Ready Player One author Ernest Cline: ‘Kids like Zuckerberg have no business controlling us’

Sam
·7 min read
Ready Player One, Ernest Cline's debut novel, became a runaway Hollywood success - Warner Bros
Ready Player One, Ernest Cline's debut novel, became a runaway Hollywood success - Warner Bros

When Ernest Cline appears in his Zoom window for our interview – cheerful, bear-like and lavishly bearded in a way that brings to mind the Big Lebowski – something in the garage-like space behind him immediately catches my eye.  

“Is that… a DeLorean?” I ask. It is. “That’s my Ghostbusters DeLorean,” he says, and moves slightly to one side so I can see another near-identical silver car, its bat-wing doors open. “And that’s my Star Wars DeLorean.” Cline looks cherubically happy that his garage – the backdrop for his forthcoming virtual book-tour – contains not one but two of the cars made iconic by the Back to the Future films.   

That’s right on brand for Cline – a writer whose debut novel, Ready Player One, made him the literary standard-bearer for pop-cultural geekdom. The novel itself told the story of an “Easter egg” hunt through a vast multiplayer virtual world, with clues based on uber-nerdy references to iconic 1980s movies, cult books, music and video-games. It became a huge bestseller and, in a pop-will-eat-itself moment, went on to be filmed by Steven Spielberg. 

In so doing, it turned Cline, then 38 years old – an unknown IT guy, D&D fan and self-published slam poet from Austin, Texas – from the sort of person who would dream of having two DeLoreans in his garage, into the sort of person who could afford to do so.  

And in a way, that’s the starting point of his newly published sequel, Ready Player Two. In the first novel, his protagonist, Wade, was a scrappy kid from the slums with barely more of a toehold in the virtual world of the OASIS than in the dystopian offline future of the book’s setting. But as the new book opens, he is a master of the universe. He and his allies won the competition and, like three Charlies in the chocolate factory, inherited the company that owns the OASIS. He is a zillionaire in real life, and in the OASIS – clad in the magic Cloak of Anorak – he is effectively a god.  

“I was in the strange position,” Cline says, “of being in a much more scaled-down version of Wade’s predicament. I’d gone from being an obscure, unknown person to being famous and having more money than I’d ever had in my life. And I’d learned enough to know that having money and, you know, being successful doesn’t solve all your problems.”  

Ernest Cline was catapulted to stardom by the success of Ready Player One - Dan Winters
Ernest Cline was catapulted to stardom by the success of Ready Player One - Dan Winters

In the novel, Wade is pointedly reminded of a quote from Bill Murray: “When you become famous, you’ve got a year or two where you act like a real a--hole. You can’t help yourself. It happens to everybody.” 

Does it happen to everybody? Did Cline become an a--hole? He claims not – in part because “I knew that quote, and I kept it in mind”. But he shrugs: “You know, opinions may vary. I don’t know. Hopefully not.” 

I believe him. He has that humble and attractive quality of being manifestly a fan first and a creator second. What made that novel connect so much with its readers wasn’t its Olympian literary craft, still less its originality, but its utter delight in fandom – here was an author who saw no reason not to give a novel the structure of a computer game, and who was as psyched about Star Wars trivia as anyone.  

Wade, on the other hand, does turn into a bit of an a--hole. We see him using his super-user powers to invade the privacy of other users, to get petty revenge on his real-world critics – and he becomes more interested in squeezing cash out of his global user-base than in the effects his product might be having. He comes over, I suggest, like a bit of a Zuckerberg. “I am glad you picked up on that,” he says. “I did want to show his blind spot – the blind spot that you can see with Zuckerberg and Jack [Dorsey] from Twitter […] these kids who have no business having this much power, or this much control over the populace.” 

Of course, it’s an iron law of narrative that pride has to come before a fall. Soon enough, Wade has lost his superpowers and we’re embarked on another high-stakes scavenger-hunt through (among other things) obscure video-games, a giant mash-up of John Hughes movies, some gnarly bits of Middle-earth and a heroically silly boss-battle against seven different avatars of the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. (God knows what it’ll cost to clear the rights for the inevitable film.) Like the first book, whose structure it repeats, Ready Player Two is a romp.  

Cline, however, did want to do more with this novel than with the first. One of the twists in Ready Player Two is that the OASIS becomes more like the Matrix: a new brain-connection gizmo is invented that allows users to experience a full virtual sensorium, or even to record and share experiences with others. And Cline is interested in the implications of that – utopian and dystopian alike. 

“I feel that, because of the success of Ready Player One, I had a huge platform and a voice and an opportunity to use my art to say something about my world-view,” he says. He wanted to talk “about empathy and gender and race and all of that – I wanted to touch on that, but not have it slow the story to a dead stop.

“What I love about the internet, and video games to some degree, is you’re like a brain in a jar: just your raw ID and who you are comes across, and your physical appearance and social status don’t matter. A theme for me, in Ready Player Two, is the idea that using virtual-reality technology, or a brain-computer interface, to foster empathy – literally, a machine that could put you in somebody else's shoes and let you walk a mile in their skin – I think could be really valuable.”  

The geek culture of Cline’s (and my) youth took pride in being marginal, but he’s sunny about the way it has gone mainstream. “I guess that’s the big surprise for me – the stuff that I thought would only matter to geeks and a small audience ended up mattering to a lot of people all around the world.” 

Ready Player Two (r), the sequel to Cline's debut (l), is out today - Cornerstone
Ready Player Two (r), the sequel to Cline's debut (l), is out today - Cornerstone

It has changed in other ways, too. Cline’s books are marinated in nostalgia because they speak to a cohort who experienced their fandoms in a particular time, when everyone, as he puts it, “gathered round the TV on Friday nights to watch Airwolf”. Would it be possible to write a Ready Player One in 30 years’ time that would work in the same way? 

“You know, I don’t think it would be,” he says. “When you think of the 1970s and 1980s, and the 1990s, you think of a set-list of musicians and movies and television shows. That goes away after the 1990s.

“Now it’s just this vast wasteland of streaming apps and channels where you have access to everything, every show ever made.” Even nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

Cline’s eldest daughter, when we spoke, was about to turn 13. Knowing what most teenagers make of their parents’ cultural enthusiasms, I wondered: is he the ultimate embarrassing dad? When a Ready Player One tie-in came to Roblox, he admits, “she was not happy… ‘Oh, my dad’s book is taking over my favourite video-game now!’ Initially, there was some resistance.

“But then she was just like: ‘Oh, this is pretty cool.’” He beams. “‘This is pretty cool, Dad.’ That’s about the most you can hope for.” 

Ready Player Two is published by Cornerstone today at £20. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop