Game of Drones: Ernest Cline on Nerd-gasmic New Novel 'Armada'

How the cult author beat the sophomore slump via remote-control warfare and bonus-round geeking out

Ernest Cline, author of the video-gamer-meets-drone-warfare sci-fi thriller 'Armada.' Credit: Basso Cannarsa/LUZphoto/Redux

Once upon a time, a young man dreamed of adventure. He stared up at the twin suns of Tatooine (actually, the twin suns of Ashland, Ohio) and pined for a place where people would understand his constant arcane references to Monty Python, Star Wars, arcade games, D&D, sci-fi novels, Eighties blockbusters and other geek ephemera. Eventually, this enterprising gent found such a place (it was called Austin, Texas), wrote a screenplay, and performed at poetry slams, because this was the late Nineties and that's what young men with glasses did if they weren't forming indie-rock bands. Then he decided to try his hand at writing a novel, one filled with the same pop-culture detritus that had thrilled him since he was a lad. And everything changed.

When Ernest Cline's Ready Player One hit stands in 2011 after a bidding war, readers who'd been waiting for a book like this all their lives — specifically, an Eighties-fixated hero-journey story brimming with hardcore gamer inside-jokes and nerdy nods to Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the Whedonverse and beyond — turned his debut novel into a hit. They also made Cline a cult hero, the kind of alpha nerd who was now able to walk through the looking glass. He became friends with Star Trek cast members. Steven Spielberg, a fan, signed up to direct the movie adaptation. His author's photo features him standing in front of a new possession: the DeLorean from Back to the Future. Where he was going, he didn't need roads.

And as his follow-up Armada proves, the 43-year-old writer is ready to double down on his embrace-your-dorkiness ideology. The story of a disaffected online-gaming enthusiast named Zack Lightman who discovers a vast government conspiracy involving a popular online multiplayer game, a secret military base on the moon, drone warfare and an alien race bent on destroying our big blue marble, it's another science fiction tale with a Comic-Con's worth of pop-culture shout-outs. It's also tinged with an odd melancholia and a brittle anti-war sentiment that would distinguish the book from the usual YA-savior novels even without the numerous Last Starfighter, Ender's Game etc. namedrops.

Cline jumped on the phone and explained the inspirations behind the new work, how pop culture has become our lingua franca and how video games are the thinking geek's football.

What sparked the idea — or ideas — behind the new book?
It really goes back to my love of Battlezone when I was a kid, one of the first immersive 3-D tank games to come out. I remembered coming across an article in an old magazine about how Atari had been approached by the U.S. Army to modify it so they could teach soldiers how to operate this new tank they'd developed. I was blown away that this game that I'd played religiously was now being used to train military combatants.

That ran through my head as I read about gamers being trained to operate drones; if you look at console controllers, they really look like drone controllers. Also, they'd been doing experiments with quantum data teleportation — using Einstein's "spooky action at a distance" theory to transmit pure data across infinite amounts of space with no time lag. So you introduce that idea into drone warfare, and that means you could control starships and robots at the other side of the galaxy.

That could have profoundly change intergalactic warfare as we know it.
[Laughs] Listen, I love Star Wars, but...they're putting pilots in the equivalent of jet fighters and sending them to die, essentially. Really, if you can make a real-time holographic phone call between planets, you can come up with a remote-controlled X-Wing or TIE fighter.

Honestly, it's never just one idea with me — more like six or seven layered on top of each other. But every gamer will tell you that when you play a game for a long time, you want it to have some sort of real-world value. The thought that the gaming industry has secretly been training us all along to become the defenders of our planet during a decades-long build-up to an alien invasion — that got me excited enough to want to spend a couple of years writing the story.

So really, this is an elaborate justification for spending hours in front of your console?
"Hey kids, all those hours on your Xbox playing Halo? It’s going to pay off, trust us!" Yeah, it's such a great fantasy. I think Ready Player One taps into that as well: "All this pop-culture trivia, Star Wars knowledge and Schoolhouse Rock lyrics stuffed into my head will help me save the day! It's not just taking up space!"

It could help you save the day or make you a successful novelist and screenwriter, right?
That was the crazy thing about the success of Ready: They say to write what you'd want to read. And I wanted to read a book in which everybody lived in the same universe that I did — they'd seen the same movies, read the same books, played the same roleplaying games, all of that. You watch your average zombie-apocalypse movie, and none of the characters have ever seen a zombie-apocalypse movie. I love it when character refer to same songs I know because I feel like I'm part of their world. I'm really just trying to please myself; the fact that other people, much less people in other countries, seem to share the same obsessions in their fiction kind of stunned me.

Few things are more universal than a Monty Python quote. It cuts across language barriers in a lot of ways.
Pop culture is our lingua franca now. That's the voice I write in. Everybody is a geek about something to some degree now. I've heard that some young readers had a Web browser open as they went through Ready Player One and were looking up stuff as they read. "Hey, I don’t know who this Oingo Boingo is…let me check out their video on YouTube." So no reference is unfindable now. Thanks, Internet.

Have you had moments when you writing a chapter or working on a paragraph, and think, "I may be in danger of putting too many pop-culture references in here…this thing may be collapsing under its own weight"?
My whole personality would probably collapse on itself if that were the case [laughs]. I never try to shoehorn in stuff, I swear. I never make a list of references that I’m determined to get in to a story; they'll occur to me writing a line of dialogue in the same way it'll occur to me when I’m talking to my equally geeky friends. Which, as you might guess, is a lot.

Has it been weird seeing interests you grew up with — the kinds of things that might have gotten a kid thrown into a locker by jocks in the Eighties — now become such a staple of mainstream culture?
It's weird, that shift you're talking about was just starting to happen as I was writing the first book. What once known as nerd properties, from superhero stories to zombie movies, have become everybody's thing now — genre stuff is no longer geeks-only stuff. Again, I think the shift has a lot do with the Web. It used to be that the pervasive culture was the most outspoken, aggressive culture, but then the Internet came along and everyone got a voice, including the socially awkward. Communities were formed, interested were shared. Remember, geeks were the first Net-fluent folks: We built it and we knew how to use it. Things were bound to be intertwined.

If you look back to the spoken-word stuff and poetry you were doing in the late Nineties and early 2000s, like "Dance, Monkey, Dance," it has a pretty pessimistic view of our species.
I'd agree, yeah.

But in Armada, there's a notion that a lot of the less-than-stellar moments of the past few decades were actually serving an altruistic, pro-humanity purpose and that ultimately we'll come together when it matters. Would you say you’ve become more optimistic as you've gotten older?
Definitely. The last time I performed "Dance, Monkey, Dance," I think I was still in my twenties and not yet a parent. Your perspective changes drastically once kids come into the equation. Plus I was performing that just as the Bush-administration years were getting underway, and you can't discount that when you're talking about a nihilistic viewpoint [laughs]. It was not my favorite time. I remember in the Eighties, seeing footage of Woodstock and thinking, well, I'm glad you guys had fun. Because now we have AIDS and a broken economy and the threat of nuclear catastrophes, so….  I resented the boomers because it was like the got to the all-you-can-eat buffet before we did and there was nothing left. But becoming a father forced me to be more optimistic about the future: This is where my kids have to live, so it needs to be better and brighter. You have to root for humanity at that point.

Why do you think each generation obsesses over the same geeky things: video games, sci-fi movies, comic books, etc?
Long before we had superhero movies, we had hunters and gatherers around the campfire, telling stories. They had Odysseus and Perseus; we have Superman and Batman. But it's an age-old thing: We love hero stories. And as far as video games, I have a theory that they fill an essential role in modern civilization, and that they are simulators that we desperately need as a species.

How's that, now?
Well, we've only been working in offices and sitting in traffic and living in cities for what, a thousand years or so? We're not designed to do that. We're do designed to go out and hunt and explore and form teams and kick ass and all this other shit we no longer do. There's a gladiatorial need that it fulfills; I mean, don't you sometimes want to just go into a multiplayer game online and blow your friends in half with a machine gun?

Yes. Yes, I do.
Right, because a first-person shooter gets all this primal monkey stuff in our brain and gives it an outlet. Football is really the closest thing to it — you get into groups, you run around, you knock people down and try to capture a metaphorical flag. Videogames are just geek football, really.

And once the next generation of VR consoles start hitting shelves…
Yeah, it will be amazing, sure, but we've been dealing with games through a two-dimensional window. Once we start creating 360-degree synthetic realities that’s "better" then the real one, why would people go back? That's was always my question with Star Trek: If you have a holodeck and a replicator, why the hell are you exploring space? [Laughs] I was just talking with Wil Wheaton about this: You just know that Wesley Crusher is in there playing out Counselor Troy fantasies, I don't care how studious he is!

How much pressure did you feel knowing that whatever you were writing, it would be the follow-up to what became an immensely popular book?
It was never a problem I thought I'd ever have. Ready Player One was such a huge unexpected success, and though I'd written other things, that was my first attempt at a proper novel. Then everything you'd want to happen, from having it sell well to having Steven Spielberg want to adapt into a movie — it actually happened. So I was genuinely thinking of titling the second novel Sophomore Slump. Or maybe Lackluster Follow-Up, just to be upfront about it. 

"Have you read Ernest Cline's new novel, Couch Your Expectations? It's better than you'd think."
[Laughs] "Go pick up Ernest Cline's new novel, Slow Your Roll. The title says it all!"

Would you consider going back to Ready Player One's world?
It's the first question I get asked at every book tour stop, audience Q&A and public speaking event, so yeah, I definitely would. When I started writing the screenplay for Warner Brothers, they wanted to know about sequel ideas, setting up a franchise, all of that. I had already kind of imagined what might happen if we tuned back in to that story, and eventually wrote an outline for two more novels. I think I know it would work as a trilogy. But I have a lot of other stories I’m interested in telling before that, and I'd like to get to those first. I don’t want to end up like Orson Scott Card and keep writing what's essentially the same novel with the same character over and over again. I actually like it when a story ends, y'know? [Laughs] "Oh, I finished that, it's done, and I don't have to wait two or three years to find out what happens."

I don’t want to give too much away, but the book's parting image — of someone who's stopped staring out the window looking for adventure — feels like a critique on the thrills that have come before it.
For anyone who's been in a war, the idea of "adventure" is not something that you wish on yourself any longer, usually. Part of the book comes from having watched my brother join the Marines and rise in the ranks, from private to major over a 20-year career in the Corp. He joined thinking he would be part of "the few, the proud," you know, going off on an adventure — which he was. But it's not just that. There's pain and trauma and real loss involved in warfare; it's not all nobility and glory. So I think that wishing for adventure, it's a young person’s game. When you get older, you want to have an adventure that last about a week [laughs], then you go back home to your life.

Has your relationship to pop culture changed since you went from being a consumer to a creator?
Not at all. I mean, I may not dream of jumping into the DeLorean with Doc Brown anymore, since I'm lucky enough to own the car now and have a picture of Nathan Fillion sitting in it.

You got Captain Mal to sit in the DeLorean! That's like geek bingo.
[Laughs] I have a great life. But I'm still a consumer; I still get excited over things. I was first in line at a Terminator Genisys sneak preview before it came up. I got chills watching the Force Awakens trailer like everybody else. We have the single best Mad Max movie coming out now — not 20 years ago, but right now! When I was growing up, you had to wait for Thor to guest-star on the Incredible Hulk TV show. Now we have Joss Whedon doing Avengers movies. I still have plenty of reasons to freak out, things are just a little more surreal now. I watch a new Spielberg movie and then I hear that he walks into a meeting with my book in his hands, filled with over 100 Post-It notes about plot points he wanted to put back into a script draft. [Pause] I got chills just saying that, so I must still be a fanboy.