Game of Drones: Ernest Cline on Nerd-gasmic New Novel ‘Armada’
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.
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