A Conversation with Ernest Cline


I reviewed Armada, by Ernest Cline last Tuesday, so here’s a conversation with him:

Let’s get right to the elephant in the room. The news is now out that Steven Spielberg will direct your debut novel Ready Player One on the big screen! What did you do when you got the news besides watch every movie Spielberg has ever directed and maybe do the Truffle Shuffle?
I pinched myself a few hundred times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming—then I RE-watched all of his movies—including the Indiana Jones films, which helped inspire certain elements of RPO’s story, along with E.T. and Close Encounters, two Spielberg films that played a large role in inspiring Armada. His work has influenced me throughout my life and writing career, so it’s a dream come true to have the opportunity to collaborate with him on the film adaptation of a story that his work helped inspire.

In Armada Zack and his father, Xavier Lightman, your novel’s two main heroes, are both big science-fiction fans. The book is filled with references to sci-fi films, such as The Last Starfighter, E.T., Aliens, the Star Wars franchise. Dare to share your all-time favorite sci-fi flick?
My all-time favorite sci-film would have to be Star Wars, aka Episode IV: A New Hope—the movie and its sequels created the entire mythology of my youth, and altered the course of my life and career.

Both Ready Player One and Armada are science-fiction novels, but I know you were also a passionate D&D player for years. There are a bunch of great fantasy movies and novels from the ’80s as well. Would you ever consider writing a fantasy novel?
Possibly. One of the things I enjoyed about writing Ready Player One was that its virtual reality setting allowed me to incorporate elements of both science fiction and fantasy genres into the same story.

In the novel, Zack’s Armada pilot call sign is IronBeagle, an homage to the Snoopy vs the Red Baron album. Did you have fun creating the other various call signs in the novel: RedJive, MaxJenius, Viper, Rostam, Whoadie, AtomicMom, Kushmaster5000?
Pilot call signs are always fun to create—like an avatar’s name in Ready Player One; it’s a nickname a person creates for themselves, so it invariably says something about their self-image and their character—like each of the call signs you listed above.

Talk to us about Xavier’s Raid the Arcade mix playlist in the book. How did you choose the songs, which became an essential part of Zack’s Armada gaming ritual? Do you have any rituals of your own when it comes to playing videogames?
Many of those are songs from the mix tapes I used to make to listen to on my Walkman at the local arcade. Some of the songs are from movies that played a role inspiring Armada’s story, like the song “Iron Eagle” by King Kobra, from the film of the same name.

Reading your novels always give me a sense of nostalgia for my youth. I think this is because reading about Robotech, Saturday morning cartoons, watching the same movie dozens of times, etc. were shared experiences for Generation X because our options were more limited. Nowadays, every TV has hundreds of channels for every possible viewing interest. Do you think this is one of the reasons your books resonate so much with readers? Do you think that GenX will be the last generation to have such a defined shared pop culture experience?
It’s hard to say on both counts. When I was writing Ready Player One, I tried to tell the story the same way I would tell it to one of my close friends, referencing all of the books, movies, shows, and music we grew up loving. After the book was published, I discovered that those pop culture touchstones from my life were a part of many of my reader’s lives, too, and resonated with them just as deeply, because it was a shared experience. I think future generations will have similar touchstones, but not on the same scale as in the late twentieth century, when the whole world was devouring the same movies, music, and TV shows, as well as shopping in the same stores at their local mall. It will be interesting to see how pop culture continues to evolve in the future.

In Armada, Zack soon finds out that the EDA (Earth Defense Alliance), a top secret global military coalition, is not just a fictional agency featured in the videogames he’s been playing. If the EDA were real (and we’re not saying they aren’t) and invited you to join their ranks, would you? Would Moon Base Alpha be your first station of choice, or would you prefer something closer to home?
Of course I would join up! If the EDA existed, I would have to pitch in and use my gamer skills to help save the world. But I would prefer to stay here in Austin and telecommute, so I could fight off the invasion from the comfort of my couch, without changing out of my pajamas.

There is a romantic plotline woven throughout the novel, albeit one that is a bit nontraditional (boy meets girl as Earth is under attack from alien invaders, girl is a kick-ass gamer who helps save boy’s butt during attack, you get the gist). Did you feel it was essential to add this element, or did the relationship between Zack and Lex come about naturally as you were writing the novel?
It came about naturally as I was writing. I love stories with strong female characters, who kick just as much ass (if not more) than their male counterparts, so the stories I write usually tend to have a few of them. I also believe that every good adventure story also includes a little romance. And some rock and roll, too.

If you could meet anyone from pop culture—actor, singer, game creator—dead or alive, who would it be and why?
Carl Sagan. Because he changed my life by opening my eyes to the nature of the world and the cosmos, and I’d love to be able to thank him in person.

The first arcade game you ever played was Space Invaders. Is there a game that you’ve been playing recently that’s become a new obsession?
Finishing this book has been my only obsession for the past few years. But during my research, I did play a lot of space combat and flight simulation games, both old and new. The problem with playing videogames as “research” for a novel is that you never want to stop playing to go off and actually write it.

Many people look back at the ’50s and ’60s as a watershed moment for science-fiction writing, but do you see the ’70s and ’80s as an even richer epoch for inspiration with the confluence of all the new videogames introduced and some of the best science-fiction TV and movies ever made (to my mind!)?
The ’70s and ’80s are a rich era for sci-fi inspiration (at least, for me) because that was the dawn of the computer, videogame, and Internet age—the one we still live in now. It was also a golden age for movies and television shows, which may be why every property from that time is being reimagined or rebooted right now.

Armada is dedicated to your brother Major Eric T. Cline. What is your relationship like and why did you choose to dedicate the book to him?
My brother and I are very close, and have been our whole lives. He’s always been a huge inspiration to me. He joined the Marine Corps as a lowly private, and over the past two decades he has worked his way up through the ranks to become a major while he traveled all over the world helping people and risking his life for his country and his comrades. Seeing all the sacrifices he and his family have had to make during his various deployments was part of the inspiration for Armada’s story and characters.

There is a rumor you now own not one but two DeLoreans. How on Earth did that come about?
I bought a second DeLorean to give away as the grand prize in the Ready Player One Easter Egg Hunt. A few years later, the contest winner decided to sell the car to pay off some unexpected medical bills, so I decided to buy it back from him. Then I gave it to my brother, Eric, so now I’m back down to just one time machine, which is plenty.

Is it true that George R. R. Martin called you and asked to borrow one of your DeLoreans to help promote the opening of his new bar (complete with a Back to the Future screening)? There has to be one heck of a story here, please explain!
You just explained it! We had already met at a convention and he sat in my car. So when his theater decided to screen BTTF, he thought of me and asked to borrow my DeLorean. I said yes, of course, because loaning it to GRRM only increases its value and geek pedigree!

For decades, science-fiction writers have been predicting some of the most incredible futuristic concepts that have become reality, such as debit cards, video conferencing, ear buds, and even accurate details about men landing on the moon. In Ready Player One, the virtual technology you write about is now well on its way to becoming reality with the Oculus Rift virtual reality display expected to be available to consumers in 2015. Are there any similar futuristic technologies in Armada that you think will become reality in the next few years?
Yes, but the future is happening so fast now it’s getting more and more difficult to stay ahead of it. Armada’s plotline involves two concepts–quantum data teleportation and 3-D drone printing–that were still science fiction when I started the book, and then became a proven reality before I finished it. I need to write faster.

For your Ready Player One book tour you drove your time traveling DeLorean across the country. Any plans to do so this time around?
No, I think one Time Machine Book Tour is probably enough for me. It’s not really safe to drive a tricked-out DeLorean on the interstate highway system, because the people around you are often swerving/driving recklessly while they attempt to snap a photo of your car to post on Facebook. There are safer ways to travel.

About Mark Gardner

Mark Gardner lives in northern Arizona with his wife, three children and a pair of spoiled dogs. Mark holds a degrees in Computer Systems and Applications and Applied Human Behavior. View all posts by Mark Gardner

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