The simplest way to explain Ernest Cline, blockbuster sci-fi author and ’80s pop culture obsessive, is that he used to own not one, but two DeLoreans. The first, he tricked out with a Flux Capacitor to keep the Back to the Future thing going, with bonus modifications evoking Knight Rider, Ghostbusters, and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. One time in Michigan he got pulled over for speeding — he was doing 76 in a 65 — and tried to persuade the cop to write up the speed as 88 miles per hour, even if it increased the fine, just so Cline could frame the ticket.
Here he is hanging out with a good pal.
Cline named the car "Ecto88"; he drove it cross-country on his book tour for Ready Player One, his best-selling 2011 novel about a future dystopia where the only people who can save the world are ’80s pop culture obsessives. The second DeLorean, he gave away in an elaborate contest to promote the book’s paperback release, with clues hidden in carefully placed book typos.
Point being, the guy lives this shit. Keep that in mind.
In 2018, the Ready Player One movie will arrive, directed by none other than Steven Spielberg. The trailer debuted at Comic-Con this past weekend, hailing its source material as "Ernest Cline’s holy grail of pop culture." The reaction was, shall we say, mixed. The backlash is on. Perhaps you’ve stumbled across this viral tweet quoting extensively from the book and dismissing it as, well.
That passage is rough, and not atypical. ("I memorized every last Bill Hicks stand-up routine" is the missing-the-point nadir.) Ready Player One is not exactly Moby Dick, prosewise. But it’s a nerd-culture sensation, the apex of the Knowing Everything About Uncool Things Is The Coolest Thing Of All era of pop culture immersion, and also a triumph of plot over style, telling over showing, ’80s ephemera over literally anything else. This movie is going to either thrill or disgust everyone, with no middle ground, with the "disgust" tier split between those offended that Spielberg’s not faithful enough to the book and those offended that he’s entirely too faithful. It is the Mother Brain of 21st-century ’80s worship, if you’ll forgive the reference. It is worth taking how seriously Cline takes this seriously, even if you draw the conclusion that this is all, indeed, Bazinga-ass shit.
A brief plot summary. In 2044, the material world is a hellish dystopia, for various reasons: "The ongoing energy crisis. Catastrophic climate change. Widespread famine, poverty, and disease. Half a dozen wars," Cline writes. "You know: ‘dogs and cats living together … mass hysteria!’" Our hero is Wade Watts, an 18-year-old boy living in an Oklahoma trailer park where all the trailers are stacked vertically. Everyone spends the vast majority of their time in the OASIS, a massive virtual-reality utopia created by a reclusive Steve Jobs–esque super-genius named James Halliday. For the right price, you can go anywhere, do anything, be anyone.
As the book opens, news breaks that Halliday has died, and has left his entire $240 billion fortune to whoever can navigate a series of trials and riddles and fetch quests, all of which require an encyclopedic knowledge of 1980s arcana, including movies, music, TV shows, and especially video games, all compiled in a downloadable, 1,000-page bible called Anorak’s Almanac. In other words, only someone who is really good at Defender can get rich, get the girl, and save the planet.
The Ready Player One trailer doesn’t get into much of that, beyond the "virtual-reality utopia" thing. The climactic car chase does not occur in the book, which suggests a Book People vs. Movie People battle royale to come, but cut Spielberg some slack: We’re talking about a novel where at one point Wade wins a key item by beating a "demi-lich king" named Acererak at the 1982 video-arcade classic Joust. Let’s see you film that, pal. This tweet is a joke, but it sure seemed plausible at first.
As for the novel as a stand-alone entity, I Know That! could’ve worked as Ready Player One’s title; the video game nerdery alone eats up page after page. As Wade puts it, "When I was in the zone on a high-speed classic like Defender, I felt like a hawk in flight, or the way I thought a shark must feel as it cruises the ocean floor. For the first time, I knew what it was to be a natural at something. To have a gift."
Cline has constructed a universe where his personal gifts and interests are the only gifts and interests worth having. At one point Wade finds himself transported into the 1983 movie WarGames, meaning he becomes Matthew Broderick’s character and has to replicate that character’s dialogue and movements exactly. Ready Player One is full of passages like this:
Beyond the Bazinga-ass Wikipedia dumps, this is the framing that really grates on you over the course of 350-plus pages: The movie was really important to somebody else, so to get rich I watched it 50 times.
A salient fact is that in the year 2044, the 1980s happened more than half a century ago: To a teenager, that decade’s culture is received wisdom, an antiquated holy grail to which Wade has no organic, personal, childhood-forged connection. He knows the ’80s because knowing the ’80s is the only thing worth living for. The real world of 2018, into which Spielberg’s Ready Player One will emerge, is only marginally less remote: It’s an action-adventure flick marketed to teenagers born 15-plus years after Back to the Future came out. It will be fascinating to see if this, finally, is the movie to trigger a full-scale ’80s-nostalgia backlash, and not recent remakes of RoboCop, Poltergeist, Dirty Dancing, Footloose, or Ghostbusters, just for starters. Kids of today should defend themselves against the ’80s. It’ll almost be an honor, if Ready Player One finally convinces the kids of that.
The other viral Twitter knock on Cline this week is that his website includes a poem he wrote called "Nerd Porn Auteur." Look out:
That is not what I call erotic. Cline’s personal views on romance are disquieting, but Ready Player One is spiked with what you might call Attempted Wokeness, with at least some self-awareness about identity in the internet age. The book returns periodically to the vertical-trailer-park dystopia, a sort of Muppet Babies Black Mirror that takes some clumsy but committed swings at profundity. Two of Wade’s best friends in the OASIS are named Daito and Shoto, who occasion some cringeworthy references to Japanese culture, but also get sympathetic backstories that explicitly reference hikikomori, the real-life phenomenon of Japanese youth who often don’t leave their homes for six months at a stretch. Wade’s personal sadness and isolation, at least, ring true: At one point his spoken OASIS pass phrase is "Nobody in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful." I know that!
It’s churlish to dismiss the Ready Player One adaptation out of hand solely for its fealty to the 1980s, especially when the trailer for Season 2 of Stranger Things also debuted at Comic-Con, to a much warmer reception, with "Thriller" as the goddamn soundtrack. Nor is ’80s fealty a terrible thing in and of itself: It’s a testament to the durability and cohesion of that decade’s culture, that it can sustain so many alternative universes this worshipful. Treating the culture of your youth as the most important thing in the world is an American obsession, an American institution. Cline is simply more dedicated, more shameless, and more vivid in his reimagining. He did not invent all-encompassing devotion to the Reagan era. But he sure as hell mastered it, weaponized it, monetized it. And now Steven Spielberg himself is filming it for him.
Will Cline grow out of this? Do you really want him to? Rumors abound that he’s mulling over a sequel, inevitably titled Ready Player Two, and it’s fun to ponder whether he’ll go even deeper down the rabbit hole, or climb out entirely. Early indications are that the dude likes what he likes: In 2015, he released his second novel, the entirely unconnected Armada, in which only video game experts can repel an alien invasion and hit it off with sexy, nerd-type ladies. Reviews were harsh.
The Attempted Wokeness of Ready Player One is already, itself, dated: Wade and his love interest have an extended chat-log flirtation that includes some brusque language about transgender people. It’s a process. It’s an evolution. Except for the book’s suggestion that one need not evolve at all, that all you really need is an idealized past, and a time machine that can get you there. Preferably one with gull-wing doors.