The Big Idea: Ernest Cline

At this point in your life, you have either lived through the 80s, or lived through enough 80s nostalgia to make you feel like you lived through the 80s. But now comes Ready Player One, a novel that takes nostalgia for the Cosby Era to perhaps its ultimate expression. For author Ernest Cline, the book is not just a novel but the culmination of a quest that for him began — yes — in the 80s itself. Insert your coin now and get ready for Cline to level you up on his story.

(Disclosure: I blurbed this book, and am also name checked in it, a fact I managed to miss when I blurbed it.)

ERNEST CLINE:

When I was eight years old, I found the secret room in the Atari 2600 game Adventure and it ended up changing my life.I had received the Atari the previous Christmas, and I’d spent every free moment since then spot-welded to it, playing the dozen or so games we owned on an endless loop. Adventure was by far my favorite, and it also happened to contain the very first video game Easter Egg.  Back then, Atari didn’t give any credit to their game designers, so the guy who created Adventure, a man named Warren Robinett, hid his name inside the game, in a secret room that you could only reach by finding a hidden key.

Fast forward a few decades to the turn of the century. I was working another in a long series of mind-numbing tech-support cubicle jobs, spending all day on the phone helping people fix their computers and use the internet. Consequently, I spent a lot of time thinking about the future of the internet and how it might evolve. I’d grown up reading science fiction novels like Neuromancer and Snow Crash, and I was still a recovering EverQuest addict. To me, it seemed inevitable that the Internet would eventually evolve into a three-dimensional space, a sprawling virtual reality that was part MMO and part social networking playground. But unlike in movies like The Matrix, I didn’t think humans would become unwitting prisoners inside this new virtual universe. Instead they would retreat into it knowingly and willingly, en masse, to escape the ever-growing troubles of the real world. Which doesn’t seem too different from the way we use the Internet now.

I was imagining what sort of person would create a virtual world on that scale, and then I remembered Warren Robinett’s first Easter egg. And that was when I got my Big Idea.

What if an eccentric video game designer, sort of a cross between Howard Hughes and Richard Garriott, created that ubiquitous virtual reality platform? And what if he decided to find a worthy successor for his company by turning his last will and testament into the greatest video game Easter Egg hunt of all time? It would be an epic treasure hunt, in a simulated universe that contained thousands of virtual planets. And those planets could be modeled after fictional worlds from other novels, films, comic books, and TV shows. It would be the ultimate storyteller’s sandbox.

The concept grabbed hold of me immediately and never really let go. I even had the perfect title, Ready Player One, taken from the message that used to appear on old coin-op video games. I began to fill notebook after notebook with ideas for scenes and characters, scribbling as fast as I could.

And when I started to ponder what sort of puzzles my eccentric video game designer would leave behind for his potential successors to try and solve, that was when I got my second Big Idea.

They tell first-time novelists to “write what you know.” Well, what I know about is being a huge geek.  I grew up consuming mass quantities of science fiction novels, Dungeons and Dragons supplements, comic books, movies, and video games. And I never really outgrew any of it. Like most geeks of my generation, I still adore all of the pop culture of my youth.

What if the puzzles left behind by my eccentric billionaire nerd tested people’s knowledge of all the pop culture stuff he loved? It felt like a very geek thing to do.  What could be a better power trip for a massive nerd than using your vast fortune to blackmail the entire world into studying and treasuring all of your favorite pop culture icons?  It would be the character’s ultimate tribute to his obsessions, and would immortalize them for all time.

I knew I was onto something, because I suddenly had more ideas for pop culture puzzles and classic video game challenges than I could ever fit in one book. I filled several more notebooks with these ideas. Then I surveyed my huge stack of notebooks and wondered how I was going to turn all of those ideas into a coherent story. I really had no idea, but I started writing anyway. I felt infected by the idea and couldn’t stop thinking about it. I knew I had to try and get it down on paper.

I’d already written a few screenplays, but this was my first attempt at a novel, and I found it vastly more difficult. Part of it was the simple difference in mediums, but I think the real stumbling block was the massive scope of the story in my head. I’d bitten off a lot more than I could chew. My attempt at a first draft resulted in a rambling, unfocused mess that I was never able to finish.

Over the next several years, I worked on the book sporadically, between other writing projects, while also continuing to work those mind-numbing tech support jobs. I never stopped believing there was a great story there, if I could just chisel it out of the mountain of ideas I had. But for a long time, I wasn’t sure I would ever get there. I set the book aside again and again, and I wasted a lot of time wondering if I was really cut out to be a novelist. I also spent a lot of time reading writing websites and blogs like this one, and reading about the frustrations of other writers and how they worked through them ultimately inspired me to keep trying.

My big break came when I sold the option to one of the screenplays I’d written. The money allowed me to take a year off and make finishing the book my full-time job. By then I’d spent nearly a decade rewriting and reworking the story, while also improving my craft and self-discipline as a writer…and this time, everything suddenly clicked.  This time I didn’t get frustrated and set the book aside. This time I finished it.

And then a series of amazing things happened. I found an agent, and a short time later we sold it to Crown/Random House. The following day, Warner Bros. snapped up the film rights.  Those events changed everything for me and my family, and my lifelong dream of becoming a published novelist is about to come true.

Thirty years after that Saturday morning in my living room when I first found Robinett’s Easter Egg, my big idea has finally paid off.

—-
Read an excerpt. Listen to an audio excerpt, read by Wil Wheaton. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

43 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Ernest Cline

  1. This is a storming idea for a book and fits in with my age group too. 80s were my era (although I didn’t have an Atari)

    Will be sticking it on my wish list :)

  2. @wilw talked about this book and I put it on my “to buy” book list and now it’s your Big Idea author of the day. I am totally excited.

  3. I heard about this book a while back, but until this Big Idea post it was just on the ‘keep an eye out at the library’ list. Now? Now it’s leapt to the top of the ‘gotta buy this book on payday’ list! This child (ok, young adult) of the 80’s is really looking forward to it! Ready Player One!

  4. I’ve adored Ernie since people were passing around mp3s of his spoken word stuff, and I cannot wait to read this.

  5. I was lucky enough to get hold of an advance copy of this book. I strongly approve of it, and recommend buying it with money so that you can read it too.

  6. Seriously looking forward to this one. I’ve pre-ordered it through the Boingboing link… even bought it on Kindle, which is odd for me but it means I’ll get it on release day.

  7. You know, ever since I heard the “Airwolf” bit, I’ve been hoping for a novel from Ernie Cline. (If you haven’t heard the MP3 of it, along with his other spoken word stuff, it’s worth Googling.) I’ll snatch this up on Friday when I do my regular “Payday Kindle Blitz” (the name of Scalzi’s next band).

  8. Ernie Cline is writing sci-fi?!?!?! (Claps hands with evil glee.)

    I got the best part in my acting career using Cline’s Nerd Porn Auteur.

  9. Amazing job! This book is so good. I work in a bookstore and received an adavanced copy and loved it so much! It hit me right in the gooey geeky centre of my beinig!

  10. So, I’ve heard good things about this book around the web. My concern, though, is that it *is* loaded with 80s references. I’m concerned that I, geek though I am, simply won’t get it — I fear I may be too young. I mean, technically I *did* live through the first couple years of the 80s, but still…

    Should this be a concern?

  11. LOVE the premise. Bought it on kindle. I was ten years old in 1989, so I’m glad for all the endnotes!

  12. @TSC – I had the same concern, especially since I didn’t grow up in the USA, where most (if not all) of the pop culture references will probably come from. I read the excerpt, then found a few reviews on Goodreads from people who weren’t old enough to remember the 80s. Ultimately I decided to buy the book because the premise is just brilliant. I’d love to hear from people who weren’t teenagers/adults in the eighties and have already read this…

  13. @Iliadfan – Wow, I hadn’t even considered the “foreigner” thing. I guess that applies to me, too, but only to a certain point. Canadian culture is close enough to American that I think I can parse it. I will take a look at the excerpt, though. In any case, I, too, would like to hear from people my age who have read the book.

  14. Best. Idea. Ever. This is the first Big Idea that I’ve ever read where I started swearing when I realized I didn’t have my Kindle with me. As soon as I get home, though…

    It will be mine…oh yes, it will be mine.

  15. @TSC – Many of the references went over my head, but I still enjoyed the hell out of the book. It’s a fun romp even if you never played Atari, couldn’t tell Ladyhawke from Hudson Hawk, and change the channel whenever Rush comes on the radio.

  16. Sean @#24:
    “It’s a fun romp even if you never played Atari, couldn’t tell Ladyhawke from Hudson Hawk, and change[d] the channel whenever Rush comes on the radio.”

    I don’t know about any of the rest of y’all but that’s exactly the kind of blurb that I’d kill for if I were ever an author!

    I was born in ’79 so I have no doubt that I won’t be able to immediately get every reference but as long as he throws in at least one M.A.S.K allusion I’ll consider myself a happy camper. Now I have to find some way to while away the next couple of hours so that I can swing by the bookstore after work and pick this up (or order it, if I have to). Sounds great!

  17. Sorry, Mr. Cline. I downloaded the first three chapters (sample) and bailed after the first few pages. Bald, graceless infodump. No gradual incluing. But perhaps it gets better.

  18. This is getting a lot of buzz, but I’m nervous. For one thing, I can’t shake the bone-deep sense that the 80s sucked. Might be a consequence of having been a teen/young adult during that rotten decade. Any curmudgeons who were old enough to hate the 80s while they were happening care to weigh in? (No Mr. Scalzi, I’m not looking at you. Errrm, or not looking only at you!)

  19. This book is a fantasy novel inside a scifi novel built on a structure of pure geek facts and details. I am reading it right now and can’t put it down, even though I was born in 82 and have thus not experienced most of the 80’s from a very clear point of view.
    I think being a geek (videogame, d&d, scifi, whatever) is more important to enjoy this than being an 80’s fan.

  20. I bought the book on the way home from work. I re-read the exerpt, and the next 3 chapters. Not because I didn’t like it, but precisely because I did. I want this to last a while, so I’m reading 3 chapters at a time. This book makes my Inner Geek and 80’s fan very happy.

    Ernest Cline – I want you to know I really like your book, and am telling all my friends (geeky & otherwise) they need to buy and read it, too. I’ll see you at your appearance in Cincinnati on August 31st. (I live in Middletown, Ohio. Squee.) John – thanks again for posting The Big Idea, and introducing us to books and authors we might not have noticed otherwise.

  21. John,

    Your blurb is quoted by Janet Maslin in her NYT review of “Ready Player One.” So there you go. :)

  22. I was born in 1970 and am a huge geek, so this book really, really, really hit the sweet spot for me. I devoured it on Tuesday, and will likely re-read it this weekend – it honestly already feels like one of my favorites. If you are unfamiliar with 1980s culture, I don’t think this will make your head explode with quite as much joy as it did for someone like me, as specific references won’t have as much cultural context. But apart from all that, this book is well-written – sort of a Scalzi/Heinlein straighforwardness in a Neal Stephenson setting, and the concept is entertaining and clever. Actually, those are probably the two words I would use to describe it – it is really very entertaining and clever, and *extraordinarily* entertaining and clever if you are a fan of the 80s and/or video games in general.

  23. Great book. I bought it, meant to make it last a few days, then foolishly stayed up all night to finish it.

    Gonna buy extra copies to give away as gifts to friends and family I know will love this.

  24. Wow, on amazon, as a kindle book and available to AU market…bought and downloaded already…

    How easy is that! Do it more various publisher-kind!

  25. I just started this book on Friday and am thoroughly enjoying it! Am actually doing the audio version and Wil Wheaton does a great job on it! This book is Charlie and the Chocolate factory for nerds everywhere. Do check it out.

  26. Bought the book for my Kindle last week, after reading the sample, but didn’t really start reading it until yesterday afternoon. Had to force myself to put it down with only 50 pages to go. Can’t wait until my lunch break so I can get some more reading in! Excellent book.

  27. Well, I devoured Ready Player One over the weekend, and here’s my short review.

    Firstly, as a fellow Austinite I’d love to buy the author a beer and thank him for writing a great story. I enjoyed the hell out of this book, with only a few minor things bugging me. First the downside:

    I felt like there as a smidge too much explanatory handholding in the beginning. For example, I didn’t need to be told what XP was. There were a couple of other instances (I know what suxx0r means!) where I wish the explanation had ended up in a footnote rather than inside the text… as a book that reaches for 80s geek culture references so often, and hits the mark SO often, the one or two explanations were odd. I’d rather have to pick them up in context, and just have the narrator assume I know what they mean.

    This might be something endemic to the genre, but I have to wonder why the world powers didn’t decide to build nuclear plants, rather than let an energy crisis trash civilization. It stood out in the beginning of the book. Likewise, in hindsight I felt Wade’s philosophical belief in an afterlife didn’t matter to the plot and could’ve been left out, or expanded.

    There were a couple of moments (particularly the scene with the Rush guitar, which honestly I thought was hilarious) where I wanted some foreshadowing. If a specific skill is important to the plot, I want to know the main character has the skill beforehand! This didn’t apply so much to the videogame playing because we already knew Z was great at them, but the guitar scene, IMHO, really wanted a line or two of setup earlier in the book. Perhaps during the description of (slight spoiler warning!!!!) what Wade does with his time after he graduates.

    Which brings me to the good parts! That sequence was one of my favorite parts, honestly… very well done and it felt so familiar. Anyone who’s ever done that, or anything like it, will find the section resonates strongly.

    Throughout, the action is great, the game-playing sequences are really good. The dialog is excellent… I particularly loved the chapter done only in a text chat window. So familiar! So well done. Also, I have to highlight the entire issue of how the characters deal with meeting online friends in RL – it’s done perfectly, absolutely perfectly. As somebody who met his wife (of 16 years!) on a BBS, I will rave the book for its treatment of this.
    The OASIS is great, descriptions of the MMO just suck me right in. Grinding kobold mobs!!! I laughed out loud. Server resets, obscure hacker black market forums, D&D modules, and the real joy of playing a game you love. They all shined through awesomely, and I found myself over and over just grinning as I read.

    I love the world Cline built, and I’d love to see more. I’m recommending this to all my geek friends – it’s a great read, a ton of fun. The small complaints don’t drag it down at all… I’m grinning right now, thinking back on some scenes. Great book! Definitely one for the short list – it’s now required reading in my house.

    Thanks for the tale!

  28. Such a great book! I couldn’t put it down. One of the greatest feats, IMO, is that all the geek trivia doesn’t feel like tacked-on or arbitrary fan service. It feels necessary in that world. Awesome job! This is one of the few that I’m sure I’ll read more than once.

  29. I have a picture of Ernie Cline and Yours Truly sitting on the hood of his DeLorean, ECTO88, where it had broken down on I-75 on his way to the Cincinnati book signing for “Ready Player One” at Joseph Beth Booksellers. I spotted the car, pulled over, and introduced myself as a someone who was on the way to his signing. He told me about his car trouble and asked me for a ride. He offered a picture with the car, since, at this point, it didn’t look like the car was going to make it to the store.

    Long story short, he got the car going again & followed me to the store, where it quit again just as he was pulling into the reserved parking spot in front of the store. He told EVERYBODY how I saved him. (I just pulled over, and had his back on the drive over) He even introduced me to the rest of the folks at the signing as the person who made sure he arrived at the signing. John Scalzi was at the signing, and according to Ernie, amused at the Whatever connection that caused me to be at that time and place.

    Ernie and I have exchanged emails since that day. The car was to be fixed this past weekend, then he would drive it home before the last leg of his book tour. Check out his blog (ernestcline.com/blog) for details of his book tour. Tomorrow’s entry (9/8) is Columbus, Ohio, and you may see the picture of us sitting on the hood of his car on Friday. :)

    I loved the book and was happy to be going to the signing, and more than happy to be able to offer assistance. I found Ernie to be a genuinely nice man, who is a true Geek, and a true 80’s fan. Buy the book – it is a fun read!

  30. I didn’t put this book on my Must Read list when it came out.

    I remember the 80s, but they’re not my favorite decade; I’ve done some gaming, but it hasn’t been my favorite activity since the 70s; I’m a geek, I love pop culture, but I didn’t feel like the book’s ‘target reader’. Generally, it just didn’t look like something I Absolutely Must Read.

    Then my book group selected it. So I got it from the library and started reading it.

    Oh my god.

    The book is just plain brilliant. It’s a note-perfect heroic quest. It hits all the tropes just right — some cleanly, some ironically, some with the essential twist to counterbalance the fact that the trope is a trope. It left me with the biggest grin on my face and the biggest ‘YES’ in my brain that I’ve ever had since, oh, the original Star Wars movie. It didn’t matter that my geekiness is on the soft stratum of the core; this was still a book for me.

    I finished it in three sittings — I didn’t read all the way through in one sitting, even though I’m a fast reader. I stopped once to catch my breath, and a second time to savor a really, really beautifully delivered moment.

    Back it goes to the library, since we’re buying a copy — actually, multiple copies. This is the book that needs to be lent or given to friends who might have skipped it, just as I might have done.

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