Back to the Future

Ernest Cline discusses his ’80s-centric debut novel


rnest Cline’s Ready Player One is a pop-culture geek’s paradise, a futuristic thriller that looks back to the 1980s and its various touchstones — everything from the Atari 2600 and obscure Japanese anime to the Vision Quest soundtrack and the films of John Hughes — with addictive, often inspired glee.

Set in the grim, resource-challenged America of 2044, Ready Player One centers its brisk narrative on Wade Watts, a broken-homed teenager who escapes his bleak surroundings by spending most of his time navigating OASIS, a sprawling online utopia that supposedly contains clues that will lead someone to the massive fortune of its eccentric, ’80s loving, recently deceased creator. Of course, Wade hopes to be that someone.

Cline — a former “elitist video-game clerk and tech-support drone” who wrote the screenplay for the like-mindedly geeky, Star Wars-riffing movie Fanboys — recently traded emails with CityBeat about his entertaining debut novel.


Ready Player One is a curious mix of nostalgia and futuristic speculation. Was that your intent: That the future is so bleak that we need to look back to perhaps a more innocent and prosperous time?

Ernest Cline

I think that is the very essence of nostalgia. As every generation gets older, its members invariably begin to yearn for the simpler times of their youth. And my generation, along with those immediately following it, seems to be experiencing a sort of accelerated nostalgia. I remember a lot of people my age starting to get nostalgic for the 1980s in the late ’90s, when a full decade hadn’t even passed yet. Perhaps having a bleak outlook for the future is one of the things driving that. The future seems so perilous and uncertain that we end up taking solace in the artifacts and memories of our youth.


The book is laden with very specific, often esoteric pop-cultural references. Were you concerned that those not familiar with such references would be lost and thus be disinterested in the narrative?


No, because I wasn’t really writing with a specific audience in mind. I was really just writing to please myself. But I did make sure to use the references in such a way that the reader can get the gist of their meaning in context, even if they don’t get the reference. I tried to handle it like those moments in an Indiana Jones movie, when Indy starts talking about some ancient Babylonian myth you’ve never heard of, but you can still follow the storyline with no problem in spite of that.

CB: How did you know when you had found the right tone for Wade's voice in the book? And how did you craft the narrative, which is quite elaborate? Did you use an outline?

EC: Very early on, I think I had a good sense of Wade's voice — that of cynical optimist. A kid who had been born into an unforgiving world, but who still tried his best to remain hopeful. As for crafting the narrative, I filled notebook after notebook with outlines and ideas before I ever started writing. And then once I started writing, I did countless revisions, refining the story until it was as streamlined as I could make it. It was a lot of work.


As a child of the 1980s (as am I), do you think there is anything especially distinctive about that period? For instance, what impact do you think the rise of video games, cable TV and home video in that decade had on our generation?


I think those things had a huge impact, because those changes were very specific to our generation. We were the first kids to have home video game systems, home computers and home video. We grew up surrounded by all of that technology, and so we understood it and embraced it more easily than our parents. All of those unique circumstances set the stage for what our generation would become, and it also informs our relationship with our past.

CB: How do you think the rise of eBooks will impact the future of reading? And, on a larger scale, how will the digitization of culture affect us going forward? Will the lack of tangible objects be dehumanizing? Will it allow us to be more easily manipulated? 

EC: I have a hard time believing that all of our civilization's books, music, movies and art being digitized will do anything to dehumanize us, or increase the chance of us being manipulated. No more than analog recordings, anyway. Digitization just provides broader, faster, more reliable access to information. What we do with it and how we take advantage of it (or don't) is entirely up to us. In my experience, the only thing that can dehumanize someone is other humans.

CB: Gore Vidal recently said that he thinks novels will be artifacts in museums 100 years from now. With that said, what role do novels play in our current fast-paced, multimedia world?

EC: Even if printed novels are artifacts in museums in a hundred years, I think people will still be enjoying them in digital format. Telling stories to each other with the written word is one of our oldest art forms, and I don't think it's going to vanish anytime soon. It will just evolve. As for the role of novels in our current fast-paced society, I think they're just as essential as ever. The more fast-paced things get, the more people will need the respite of curling up with a good book — even if it's on an eReader.


How did your experience as a screenwriter influence Ready Player One?


I think having my screenplays watered down and de-nerdified by Hollywood definitely drove me to finish my novel, because I wanted to tell a story without having anyone else weigh in on how they think I should tell it. My screenwriting experience also influenced the three-act structure of the story, and the amount of visual detail that I went into in describing the surroundings. Screenwriting really taught me how to tell a compelling, fast-paced story that keeps the reader turning pages.

ERNEST CLINE discusses Ready Player One Aug. 31 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers.

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