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Interview: Ernest Cline

Ernest Cline is the author of the best-selling science fiction novel Ready Player One, which is currently being adapted for film by Steven Spielberg. Cline also wrote the screenplay for Fanboys, about a group of hardcore Star Wars fans, and he recently appeared in the documentary film Atari: Game Over, about the collapse of the once mighty video game company Atari, which was forced to bury hundreds of thousands of unsold game cartridges in the New Mexico desert. Cline’s new novel, Armada, about video game champs battling aliens, is out now.

This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.

You’re known for writing these books full of obscure, geeky references from your childhood. Tell us how you got obsessed with science fiction and video games as a kid.

I was five years old when Star Wars came out, and I have a vivid memory of coming out of the movie theater, after seeing Luke blow up the Death Star for only the sixth or seventh time at that point, and going out into the lobby and playing Space Invaders. And it was the first time I had controlled anything on a screen; up until then, television and video screens had been a passive experience. I was lucky to be born in the ’70s, because I got to be part of the first generation to have video games, period, and then also to have home video game consoles; I got my Atari in Christmas of ’79 and that changed my whole childhood. And then getting a VCR changed my life again, being able to re-watch movies and study how they were made and record things off of the television; and then having a home computer—a TRS-80—and being able to make my own video games and program a computer. I was also part of the first generation to have cable television.

Do you think you were a typical kid of your generation? Or would all your friends know you as the kid who was most into video games or science fiction?

I didn’t realize it at the time, because I was the only one in my grade school, but I was a stereotypical nerd; I was interested in electronics and science and video games. I guess I would be one of the first video game nerds. But once all the grade schools poured into the junior high and high school, it turned out that there were one or two kids from every school like me; we just had to find each other. Those were the guys I ended up playing Dungeons & Dragons with, going to local arcades with, and they’ve become my lifelong friends and inspired some of the characters in books and movies.

Speaking of Dungeons & Dragons, I heard you say in an interview that your parents didn’t like you playing. How much pushback did you get on that?

It was forbidden, because my family was very religious. My mother had gotten ahold of this book from someone at church called Playing with Fire; it was fear-mongering about all the dangers of roleplaying games. And she thought that I was really going to try and collect spell components and cast spells and that it was meddling with witchcraft; I was meddling with powers I didn’t understand. That was a part of the appeal; it was almost like heavy metal. I remember sneaking my Dungeons & Dragons books in and out of the house under my jacket.

You mentioned you were programming computer games; were you also writing any sort of fiction at that time?

Some of the first things I ever wrote were skits for my Boy Scout troupe to perform at campfires, and I would write short stories for school, but it wasn’t until high school that I would sit down to try and write things. But it always ended being the thing I was best at in school; I was able to be funny, and be funny on paper. When you’re a kid, you look for what gets you attention or impresses other people, and so I was drawn to doing it.

Did you try submitting stories to any of the science fiction magazines?

I did not; my first published fiction that wasn’t in a school literary magazine is Ready Player One. I started out wanting to be a screenwriter, and then, although it took ten years, I actually got Fanboys made and it was so disheartening to have my work warped and mutilated to the point where there are scenes still in the movie that make fun of the characters or of Star Wars fans. I’m still proud of the movie, but when I see it, I just see all the things that they changed and things that could have been better but were out of my control. I’d always wanted to try writing a novel, but seeing that lack of control really inspired me to sit down and try to do it and stop writing screenplays.

For the people who aren’t disillusioned with screenwriting yet, could you say a bit about how a screenplay actually ends up getting made into a movie?

I’m not completely disillusioned; I’m working on the screenplay for Armada right now. Starting out a screenwriter and trying to get scripts made, you’re not the low man on the totem pole; you’re the part that’s in the ground. Your script is just a blueprint. But adapting your own novel is completely different, because the story already exists the way that you intended. My screenwriting career has a new lease on life, because now I will always write the story in fiction first, and then the story can have its own life. I think that’s one of the frustrating things for most screenwriters; no one gets to see your story as you intended it.

For Fanboys, I was really inspired by Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater, and Robert Rodríguez, guys who used very limited resources to make their first movies and that’s how they launched their film careers. Fanboys has that title because it’s simple, like Clerks, Slackers, or El Mariachi. I was trying to do a small story and I thought it could be dialogue-driven and showcase my writing and that I could make it myself, in Austin, Texas, where I live.

I wrote a part for my friend, Harry Knowles, to play himself. Harry, at the time, had just founded Ain’t It Cool News, and it was the first movie news fansite. For a while he was sitting in with Roger Ebert on At the Movies, and through his own enthusiasm had become a powerful film critic. It was part of what made Austin a cool movie town, that Harry lived here, and the Alamo Drafthouse had just opened, which is movie-geek heaven.

Fanboys is about a group of friends in Ohio who find out that one of their number is dying and he’s not going to live to see Episode I, and so they go on this road trip to break into Skywalker Ranch and see it early. And it occurred to me that, if you were going to do this, and you needed the blueprints and keycards, that Harry Knowles was one of the guys you would go to. He had access to all that stuff; people remember seeing the Episode I script at his house six months before the movie came out, and he had the score, and people were always leaking stuff to him. He actually did have blueprints to Skywalker Ranch. So I wrote him into the script, to be the “wizard” alongside the road that gives them the magic talisman that helps them on their adventure. Harry read the script and he loved it so much that he read it in one sitting, got up, and wrote this glowing review of it on his website, how it was like the best script he’d ever read about what it meant to be a fan of something and how love of some facet of pop culture can bind you together with your friends. It’s still buried on his website from way back in 1998, and everybody in Hollywood reads his website and that was how, even though I’d just quit my job and bought a van and a camera and was going to try to film it all myself, it ended up getting optioned by a young producer named Matt Perniciaro. He helped me develop it and shop it around Hollywood.

It took seven years, but eventually the script found its way to Kevin Spacey, who had just started his own production company—Trigger Street Productions—and he read the script and loved it and decided to become a producer. That changed everything, because up until then they couldn’t ask for George Lucas’ permission to make a movie about breaking into his house and stealing his stuff; there’s a whole group of people in place to make sure he doesn’t get stupid phone calls like that. But Kevin Spacey was able to call him up—I think George Lucas said in an interview that he thought Kevin was calling him about being in one of his movies—and told him he was producing a movie; that it was an homage to Star Wars and Star Wars fandom. He said yes and use Star Wars, and let us shoot at Skywalker Ranch. It took two more years to come out, because in post-production there was a lot of fighting between the producers and the Weinstein Company, who put up changing the dying friend plotline and excising it. I wasn’t even sure if the movie would come out in theaters—I thought it might go direct to video—and we missed the thirtieth anniversary of Star Wars. It finally came out in 2009 and Princess Leia, Lando, Captain Kirk, and Darth Maul all make cameos in it; Kevin Smith is in it, and it blows my mind that the movie ever got made. Still, unless you’re a writer/director/producer who also finances your own movie, filmmaking is very collaborative; if you’re spending millions of dollars to make a movie, it’s a product that they want to sell to as many people as possible, which is not always the goal of art. You have a lot more control and freedom writing fiction than you do screenwriting, but you don’t reach as big an audience. As you know, a lot of people won’t even read a book until they find out there’s going to be a movie.

So you thought Fanboys didn’t really stay true to your vision and had to start over as a fiction writer. What was the process? Did you get an agent?

I didn’t feel like I was starting all over; Fanboys is the only one that’s been made, but I’ve sold several other screenplays and that encouraged me that I could make a living as a writer. Thundercade was a script that I wrote that just never got produced; if I had written it as a novel first, people would have already read that story. And if I had written Fanboys as a novel, the story as I intended it would have existed in a form that people could read, but now all that will exist, unless people dig up some early draft of the screenplay, is just the final movie as it is, and it has my name as one of the writers on it even though I didn’t have final control over the final product.

Ready Player One was just one of the many ideas that I had that I thought might be a movie, initially; I came up with, “What if Willy Wonka was a videogame designer, and what if he held his golden ticket contest inside his greatest video game creation?” That was the initial kernel of the idea, but it didn’t really get going until I figured out what all the riddles and puzzles and clues that this eccentric video game designer would leave behind to find a worthy successor: All the different pop culture of his life. I thought about computer and video game designers that I knew and they’re all geeky guys and love all the stuff that I love: Monty Python, Dungeons & Dragons—the more successful the video game developer, often the bigger the geek. The eccentric billionaire in my story is one-third Willy Wonka, one-third Howard Hughes, and one-third Richard Garriott, who invented all of the Ultima games and he had an online, in-game persona—Lord British—that he would cosplay as at conventions. He had a mansion outside of Austin with all these secret passages and vampire hunting kits and all these other weird things; he used his money to buy a ticket to go into space. He was a real example to me of what a geek with a lot of money and resources could accomplish and I threw all of that into creating the character of James Halliday.

Once I had that idea, for using the pop culture of my life as the ancient mythology in my Indiana Jones story, it became really fun to sit down and work on it. I think that’s the only reason I finished the book; it took me years of working a full day job in front of a computer and then coming home and trying to get back in front of a computer to write my story, and I would stop and write other screenplays and then come back to it. But I always believed in it and I always knew that I wanted to finish it; it was just a really insanely ambitious first novel—it wasn’t just a few characters, but a giant sprawling stage. As I refined the idea, I realized it probably couldn’t be a movie if I wanted to weave all this pop culture into it; in a movie, to use another movie or a song in your story, you’re actually reproducing it so you have to get the rights for it. But in a book, you can have any soundtrack you want; you can have any painting you want hanging on the wall; you can do a lot of things with no budget that you couldn’t do in a big budget Hollywood movie. It was really liberating to geek out as much as I wanted, without any producer telling me that they didn’t get it or to take it out.

When I finished it, I already had an agent and a manager, and I was in the Writer’s Guild because of Fanboys, so that helped me find a lit agent in New York. And then everything you could want to happen happened to me once Ready Player One got out in to the world; there was a bidding war over the book rights and the very next day over the film rights, so my whole life changed in that forty-eight hours, for a book I wasn’t even sure I could get published—I wasn’t sure you could have Mechagodzilla fight Ultraman in your book and not get sued.

That brings us to your new novel, Armada. How did you come up with the idea, and what was it like trying to follow up Ready Player One?

It was a lot of pressure; I would listen to that Billy Joel song—and David Bowie, Queen—“Under Pressure” a lot to keep it in perspective. Ready Player One was such a runaway success and just continued to get bigger and more popular as time went on, even while I was working on Armada. Armada had been an idea that I’d been kicking around for a long time that I thought might be a screenplay, but again—like with Ready Player One—there were elements missing that didn’t feel like a fully fleshed out idea until I started to mix in the idea of quantum data teleportation, which is something I had just started reading at the time.

It’s always hard to synopsize where the idea for Armada came from, but I think it has its origins in this game Battlezone that Atari put out in 1980. It was a groundbreaking game, one of the first with 3D graphics; they were vector 3D graphics, but you could move around this 3D landscape. It was a tank game, and it was so realistic that the US Army bought Battlezone from Atari and then paid the original programmer, Ed Rotberg, to reprogram it and modify it into a training simulator called The Bradley Trainer to teach real soldiers how to operate the new Bradley combat vehicle. They never followed through on it, but just the idea that Battlezone could really teach me how to operate a tank to some degree—that had a powerful effect on my ten-year-old brain. I was already a child of Star Wars, so I grew up building cockpits out of couch cushions in front of my television and playing those first-person shooters like Starship 1 where you had a cockpit view, and I would think of that as a starship simulator in my living room and pretend that I was Luke Skywalker. And the games at the arcade, I loved those, too, where they were cockpit simulators you would climb into and it would make you feel like you were getting into an X-wing. I spent my whole youth imagining, “What if I was really controlling a ship somewhere? What if I was actually training?” When I saw The Last Starfighter—one of my favorite movies—I would go down into the lobby and play video games to recapture that feeling of being in the movie.

I read Ender’s Game around the same time; it was published as a novel in 1985, but it began as a short story that was published in 1977, the same year Star Wars came out. And the short story is very similar to the novel—part of Ender’s training is some early video game simulations of combat. I love that idea of video games being used as a training simulation, but when I got the idea for Armada it occurred to me that I’d never seen that idea used with drones, which is something relatively new but has become, in the past five years, a huge part of our Air Force. They just announced they were going to make Top Gun part two with Tom Cruise, and it’s all about Maverick as a drone pilot. Also, my brother is a Marine and an explosive ordinance disposal technician and they use drones as well, tracked robots with articulated hands that allow them to disarm IEDs or shells from a distance. The controls for both drones look like Xbox controllers, and they do that on purpose because it lowers the learning curve for the soldiers, because they’ve all grown up playing Xbox games.

I combined all my love of Star Wars, Ender’s Game, Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica and then the idea of video gamers using their game consoles to control drones, married with this idea of quantum data teleportation, which is using Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance” to transmit data losslessly over infinite space. You wouldn’t have to use radio waves and send a space probe out and wait thirty minutes for the signal to get there and back; you could control it instantaneously. Once I had those ideas, I had the idea of, “What if the video gamers of Earth could use their gaming platforms to control an army of drones to fight off an alien invasion?”

It’s such a natural idea because you sit down and play a videogame and you want those video game skills to have some real world value. All the science fiction movies and video games that I grew up playing, I wove those into the story, made them part of the conspiracy, part of the training and preparation by the government to prepare our hearts and minds for an alien invasion. If an alien invasion happened tomorrow, we wouldn’t be prepared for it, but we would have all these expectations based upon fifty years of War of the Worlds and V and Dark SkiesIndependence Day-style alien invasions. I’ve never seen an alien invasion movie where everyone has seen all the alien invasion movies that I’ve seen, so I wanted to do a story like that, too. It involves virtual reality, too; playing a flight simulator on an Oculus Rift will blow your mind, because you’re not pretending to fly your ship through a two dimensional window anymore; now you can look out over your wing and track planes behind you.

You mentioned that, in the story, the US government has been funding the science fiction video game and movie genre as a way of preparing the population for an actual invasion they know is coming. And I don’t know if you know Tim Powers, but he writes all these secret history novels and he said that when you start doing research and making up your own conspiracy theory, you get to the point where you start noticing things and start to wonder, “Wait, am I on to something here?”

For me it was a natural thing; I dressed up like Luke Skywalker three Halloweens in a row. If you’re a five-year-old kid seeing Star Wars, there would be no better propaganda. I was ready to go fight aliens. It seemed like a whole generation around the world was being primed to want to fight aliens and go into outer space and a lot of people, between Star Wars and Star Trek, were drawn to working in science or the space industry. Me, specifically, I just wanted to kill aliens in a cockpit of an X-wing or a Buck Rogers Thunderfighter. It was more fun to imagine that as a conspiracy, but I did do a lot of research into alien conspiracy theories and Roswell and all of that. I remember being struck by one film, Mirage Men, where an ex-government disinformation agent talks about how a lot of people believe that aliens came down and met the US government in a scenario very much like the one depicted in Close Encounters of the Third Kind; by making a movie, if you told the real story, people would just say, “Oh, that’s just like Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and it immediately discredits them. That idea stuck with me.

Another interesting thing in this book is that the main character, Zack, knows enough about science to know that the alien invasions depicted in movies like Independence Day don’t really make sense, and that the alien invasion he’s facing in this book doesn’t make sense. What are some of the things that don’t make sense about alien invasions we see depicted in pop culture?

One of them is: Why wouldn’t the aliens use drones? When I watch Star Wars now, if they can have real time holographic phone calls between planets and faster-than-light speed, that’s enough information to make a remote control X-wing or TIE fighter; you do not need to send Porkins down to die senselessly. Most alien invasions are sending down real people in real ships to die and try to take over the planet, and movies like V—they always conduct some sort of subterfuge to win our trust and then take us over. Or it’s like Battleship or Battle: Los Angeles, where they just come down and conduct a World War II-style ground invasion, with ship-to-ship combat. They could just hurl a meteor at Earth if they wanted to exterminate us. Why do they even come to Earth to begin with? There’s always the idea that Earth is this perfect, rare blue world, but it’s perfect for us because we evolved to live here; for any other alien, they always have to terraform Earth. Why not terraform a lifeless rock that’s not inhabited by a bunch of nuke-wielding monkey-boys who are going to fight back?

Not only do the invasions and motives often not make sense, there are just so many alternatives: If an intelligent species has the technology to travel light years across interstellar space with these massive warships, they’ve probably reached the singularity and would be beyond the need for anything that we have. But you never see characters stop and talk about any of this, because they’re too busy running from explosions. Which I get; I love those movies.

Say more about the characters in this book; I mentioned Zack Lightman, and then his dad is Xavier, who is a big video game fanatic who’s been missing for years. Is Xavier you? Does he have all your same video game and music tastes?

He’s kind of based on my younger brother, Eric, who’s a year younger and a foot taller and a major in the Marine Corps. He joined the Marines when he was nineteen and has been deployed in all the major conflicts we’ve had over the past couple decades. And he also became a father during that time, and I saw him become a weary battle veteran and have to spend long stretches away from his son and how hard that was on both of them, and how, in some ways, the modern technology we have makes that harder on soldiers; they can be in a battle during the day and then come home and get on FaceTime and have to hear about the phone bill and grade cards. They can’t keep home and war separate anymore. The book is dedicated to my brother; he and I grew up playing video games together and going to arcades.

Speaking of real people who appear in this book, there are a bunch of real scientists who appear, including Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

And I hope that they, or their estates, don’t come after me. I love all those guys, and there’s an armistice council in the book, a panel of prominent scientists who are tasked with trying to negotiate peace with the aliens. But the alien invaders aren’t really talking and the armistice council isn’t given all the information they need to actually do their job. It always makes the story feel more real if real people are in it, and all of those people that I named were people whose books I had read while I was researching Armada or whose work I had studied, especially Jill Tarter and Seth Shostak. I have been a SETI fanboy for over a decade and those are two of my favorites. Jill Tarter serves as the inspiration for Ellen Arroway, Jodie Foster’s character in Carl Sagan’s Contact, so I thought it would be cool to pay tribute to her. I had to have Stephen Hawking in there. I love the idea of Stephen Hawking also being a drone pilot. He’s a badass.

You also have real video game designers; the fictional video game in the book was made by this unbelievable all-star team, including Chris Roberts, Shigeru Miyamoto, Richard Garriott, Gabe Newell.

Richard Garriott especially, since he went into space; I had a bit more about how his trip into space was part of the conspiracy, but that was too insider. But all those guys have been instrumental in building the amazing video game industry that we all enjoy, and I wanted to pay tribute to each of them and put them on the side of good. If the scenario described in the book actually did go down, I think all those guys would be on the front lines.

Reading the acknowledgments of this book is like a Greatest Hits list of our guests over the years: Patrick Rothfuss, John Scalzi, Felicia Day, Daniel H. Wilson, Richard Garriott—do you know all these people? How did that come about?

I met them all as a result of writing Ready Player One. I met Felicia through Wil Wheaton, who reads the audiobooks of both Ready Player One and Armada. Richard Garriott helped me do the Ready Player One Easter Egg Hunt contest for the paperback; he was mentioned in Ready Player One, too, and inspired the story. John Scalzi came to my book signing in Cincinnati, on my hardcover tour for Ready Player One, and we’ve been friends ever since. I’m so lucky; all these people that I’m huge fans of and whose work I really loved and respected, I’ve gotten to know them as friends. Felicia Day sent me an early copy of her book, which is fantastic and comes out next month.

You mentioned Wil Wheaton did the audiobook: What was that experience like? Were you involved with that at all?

I had done spoken word performances and public speaking stuff before, and they offered to let me read the audio book. But I’m not an actor, and all my favorite audiobooks are always done by an actor who brings the story to life. I always had Wil Wheaton in mind because of Stand By Me and Next Generation. I love Wil’s writing, too; he used to write a column for The Onion, I think, called “Games of our Lives” where he would review old Atari games and they’re just hysterical, and it became clear to me that even though he grew up on a television show, he had the same childhood. He told me he used to play GURPS and program his home computer in his dressing room on the Paramount lot when he was playing Wesley Crusher. So I knew he would be perfect and he blew everybody away; that’s become one of the best-selling audiobooks in history because of his performance. I just got to finish listening to him do Armada this past weekend and it’s amazing; he does Patrick Stewart impressions and video game sounds and he just brings my characters to life; there’s one conversation where he’s doing eight different characters at once. Every book I write, I’m going to see if I can get Wil.

I watched this documentary recently called Atari: Game Over, and you appeared in that. It’s funny, because you’re going to do this pilgrimage with your DeLorean, and you have to pick it up from George R.R. Martin’s house, and I’m just wondering what the story is behind that.

The two biggest video game urban legends are E.T. cartridges buried in the desert and Polybius. Polybius is one that I weave into Armada: a strange, mind control video game. And I knew that was probably not true, but the E.T. cartridges in the desert . . . I’m a big part of the Atari collector online community, so I knew there was proof and articles that it had really happened. Around the time that I was hearing that they were going to make this documentary and actually dig up these Atari games, Zak Penn—who was making that documentary and is also a screenwriter who has written a bunch of the X-Men movies and Last Action Hero—got hired to do a pass on the Ready Player One script. He called me up and was like, “Hey, I’m doing this documentary and, reading the book, it’s clear that you’re a huge Atari fan; would you like to come and be a part of this?”

George R.R. Martin and I had met at a convention here in Texas the year before, and became friends—I interviewed him at a panel—and he had asked to borrow my DeLorean; he owns a movie theater in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he lives, and he was going to show Back to the Future. And I was like, “Can I tell people that you’re borrowing it?” He said yes, so—done!

I drove it out there and left it with him and when Zak Penn called me, I realized I could just fly into Santa Fe, pick up my time machine, and drive to Alamogordo, and on the way I could stop at the Very Large Array where they shot Contact and also visit Roswell. New Mexico has got a lot of cool stuff scattered across that desert wasteland. It was one of the greatest adventures; my buddy, Mike Mika, came down, and he’s the guy who’s helped me make video games for Ready Player One and Armada. They’re available online.

You’ve mentioned that Ready Player One and Armada are being adapted into movies; what’s the status of your various film projects?

I just finished Armada, the book, and I’m working on the screenplay adaptation right now; I’m trying to get the first draft done before I leave on tour later this week. Universal is really excited to make it into a movie, and they’ve been chomping at the bit for me to get finished. I’m excited to get to do my own gamer version of Star Wars, even though I have to go up against Star Wars movies.

And then Ready Player One: I’m told Zak is finishing up his changes for Mr. Spielberg on the script, and that they are gearing up for pre-production this fall and would maybe shoot the movie next year and it would be out sometime in 2017. That’s just a gross estimation.

I also heard you say you have a “Classic arcade gamers vs. Xbox gamers” script?

That was Thundercade, which I sold to Lakeshore Entertainment. They ended up not being able to get it made and the rights reverted back to me. That’s one of the screenplays that are in various stages of development; I might make it someday, but other movies have since used that same idea, so I don’t know if it would be as fresh as when I wrote it eight years ago.

Ernest Cline’s new book is called Armada. Ernie, thanks for joining us.

Thanks for having me.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.