Ernest Cline was planning to drive his tricked-out DeLorean to Austin for a talk about his upcoming novel Armada, but Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin called him up and asked for it. Cline said he could borrow the car for as long as he wanted to, but asked for a dragon egg in return. Martin obliged.
When I meet Cline, a DeLorean Motor Company T-shirt peeks out from behind his black blazer. He looks like a grizzlier Milton from Office Space, his bright blue eyes framed by thick black glasses. Two gray patches of hair in his beard are the only signs that he isn’t still a kid. He’s the archetypal geek that never quite grew up — except this geek became one of the world’s most acclaimed new science fiction writers.
Cline has only published one book, Ready Player One, the tale of a penniless teenager’s journey through cyberspace to find hidden treasures and save the world from an evil corporation. Ready Player One was a New York Times bestseller, and Warner Bros. bought the rights to a film adaptation before it was even published. Now Cline has finished writing Armada, another novel about another teenager with the power to save the world from an alien invasion. Universal Pictures has already bought the film rights.
Cline's stories are the dreams he had each night growing up in quiet Ashland, Ohio, but he never imagined that they’d make him rich. "Our farm in Ohio felt like Tatooine," he says, pointing to his computer. He’s opened up an image of Star Wars’ famous Binary Sunset scene, where Luke Skywalker stands outside his sand heap of a home and begins his journey to save the galaxy. Cline sees his journey the same way.
"Star Wars was the mythology of my youth," he says. "I longed for adventure."
His knowledge of science fiction and '80s pop culture is legendary
Armada is about Zack Lightman, a boy who’s asked by the government to use his video game skills to stop an alien invasion. It might sound like a rip-off of The Last Starfighter, but there’s one key difference: in Armada, Lightman has seen The Last Starfighter. He’s probably seen it a dozen times, like Cline himself. "In a zombie apocalypse movie, nobody's ever seen a zombie movie," Cline says. "Or in an alien invasion movie, nobody has ever seen an alien invasion movie like Independence Day. That's what Armada is — if an alien invasion happened today, we'd be aware of all of that and reference all of this pop culture like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and we would have expectations of how an alien invasion would go."
Cline’s knowledge of science fiction and ‘80s pop culture is legendary and essential to his work. (Ready Player One is best read with a cup of coffee and easy access to Wikipedia and YouTube.) He grew up addicted to video games and movies, like most kids, but Star Wars was his true obsession. For years he and his younger brother asked for Star Wars toys — everything from action figures to lunch boxes — for every single Christmas and birthday. As Cline matured, his interests shifted to Dungeons & Dragons and the films of John Hughes. Cline taught himself screenwriting by reading every Hughes script from beginning to end and then comparing each script with the final versions of each film.
In his early 20s, he became determined to write his own screenplay that blended Hughes-ian dialogue with the thrills of Star Wars or Buckaroo Banzai, an ‘80s cult hit in which Peter Weller pilots a modified Ford F-350 Jet Car through the 8th dimension to battle aliens. In 1996, Cline wrote a sequel he called The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Against The World Crime League, and posted it online. Banzai fans the world over caught wind of the screenplay, and hundreds emailed Cline asking when the film would be made. Sci-Fi World Magazine even made a fake movie poster for the film. It was the first time Cline’s work had received so much attention, though a film never actually materialized.
Cline spent the next few years working in a cubicle doing IT, winning Austin Poetry Slams with tracks like "Nerd Porn Auteur" ("These vacuum-headed fuck bunnies don't turn me on"), and waiting for the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. When his mother died of cancer, Cline says a renewed sense of mortality caused him to go through a bit of a crisis — dominated, of course, by thoughts of Star Wars. He asked himself: "What if I knew that I was dying and wasn't able to see this movie that I was waiting my entire life to see?" Life once again became a story, this time in the form of a screenplay called Fanboys, about five friends traveling across the country to break into Skywalker Ranch and see Episode I before one of them died of cancer.
Thanks to Cline’s friend Harry Knowles, the outspoken editor at Austin-based film site Ain’t It Cool News, the world soon knew about Fanboys, but still years passed with no buyer. Finally, around 2005, nearly seven years after Knowles’ review, actor Kevin Spacey contacted him saying he had heard about the script and wanted to produce Fanboys with The Weinstein Company.
"What if I knew that I was dying and wasn't able to see this movie that I was waiting my entire life to see?"
When shooting began on the film, Cline used his 15 years of Star Wars memorabilia to decorate the main character’s room. He even found himself mixing sound for the film at Skywalker Ranch thanks to Spacey, who bumped into George Lucas on the set of Superman Returns and asked for a favor. Lucas granted Cline’s team access to the entire Star Wars sound-effects library, so they grabbed everything from Wookiee cries to Carrie Fisher’s signature "I know," which he then dubbed over Fisher’s cameo in his film.
Cline’s dream had effectively come true: he had broken into Skywalker Ranch and was making the coming-of-age film he had always wanted to make. But when Fanboys finally hit theaters in 2009, 10 years after Cline wrote his first draft, the response was tepid. Cline blames the negative reactions on Harvey Weinstein, the film’s producer, who insisted that a new director come on for reshoots and that certain cuts be made in the film. "It was so easy to codify The Empire as The Weinstein Company," Cline says, "and people started called him Darth Weinstein." Cline claims that Weinstein wanted the film to be more like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but for geeks. The two movie posters are indeed nearly identical, save for a Darth Vader helmet.
"It was so easy to codify The Empire as The Weinstein Company."
After wrestling for creative control over Fanboys, Cline decided that he’d quit screenwriting and write a novel. He had another idea ready, one he’d been toying with for years. "What if Willy Wonka was a video game designer and held a contest inside his greatest video game?" Cline spent eight years writing Ready Player One before it hit the presses in August 2011. Set in 2044, Cline’s book prophesied a future where everybody’s always plugged in to The Oasis, a virtual world hosting the Earth’s jobs, education, and secrets. Each Oasis user hooks in using a variety of haptic and visual inputs to simulate and stimulate the senses in a virtual world. Ready Player One is indebted to hundreds of other books, games, and films like The Matrix, and it wears them on its shirt-sleeve. Cline’s most original creation yet moved away from Star Wars into a world of his own, a world made out of his favorite things. Protagonist Wade Watts, of course, drives a souped-up DeLorean.
"I wasn't sure if I was writing glorified fan fiction… you can't have Ultraman fighting Mechagodzilla and get away with it," he says, but publishers immediately bit. "Every publisher in New York wanted to publish it. There was a bidding war over my weird book about Atari, Pac-Man, Cyndi Lauper, and Wang Chung."
Cline had grown up inspired by the mythology invented by George Lucas, but he now finds himself inspiring a next generation of creators and inventors. Less than a year after his novel was published, Oculus VR debuted the Oculus Rift, a device not so different from the "Oasis Visor" used by Watts. Ready Player One became Exhibit A for what a future filled with Oculus Rift users might look like — Oculus founder Palmer Luckey asks every new employee to read Ready Player One before their start date, Cline claims. After trying out the Oculus, Cline says that the Oasis might be no more than 10 years away.
Cline sees his books as little visions of Star Wars from a different time, and with different heroes. These stories are inspired by Lucas but also by one of Lucas’ inspirations: Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, a book that formalizes "the hero’s journey" into the common man’s quest for supernatural wonder. "We've been telling these stories and using these storytelling tricks since we were telling stories around the campfire," says Cline, "and they still work now, even in big Hollywood movies." Cline’s novels subscribe to Campbell’s theory and are inspired by Lucas’ work, but also offer something of their own: a hyper-aware, meta-textual perspective informed by the entire nerd lexicon.
Cline has witnessed all possible futures in the worlds of Lucas and other directors and authors and game programmers, and has decided that the future isn’t much fun if it’s miserable. "I'm enough of a science fiction buff to want to make [Armada] plausible," Cline says. "It doesn't have to be hard science fiction. It needs to be just plausible enough, like Iron Eagle or The Goonies. Just plausible enough for me to have fun with it." And if the future is dark and terrible, it might at least be filled with adventures. "Whenever I watch The Matrix, I think that it is possible, but I don’t think that it’s going to be machines enslaving humans," Cline says. "I think humans would willingly enslaves themselves because we now have the technology to create a reality better than the one into which we were born. Here, we can control everything."
Cline’s wide-eyed dreams have clearly not left him. And why would they? He has everything he ever hoped for on Christmas morning: a DeLorean with an Oscillation Overthruster that lets him "drive through solid matter," a huge collection of classic games and memorabilia, friendships with celebrity nerds like Wil Wheaton and George R.R. Martin, and the respect of George Lucas. "Everything you could ever want to happen, happened to me when Ready Player One came out," he says.
"Everything you could ever want to happen, happened to me."
But he doesn’t sound cocky when he brags about his nerd-world achievements, and he seems to glean just as much happiness from letting fans ride in his DeLorean. And when Cline talks about collaborating with his heroes like Billy Dee Williams or Peter Mayhew, he calls them Lando and Chewie. He’s the world’s most successful fanboy, but he’s still a fanboy.
Despite his success, I have no doubt that every so often Cline walks onto his lawn, gazes wistfully at the sunset, and prays that some Obi-Wan Kenobi figure will tap him on the shoulder and ask if he’s ready to save the world.