Ready Novel Two: Ernest Cline on Lucas, Spielberg and Armada
Ahead of his second novel Armada, we spoke to author Ernest Cline about back-slaps from George Lucas, competing with Adam Sandler and pissing off Steven Spielberg
If, as the bastardised saying goes, the geeks shall inherit the earth, then author Ernest Cline should be in line for a pretty sizeable chunk of real estate. Previously, Cline was best known as screenwriter on the amiable Star Wars road movie Fanboys, an ultimately flawed endeavour that at least earned backing from George Lucas himself. However, when the Ohio-born writer turned his hand to his first novel, 2011’s Ready Player One, his geek cred went through the roof and garnered attention from another esteemed director, which resulted in more than just a thumbs-up.
“I didn't think anything would ever top having George Lucas give his blessing to my first screenplay,” marvels Cline at the top of our conversation. “But having Steven Spielberg sign on to direct the adaptation of my first novel has managed to do it. I think the only other novelist who can claim that same honour is Peter Benchley with Jaws. I'm still pinching myself – it's become a daily ritual.”
There were many schools of thought on why Spielberg was approached to direct Ready Player One, but chief among them was how embryonic his work is to the book itself. Set in a near-future plagued with overpopulation, poverty and environmental collapse, much of humanity finds solace in an all-encompassing virtual reality world called the OASIS. When its chief creator James Halliday leaves behind an Easter-egg game hidden within the framework that will lead to his massive wealth, half the world tools up and logs on to find it. The catch is that all the clues and answers are ensconced within Halliday’s obsession for the 1980s pop culture of his youth.
“Videogames are as much a part of my life as books, movies and music" – Ernest Cline
As such, thousands of hunters bone up on everything from early Atari lore to all 168 episodes of Family Ties in an attempt to uncover the riddles Halliday has left behind. In among the book’s tsunami of such references sits the work of Spielberg, most of it coming with high praise from protagonist Wade Watts – but not all of it. “Oh no! Wade trash-talks Indy IV – he’s going to hate the whole book!” laughs Cline. “That was my first thought when I was told he was interested in directing the film. But that obviously wasn't the case. In the text, dismissing Crystal Skull is really just a snarky way for Wade to include the first three Indiana Jones films among his list of "holy trilogies" along with Star Wars and Back to the Future. So that little dig is buried amid high praise for his work.”
With that bullet dodged we decide to ask Cline a broader question about Spielberg’s involvement. With the bearded one's name andinfluence threaded through the book like a stick of rock, is he perhaps a bit too close to the subject matter, a little too perfect a choice to direct? “God no,” he states resolutely. “I think everyone involved – especially me – realised immediately that he's actually the perfect director for the material. It’s an homage to everything I loved about growing up in the 80s and it’s going to be turned into a film by the greatest director of that decade. I never would have written Ready Player One if I hadn’t grown up on a steady diet of Steven Spielberg films.”
It’s a fairly common sentiment, one would imagine, but playing at least an equal part in Cline’s influences is the world of videogames. Much of Ready Player One is a videogame of sorts (and some of it is a game within a game) whilst in between writing the book and the accompanying screenplay, Cline has finished his second novel, Armada, which also has its roots in digital entertainment. “Videogames are just a subject I’m naturally drawn to as a writer, in the way some novelists seem compelled to write about sports, detectives, zombies or vampires,” he rationalises. “Videogames are as much a part of my life as books, movies and music and so it would be difficult for me to write a story that didn’t reference them in some way.”
Both Ready Player One and Armada tap into slightly different fantasies that long-term game players are likely to have experienced. The former’s immersive VR tale riffed on William Gibson’s cult novel Neuromancer via the more accessible young adult fiction of Harry Potter and Star Wars. Armada meanwhile goes a step further with its premise; when alien invaders appear in spaceships over the sky, protagonist Zack Lightman (oh yes) can’t help but notice the striking similarity between these real-life antagonists and the ones he fights every night in an online videogame called Armada.
“I think the feeling is a natural human reaction to playing a videogame,” explains Cline on the tendency of a gaming binge to seep into your real life thoughts. “Particularly with first-person perspective games, because many of them are simulators – they make you feel like you're really driving a car, flying a starship, or infiltrating a secret base alongside your best friends. It's a natural leap for our brains to make – what if this was real? I think gamers around the world have been having this fantasy since they first started dropping quarters into Space Invaders.”
However, though he’s old enough to remember the arcade explosion that came with Taito’s runaway success in 1978, it’s the subsequent videogame home invasion of the early 80s that’s symptomatic of Cline’s own fantasies in this regard. “I grew up addicted to the early first-person space combat simulation games I was able to play on my Atari 2600,” he says. “I would build a cockpit in front of my TV with couch pillows, and then pull the Atari inside to serve as my starship controls.”
We’ve all been there, yet despite Cline’s affinity with the space genre, he cites a more grounded simulation as his main muse. “If there's one game that inspired Armada's story it would have to be Atari's Battlezone,” he reveals. As a realistic 3D tank combat simulator, for the time at least, Battlezone was subsequently converted by the US Army into a training tool. “I remember reading about it when I was a kid and being incredibly excited by that idea,” continues Cline. “That the United States Army was pursing the idea of using videogames to train real soldiers as early as 1981!”
Though he remains tight-lipped about the bigger story of Armada beyond the initial premise, it seems likely that this little nugget will play some kind of part overall. However, by a somewhat unfortunate coincidence, Armada will debut just ten days before Adam Sandler’s summer juggernaut Pixels, a movie about an alien invasion of classic videogame characters. Though certainly a goofier take on the subject matter, and with the added hurdle of having to deal with Sandler’s laconic delivery style, we have to wonder if Cline is at all bothered by the clash.
“I'm not really worried about Pixels,” he claims. “I'm not sure that movie is aimed at people who buy or read books on a regular basis, and aside from a plot involving classic videogames and an alien invasion, the two stories don't seem to have anything in common. I’m glad that my novel is being published before the film comes out though, just so I don't have to spend my whole book tour answering questions about it. A lot of people ask me if I think they stole my idea, but the original French short film that Sandler's feature is based on was stolen from an old Futurama episode.”
It’s a sign of how far Cline has come in such a short space of time, that his new book now faces such scrutiny and with it some weighty expectations. “Oh yes,” he exclaims when we ask if he felt the pressure with Armada. “Ridiculous, enormous pressure. I just did my best to ignore it and focus on telling my story, which wasn’t always easy. I wrote my first novel in complete anonymity, with no deadline or expectations from anyone but myself. Armada was written in a much shorter period of time under the exact opposite circumstances. It was on half-a-dozen ‘most anticipated books’ in 2014 and it wasn’t even published that year because I was still writing it!”
With that job now done, Armada is ready for release and despite joking with us that he toyed with alternative titles such as Sophomore Slump and A Lacklustre Follow-Up, Cline is understandably happy with his latest work, even if his outlook is firmly grounded. “I’m proud of Armada and I think readers who enjoyed my first book will get a huge kick out of this one too,” he explains. “But even while I was writing it, it was clear to me that it would be impossible for anything to top the reception of my first novel. Everything you could ever want to happen when you publish your first book happened – and it continues to happen. All that being said though, I do have high hopes for Armada.”
Whether this is a case of false modesty or an accurate account of that old ‘difficult second album’ syndrome will be for readers to judge when Armada launches later this month.