The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth

A dystopian future meets a pop-culture-obsessed past in 'Ready Player One'

Ernest Cline
Ernest Cline (Photo by John Anderson)

Looking at Ernest Cline's North Austin home, it's easy to imagine the man inside living an ordinary life. But once the doors open, the reality of the situation becomes apparent. Out of the garage door rolls a mint-condition DeLorean straight out of Back to the Future. When the upward-swinging doors on that retro mobile lift, out comes Cline himself – accompanied by the vehicle-appropriate sounds of Huey Lewis & the News – clad in a Rush jersey obtained at the band's most recent local tour stop. The original cassette-only stereo has been replaced with a retractable video screen with preloaded episodes of Airwolf at the ready. And what DeLorean is complete without a flux capacitor to facilitate your time-traveling needs? Popping the trunk further reveals Ghostbusters paraphernalia and a few Buckaroo Banzai headbands. If the nerd police find this stash, it will be the bust of a lifetime.

What leads a man to such depths of dorkness? "I think it's just in my DNA," Cline admits. His education started early with obsessions that covered everything from Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons to comic books and sci-fi novels. Paying his dues in the A/V and computer clubs at school, Cline now sees that his path was chosen early in life. "I didn't realize it at the time, but I was following the path of the nerd. I am the textbook Seventies/Eighties protonerd."

Luckily for fanboys of every nation, the social ostracism that came hand in hand with such enthusiasms evaporated around the time of the dot-com boom or, at the latest, when the comic-book-obsessed Seth from The OC became a teen sex symbol instead of the chiseled and brooding bad boy. These days, the phrase "nerd cool" is almost redundant. But the man in the DeLorean is a nerd apart, a nerd's nerd, because even in this town of gamers, comic lovers, sci-fi cinephiles, and pop-culture know-it-alls, it's hard to deny that Cline sits at the head of the dork table. And there is no greater credential for that honor than Cline's recently released first novel, Ready Player One.

The book is set near the midpoint of the 21st century in a world just shy of postapocalyptic. Things are bad enough to drive the planet's population into an online game called the OASIS that has transformed into something as ubiquitous as the Internet. Kids go to school in the OASIS, folks pay to travel to exotic cyberdestinations, and players lead alternate lives away from the doom and gloom of future America. When the game's reclusive and idolized creator, James Halliday, posthumously announces a Willy Wonka-esque challenge with the winner taking home a fortune and claiming ownership of the OASIS, the world is turned upside down. Suddenly Halliday's obsessions with the Eighties and all things geek – which are strikingly similar to Cline's – become everyone's obsessions as people look for clues leading to the virtual equivalent of the golden ticket. Enter Wade Watts, a teenage dorklet, classic video game wunderkind, and all-around Halliday expert. The cyber and real-world adventure that ensues is more than just nerd wish fulfillment; it borders on nerd porn. Before book's end, Wade – or more precisely, his in-game avatar, Parzival – will be transformed into a character in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, take a space journey in the Serenity, become a player in his favorite video games, and generally live every dork wet dream imaginable.

The barrage of popular and obscure references is daunting at first, but at the heart of Ready Player One is a quest story, with Wade cast as the scrappy underdog. As Rocky and Luke Skywalker will attest, few things grab a reader like an average Joe discovering unplumbed reserves of power and courage. Top that with Eighties references ranging from the Plimsouls and Blade Runner to breakfast cereals and Schoolhouse Rock, and there's an in for any child or fan of that neon era. "It's weird how one word or one reference from somebody's childhood will create this emotional response in them," Cline explains.

That universal appeal could explain why the New York publishing world spent 24 hours fighting tooth and nail for Cline's book, which finally landed in the hands of Random House for a cool half a million dollars. As if that wasn't enough, the next day the bidding war for the movie rights began, culminating in another half mil or so from Warner Bros. "My family and I were freaking out for two days. We were hoping that I would get enough of an advance to buy a new car because our '93 Camry was falling apart," says the new millionaire. "So our whole goal for finishing the book and selling it was to get maybe a 35-grand advance." Cline attributes interest in the movie to the novel's echoes of The Matrix and Avatar: both blockbusters that involve controlling another entity via computers.

The cherry on top of the film deal was that Cline could write the first draft of the screenplay, which the author admits was a daunting task, saying that it "sounded awesome on paper, but then it became my job to figure out how to make this book that I'd written – that I knew could never be a movie – into a movie."

The licensing fees alone for a faithful translation of the book into film would put the movie's budget on par with that of a summer blockbuster: All of those pop-culture inclusions in the book wouldn't come cheap. With the book and script making the Hollywood rounds, Ready Player One: The Movie could very well be up against The Avengers this time next year.

Cline is hesitant to get too excited about the cinematic prospects of his novel. His last script to hit the big screen, Fanboys, didn't turn out quite the way he had imagined (see "Fan Favorite," Screens, Feb. 6, 2009, for more on that subject). "There's a lot of stuff in it that just makes me cringe," says Cline, looking back at his previous film, "and then there's all this amazing stuff, like Lando Calrissian doing a cameo." Billy Dee Williams can have that effect.

Despite all of the sudden changes in his life, the massive influx of cash chief among them, Cline is staying focused on the impending book tour, riding his trusty DeLorean from Texas to Michigan and west to San Diego. "It's the nerdiest book ever, so I might as well try to do the nerdiest book tour ever," says Cline, who also admits there will be enough geek accoutrements in the trunk to necessitate that his suitcase ride shotgun. And with 5,000 advance galleys printed (2,000 more than the Random House-published George W. Bush autobiography), word of the author's inclinations are spreading far and wide and are primed to catch fire.

Expect a revival wherever Cline stops. But this is a new kind of religion, one founded on the shoulders of Richard Garriott, Gary Gygax, and Steve Wozniak. And with Ready Player One in hand like a nerd bible, Cline should make no shortage of converts to the dork side.

Ernest Cline will host a launch party for Ready Player One at BookPeople Tuesday, Aug. 23, 7pm, and will sign copies at Austin Books & Comics the next day, 4-7pm. Just look for the DeLorean.

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    Can you speak geek? Define these Ready Player One references.

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Ready Player One, Ernie Cline, Fanboys, geek culture

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