Onward, to the past
This story originally was published on Aug. 21, 2011.
When writer Ernie Cline sold his first book,"Ready Player One," after a fierce bidding war, he did what any freshman novelist would do: He bought a DeLorean.
This is, as it turns out, completely appropriate for the book Cline has written. In fact, it is so appropriate, it is a tax write-off.
We're standing in the garage behind the modest North Austin home Cline shares with his wife, 3-year-old daughter and a hyperactive dog. But when those gull-wing doors glide open, everything else seems to go quiet for a second. "That never gets old," Cline said. No, one cannot imagine it does. Nor does the (nonworking, sadly) flux capacitor he put on the shelf behind the two seats. (If you have no idea what a flux capacitor is or why having one in a DeLorean is awesome, you need to see "Back to the Future" right now.)
You may have heard of Cline. A few years ago, a movie this former slam poet wrote in 1998 called "Fanboys" - about a group of geeks making a pilgrimage to see the first "Star Wars" prequel before anyone else - caused some minor movie news when it came under the heavy hand of its producer, the almighty Harvey Weinstein, with Cline and director Kyle Newman out in the cold.
There was online outrage over Weinstein's changes, and a reported 300,000 emails later, Weinstein eventually relented (more or less).
"I heard from another producer that (Weinstein's) actual comment was, 'You can have the movie back and the ending you want, just please turn off the Internet,'" Cline said, with a small laugh.
But it turns out Cline's star was just starting to rise. His "Ready Player One" is one of the summer's most energetic science-fiction romps, a virtual reality quest novel that recalls "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," Choose Your Own Adventure books and a whole mess of 1980s geek touchstones.
There are Japanese robots, games of "Joust," the most egregious tribute to the band Rush that has ever seen print and, well, you don't have to know much about Atari 2600-era video games, but it can't hurt.
The Ashland, Ohio, native has been thinking about "Ready Player One" for a decade, a few years after he finished the screenplay for "Fanboys."
"I always loved Roald Dahl," Cline said. "And I thought, 'What if Willy Wonka had been a video game designer?'"
Cline began to dream up a virtual reality treasure hunt, and the more he thought about it, the less it seemed like a movie and more like a novel. But Cline had only written screenplays, and he describes his first swings at "Ready Player One" as nightmares.
"I just wasn't a good enough writer," Cline said. "There were too many characters, and I just got frustrated."
Over the years, he would come back to it now and then, only to put it down. Then "Fanboys" happened, and Cline suddenly had the time, money and talent to finish his print debut.
The plot is both familiar and enjoyably ingenious: In 2044, almost nothing works in the real world. The Earth is a sty, and much of the planet tries not to think about it by jacking into OASIS, the beyond-massive virtual reality environment where magic works, sci-fi tech is everywhere and people can be pretty much whatever they want to be. Whole sectors of society have migrated to OASIS - children go to school there, business is transacted there, lives are lived there, all for free.
Wade Watts is one of those kids, escaping his nightmarish home life by spending days at a time in OASIS.
A few years ago, OASIS creator James Halliday died, leaving behind a series of puzzles to solve within his matrix. The first one to solve it gets control of OASIS.
The punch line is that Halliday made knowledge of 1980s pop culture, the culture he grew up on, necessary to solving the riddles. Watts is determined to do it, but so are thousands of others, including a very nasty corporation.
This is, of course, a chance to Cline to kill all sorts of birds with one book. Drawing on everything from "Back to the Future" to Roald Dahl to Neal Stephenson's groundbreaking "Snow Crash," Cline has made "Ready Player One" a geek fantasia, '80s culture memoir and commentary on the future of online behavior all at once.
"I realized that Hollywood is never going to let me geek as hard as I wanted to," Cline said. "In this, there is nothing between me and audience." Which means references to Dungeons and Dragons (one of Cline's pre-computer obsessions) to movies (Cline's first love) to Rush ("I liked a lot of nerd music - Rush and Yes and movie soundtracks," Cline said, to the surprise of nobody, ever).
Of course, the irony is that "Ready Player One" has been optioned for the screen, and Cline has completed the first draft of the screenplay. So much for his book being unfilmable.
"Hollywood treats books like a salad bar," Cline said. "They take what they like and leave the rest. And I know it won't be the same as the book, but I am going to do my best."
He even made his own little OASIS. There's an Xbox in his living room, but it's not an Xbox. "You boot it up, and it gives you a menu of every classic video game system from the 20th century - Atari 2600, 5200, 7800, Sega, Nintendo, Nintendo 64 - then a menu of every game for that system," Cline said. "I never play it, except when friends come over. I am just very glad it's there."
You see, Halliday - whom Cline says is based loosely on a combination of legendary Austin game designer Richard Garriott and Howard Hughes - is the ultimate geek, doing what the ultimate geek would do: Making people understand him better.
"For the geeks that I know," Cline said, "if you don't appreciate the stuff they appreciate on the level that they appreciate it, it's incredibly frustrating for them.
"The idea of creating a contest that forces the whole world to be interested in and appreciate the stuff you like is a very appealing idea to a geek, " Cline said.
Which brings us to the DeLorean, a 1980s movie icon. In the OASIS game, Wade Watts, as a Halliday obsessive, flies around in a DeLorean, much like Marty McFly in the "Back to the Future" movies.
"I want to drive it to readings for the book and make it a traveling nerd museum," Cline said, opening the storage area in the hood of the car, in which sits a ghost trap, PKE meter and goggles from "Ghostbusters."
Which is the other punchline: For a guy who's about to become well-known for his incredibly entertaining virtual reality, Cline's done an awfully good job making his own geek paradise in the real world.