into Armada.
Do you remember the rush of seeing Star Wars for the first time?
I do. It was almost like my childhood is B.C. and A.D.: Before Star Wars and After Star Wars. Because before that, not really any early childhood memories stick with me. I know that I was into Sesame Street [laughs] and stuff like that. But after Star Wars in 1977—I think we saw it in June after it had been out about a month—then the rest of my childhood was just eating, sleeping, living, dreaming Star Wars, for both my brother and I. It became the mythology of our youth. And we would make up stories imagining what the next chapter would be and act them out with our action figures; and the same thing between Empire and Return of the Jedi. So it was this whole other kind of space-faring adventure that I’d never encountered; everything a little boy could want was Star Wars. And I didn’t realize at the time that George Lucas was kind of riffing on a lot of Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon serials, and also a lot of mythological kind of Hero with a Thousand Faces/Joseph Campbell tropes, and pushing all these buttons that are kind of hardwired into people. And I ended up learning all that from my Star Wars fandom and studying Star Wars. And then the first movie that I ever wrote was about Star Wars.
Yeah. So that was kind of my first experience with kind of impossible things happening, because I wrote this little Star Wars fan movie to try to make it myself in 1998, and it ended up actually getting made into a movie with Princess Leia and Lando in it. But it took 10 years to get made, and in the process it got heavily warped and altered and changed. There are parts of it that kind of make fun of Star Wars fans now, as opposed to being this celebration of what it means to be a fan and have fandom kind of bond you together with your friends. So that experience of writing Fanboys was what motivated me to try to write Ready Player One and see what would happen if I could just geek out without any studio executives telling me how to do it or how to tell a story. I could just talk directly to the reader. So I credit my whole writing career to my love of Star Wars.
So considering how the experience with Fanboys, how hands on are the studio executives letting you be with the Stephen Spielberg-helmed film adaptation of Ready Player One?
They had to let me write the first couple drafts of it as part of a deal since I was already in the Writer’s Guild when I sold the film rights to Ready Player One. They had to let me take the first crack at the screenplay. So I was really lucky, I wrote the first two drafts and they hired another writer to rewrite my stuff and change all the stuff that I refused to change, and then the writer working on it right now is Zak Penn, who’s a friend of mine. We became friends after he started working on it, and he consults me all the time. And he’s written like 10 X-Men movies and Last Action Hero and a bunch of stuff. And I’m actually glad that he’s the one that’s implementing Stephen Spielberg’s notes, because I don’t think that I could function, you know [laughs], in the same capacity that he could because I’d be so overwhelmed. They had the first meeting with Stephen Spielberg, and he told me about it, and he’s like, “It’s a good thing you weren’t there man, you would’ve just been passed out on the floor.” Because he told me that Stephen Spielberg had a copy of my book that had all these Post-its in it and was like reading sections aloud that he wanted like back in [the script]. And I’m like, “Dude, no way that happened!” And he’s like, “Yeah, I was there.” [Laughs] So that’s just… yeah… completely unreal.
Armada is kind of a different take on the same idea behind Ready Player One: what if all your useless video game skills and all the movie and comic book trivia in your head actually had real world value? Which I think is a fantasy that everybody has had ever since they played the first video games. There was a game that came out in 1980, when I was 8 years old, called Battlezone. It was one of the first 3D combat simulation games, and you could drive a tank. The U.S. Army bought this game and had the designer reprogram it into a real tank simulator that they were gonna use to train real soldiers. So that happened like almost right away. As soon as there were video games, they were almost immediately repurposed as training tools. So I love that idea.
And now there’s [the game] America’s Army, which is one of their most popular recruiting tools. They use video games to recruit real soldiers. So that kind of fantasy, all those different facets of pop culture that had to do with kind of video games having real world value or kids using video game-related skills to save the world.
Probably the biggest influence on Armada in pop culture, more than any of those other things, is a really obscure movie called Iron Eagle. It’s like a mashup of Top Gun and The Last Starfighter. This Air Force brat actually learns to fly an F16 and become a fighter pilot by skipping class and sneaking into the base flight simulator. And then when his dad gets shot down, he and Lou Gossett Jr. fly over and bring him back and rescue him. That was one of my favorite guilty pleasures when I was a kid, and it wasn’t until later that I realized that it’s basically a video game movie and nobody realized it. This kid like develops these skills with a video game and then they have real world applications. So I’ve always wanted to write a story like that that kind of mashes up Star Wars and Iron Eagle and Ender’s Game and The Last Starfighter.
I also always wanted to tell an alien invasion story where all the characters had actually seen all the alien invasion movies that I had. Because if there was an alien invasion that really happened now, you would think of War of the Worlds and Independence Day and E.T. and Dark Skies and everything else and refer to them. And I always loved stories where characters seemed to exist in the same world that I have, and have seen all the same movies that I have, as opposed to like, Walking Dead, you know…
Yeah, zombies are thing that always jumps to mind with regards to characters existing in different realities. It’s like, “Really? Nobody’s ever seen a zombie movie before?” They’re all just super confused by these walking things.
I know, right? Maybe we should try killing the brain! Yeah, we’ve known to kill the brain since the ‘60s, since Gorge Romero. But if there was a real alien invasion, you would have all these preconceived notions about how it would go, but also you would be surprised if it did go that way since it was all based on science fiction and just people making up stories. It’s fun writing characters who are aware of the genre that they find themselves in and act accordingly.
Ender’s Game was one of the first books that I read in a day. I just couldn’t stop reading it. I think initially I started reading the Star Wars novelizations, because I just wanted more detail. I would read the first spin-offs, like Splinter in the Mind’s Eye, and reading those Star Wars novelizations is what led to my love of science fiction. I got into early Heinlein and Bradbury, like Have Space Suit—Will Travel, but Ender’s Game was a favorite. I think I had a Dungeons and Dragons character named Ender at one point because I was such a big Ender’s Game fan. Ender’s Game was a short story in 1977 and the novel came out in ’85, so a lot of people think that The Last Starfighter came out first, but it was actually Ender’s Game. And I’m fascinated that it was like 1977, like as soon as there were video games science fiction writers began to see how they could be used as training tools. And then that idea I think was further explored in The Last Starfighter.
But what I think makes Armada different than Ender’s Game or The Last Starfighter or Star Wars is that nobody is controlling drones in any of those stories or using video game consoles to defend to Earth. I think that’s like the idea that made me want to write it as a novel, because I’d never seen that idea anywhere—like the gamers of Earth fighting off an alien invasion. It’s such a fun idea. And drones have become such a huge part of our culture now, and a concern, and something that the military is using. I saw just yesterday they announced Tom Cruise is going to do a Top Gun sequel, and it’s about drones; drone pilots. So like now when I watch Star Wars I wonder why they’re not piloting drones. Like why would you send Porkins in to die unnecessarily? [Laughs] If you could have real-time holographic conversation between planets, then you could control drones. So I think that’s the unique idea of Armada: gamers using all the gaming platforms that we have now to actually control drones. Because when you look at the controls on, like, the drones my brother uses in the Marine Corps, they look just like video game controls. And they do that because it lowers the learning curve for people who grew up playing video games. So it’s really interesting.
When you were growing up, was there a certain game that was your Armada? Your ace game that if the fate of the world depended on you playing it you’d be like “Oh I’ve got this!”?
It would’ve been one of the games that inspired Armada which is called Starmaster, which was an early Activision game that was kind of like Star Raiders or Star Wars: The Arcade Game or Star Frontiers. It was a first-person space shooter game. But I was obsessed with it because Activision had this promotion where if you got a high score in certain games, you could take a picture of yourself with your score on the TV screen and mail it into them, and they would send you a patch as a reward that you could put on your jacket. And for Starmaster, there were these chevrons of rank, like the higher score you got, you could get more stripes to put on your jacket. [Laughs] So I was obsessed with this until I beat Starmaster and got the final patch. I still have all those patches on my jacket. And when I wrote Armada, I kind of weaved that idea into the story: the idea that Activision was part of a conspiracy and they were using that promotion as just a way to log the mailing addresses of all the best gamers. It’s such a natural kid idea. Kids love the idea that somehow their video game skills are being recorded by the government. And along with like the Polybius urban legend of mind control video games, it was fun to weave all that into the story and kind of create an alternative reason for Star Wars and video games.
After Ready Player One… I never expected it to be a success or even to get it published, so it was kind of hard to write a second book and recapture that mindset of just trying to please myself. When you write your first novel, they tell you that write the book that you’ve always wanted to read, and to write what you know. So I did that with Ready Player One just to see if I could write a novel. And then everything you could ever want to happen happened with Ready Player One. With that success, I just joked that I should just call the second one Sophomore Slump or title it, you know, Lackluster Follow-up. [Laughs] Because what could ever live up to the first book? But luckily people like it so far. It’s gotten a couple of starred reviews. It’s really nervous to do your second thing never having expected to have a first success, you’re just trying to shut out the world. I met George R.R. Martin and became friends with him these past two years. And I was at breakfast at him and I remember complaining about it. He was like, “How’s your second book going?” And I’m like “Ahhh, so much pressure!” Like, I’d forgotten who I was talking to. But it’s a good problem to have.
July 16 at Noon, University Book Store, Free