Ready Player One author Ernest Cline living the VR dream – in real life
Cline is now a bestselling author and his story has been brought to cinematic life by Steven Spielberg
Just when you think the geeks couldn’t possibly inherit any more of the earth, along comes Ernest Cline in his tricked-out DeLorean. A decade ago, Ernie – as he introduces himself – was an award-winning slam poet who had posted a fan fiction script online (a sequel to the 1984 cult favourite, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension) and co-written Fanboys, a screenplay about Star Wars obsessives.
In 2010, Cline sold his first novel, Ready Player One, in a bidding war. The film rights to the book were snapped up the following day by Warner Brothers. Cline had been tinkering with the manuscript for 10 years, unsure that anyone would be interested.
“It was the most exciting 48 hours of my life,” recalls the author. “At that point I wasn’t even sure I could get the book published. I wasn’t sure you could tell a story weaving pop culture in as major plot points and as a shorthand to tell the story. I had never read a book like that. I wasn’t even sure it was legal to publish. Everything changed for me and my family during those two days.”
In Ready Player One, the Earth has been devastated by overpopulation, climate change, corporate greed and indentured servitude. Many survivors have retreated into a virtual reality simulation called the OASIS. Aided by fellow VR hunters, Wade Watts, a teenager from Ohio, spends most of his time searching for three hidden Easter eggs left behind by OASIS’s late founder. Whoever finds the eggs will inherit the creator’s $240 billion fortune.
Some seven years after Ready Player One became a New York Times bestseller, and Cline’s VR dystopia seems eerily prescient. The concept of virtual reality has been knocking around since the 1950s, but Oculus Rift and other mobile-based technologies have made computer-generated alternate realities more accessible for regular humans.
“I did a tonne of research into VR for the book,” says the 45-year-old. “Which, at the time, in the early aughts, only the military was working on. They wanted to use it to train soldiers in a consequence-free environment or to train astronauts in a consequence-free environment. It wasn’t until after my book was published that VR technology became a consumer product.
“The summer that Ready Player One was published, the Oculus Rift company was founded, leading to a renaissance in virtual reality. By last Christmas there were virtual reality headsets. A lot of people in Oculus and HTC Vive cite Ready Player One as an inspiration. They give the book to new employees and they’ve had me come do book signings there. But the influence of the book will be dwarfed by the influence of the film. Because Steven did a great job of showing the potential of VR.”
Steven is Steven Spielberg, no less, or as Cline has it: the cherry on top of his recent successes. It is, perhaps, only right and proper that Ready Player One, which is jam-packed with references to gaming, the 1980s, and movies, has ended up with the director who has cast the longest shadow across contemporary pop culture.
“It wasn’t until 2015 that I found out he was directing,” says Cline, who co-wrote the screenplay. “Until then I really wasn’t sure it would get made or that it would remotely resemble my novel. But ever since he signed on, I haven’t had to worry about either of those things. He announced himself as a big fan of the book from the beginning. He’d show up to meetings with this old cracked copy with highlighted passages and post-it notes about things he wanted to make sure were included in the movie. So from that point on, the entire process has been a dream come true.”
Although he missed out on Star Wars and the Japanese superhero, Ultraman (who plays a significant role in the original novel), Spielberg’s involvement helped allow a plethora of intellectual properties, from The Iron Giant to The Shining to Back to the Future, to appear in the OASIS.
“There are no legal issues with fiction,” says Cline. “You can have any song you want playing on the radio and any TV show or movie you want on in the background. It’s just part of the story. It’s more difficult to do pop culture references in a film or a television show than on the page. You need to get permission. That was one of the things that made me think it’ll probably never get made. Because who in the world could get those rights? The amazing thing is that the book found its way to the one person who could.”
Cline’s second novel, Armada, was published in 2015. Stuffed with Easter eggs about gaming and 1980s science fiction movies, it sold as a pitch in a seven-figure deal to Crown and then subsequently sold the feature rights to Universal for another seven figures. Some of that money went on enhancements for the DeLorean he bought for his first book tour. The car, like the one driven by Ready Player One’s hero, now boasts a KITT scanner (Knight Rider), an Oscillation Overthruster (Buckaroo Banzai), Ghostbusting equipment, and a Flux Capacitor.
“It was the first thing I bought because I realised I could use it as my author photo,” says Cline. “I brought the glove box in my bag for my first meeting with Steven Spielberg and I got him to sign it. So now I have an autographed time machine, which is pretty great.”
Ready Player One is on general release.
Ernest Cline on the resurgent 1980s vogue
“I’ve thought about this a lot. I think that it was the dawn of the information age and the technological era that we live in now. The first generation that grew up with video games, to have home video, to have home computers, to send messages electronically.
VCR meant I was no longer restricted to the movies that were on television or my local cinema. Now I had access to the world library. And with the internet, I have access to everything that has ever been created by human civilisation. Demarcation. It was also a golden age for cinema, with movies about kids that could do anything – movies like The Goonies or Explorers – where the adults had given up on a problem but the kids band together and save the day. That was such an empowering thing to grow up with as kid.”