We caught up with Ernest Cline, author of dystopian gamer novel Ready Player One, and challenged him to the ultimate geek test. Could he play Joust and talk about the cultural meaning of videogames at the same time? See for yourself!
We also talked to him about the novel that's rapidly becoming the summer's most beloved science fiction book. You can read our full interview (minus Joust) below.
io9: Your movie Fanboys and your new novel Ready Player One both deal with 1980s nostalgia. What is it that fascinates you about 1980s pop culture?
EC: I noticed in the late 1990s that my friends and I were already nostalgic for the 1980s, and by the turn of the century, VH1's I Love the 80s gave all of us an accelerated nostalgia for our generation. Maybe our future feels so bankrupt that we need old cartoons and TV shows?
The 1980s was also the birth of geek culture, with home video consoles, watching movies at home, and having computers that we knew more about than our parents did. That, plus the music and movies and all of it. I'm fixated on it - I was born in 1972 so the 80s were a formative decade for me. I learned about everything from computers to girls in the 80s.
I notice when I'm at a party where I don't know anybody - even if I have nothing in common with somebody we can still talk because we were raised by the same TV and cartoons and movies. That's something that's unique to our generation. There was a homogenized culture in the 80s – we went to the same malls and arcades and watched the same moves.
io9: What do you think of all the remakes of 1980s movies now?
EC: It seems like we're getting this plasticized, revisionist 80s because people in Hollywood grew up with this stuff too. I don't know if the 80s were unique, but we certainly got original, groundbreaking stuff at the time with movies like Back to the Future and Star Wars — movies that became classics. There's less of that now. Kids now could end up being nostalgic for the 80s through this weird filter like the remake of Footloose.
In my novel, the idea that kids would be nostalgic for the 80s is partly a geeky fantasy now that 80s kids are approaching middle age. We're saying, "Hey, these kids today have no idea what they're talking about — they don't know Karate Kid is a remake." Maybe it's a generational thing but I think we want kids to understand how awesome the things we had were. Pokemon and so many other cool things all stem from 80s geek culture. And I've heard that kids are reading my book with Wikipedia, trying to get all the references. I love that.
io9: Among geeks, people often talk about "raping our childhoods" when there are remakes or nostalgia flicks. How do you write a book that's all about "our childhoods" without raping them?
EC: I've never been a proponent of the "rape my childhood" philosophy with George Lucas. If he made your childhood, it's always your childhood, and you should have nothing but positive feelings about the man. Maybe he made stuff you don't like now, but that's the same as what musicians do. Just because you don't dig their new stuff shouldn't wreck the old stuff.
I don't think it's really posible to rape anybody's childhood metaphorically. This novel was a way to celebrate my childhood and what I loved about it.
io9: What about the negative parts of 80s culture, like the Cold War and increasing poverty in America?
EC: Ready Player One is about [game designer] Halliday's vision of the 80s – he's focused on the pop culture and warm fuzzy stuff. I wanted to do that without going into Reagan and the Cold War, since it's 2045 it didn't seem like I should go into the politics of the 80s. But that Reagan Era mentality of how to deal with homeless people – that horrified me. I loathe Reagan and Bush so much, and I felt like in the future I imagined in my book, that dystopia, I worry that we're headed in that direction. I feel like that path started in the 80s. It slowed in the 90s, but really kicked into high gear in the last decade. All this research I did for the book on peak oil and our energy policy was really disturbing. I didn't want to create this future with no hope – but when you look at the current state of the world, it's hard not to be cynical.
io9: Nerd culture is stereotyped as explosion-happy, sort of like the world we see in Evan Dorkin's comic series "The Eltingville Comic-Book, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Role-Playing Club," about nerds fighting to the death. But your characters and stories are sentimental, and totally unlike the stereotype.
EC: I love Eltingville! But if you look at people who have risen to prominence in the geek world like Joss Whedon and Wil Wheaton - well, they are both really sweet guys. I'm very sentimental, and there's something sentimental about nostalgia in the first place.
io9: What influenced your depiction of the gameworld OASIS?
Neal Stephenson's metaverse in Snow Crash was a big influence. Neuromancer to a lesser degree. I like that idea of cyberspace as a virtual world, and what the internet would be like if it were a 3D space. Basically, what would be the coolest possible version of the internet in 35 years? You're inside of it, manipulating physical objects. It's sort of an extension of the Wii and Kinect. As for why it's free and anonymous - I think that makes it a way to completely escape in real life. It's the best possible version of cyberspace. Plus, it's great for an adventure story - I like the idea of a kid being famous only in the virtual space.
To a lesser extent, the OASIS was influenced by World of Warcraft, Anarchy Online, and Everquest. A little of Second Life, too, but I found Second Life not as fun as MMOs I've played. It's just so pointless.
io9: You've been writing the film adaptation of Ready Player One for Warner Bros. Were you worried about doing the film adaptation after your experience with Fanboys?
EC: We shot Fanboys in 2006, and thought we'd release it in 2007. But then there was a protracted battle with the studio, who wanted more reshoots. They didn't like the movie. They wanted to take out the part with the kid dying. Basically, they wanted nerds to just do all this stuff [like breaking into Skywalker Ranch] for no reason. But when people [started to protest about it online], it just turned out to be too much hassle for them. Weinstein took a meeting with me where he basically asked, "Can you turn off the internet now?" He was like, "I've wandered into this world of nerds I don't understand."
Ultimately, Fanboys was very compromised. I feel like there's a much sweeter movie there – I've seen it. We're hoping for a director's cut one day.
So I didn't think Hollywood would let me geek out and drill down into geek culture the way I wanted to do. I figured the only way I could really do that was to write a novel. And then the movie rights sold 12 hours after book rights. There was a bidding war over my nerd book! I was so caught up that I didn't think about the difficulty of adapting a book I wrote because I knew it could never be a movie. Getting a first draft of the screenplay done was the hardest writing job I've ever had.