Lots of books and movies invoke pop culture with a nod and a wink. But every so often you’ll find a story that goes further–a story that is structurally built on the totems of nostalgia. It’s a risky play–witness the disastrous reception that the sci-fi video game adventure movie Pixels received, with fans flaming not only the stars and producers, but the companies that licensed their products into the film.
But when the zeitgeist is bottled with care, it tends to be hugely successful. Take, for instance, Ready Player One, the epic virtual reality novel by Ernest Cline, which often threads several 1980s references onto a single page of text. This technique is endearing and sometimes ingenious, as when the protagonist has to play the third segment of Rush’s 2112 album in order to unlock a gate. Now that Steven Spielberg has signed on to direct the feature-film adaptation of the book, with a script by Zak Penn, we’ll find out whether or not the pop trope translates to the big screen.
Cline’s newly released second novel, Armada, is rife with a whole different set of 1980s pop culture moments, but the reviews have been divided. Rolling Stone called it “Nerd-gasmic,” while the critic for Slate scoffed that the book is “the perfect embodiment of the impulses that so often make games—and gaming culture—boring, self-indulgent, and regressive.”
Still, Cline is something of a prodigy when it comes to cultural appropriation. I caught up with him during Comic-Con to learn his tactics for turning pop culture into a plot line. Warning: there are some spoilers in this article, but as Cline said during our interview: “Anyone who reads long interviews with the author before they actually read the book, they’re asking for it.”
Cline doesn’t make a list of references that he plans on squeezing into the storyline, though readers often assume that’s his process. He simply uses pop culture as an everyday writing tool. A line about the movie War Games or Top Gun emerges organically because he writes the same way he’d talk to a group of friends about his favorite movies, TV shows, songs, or video games.
“Not only is it honest about where my inspirations are coming from, but it also helps paint the picture in the reader’s head,” he says.
Cline intentionally picks obvious and easy-to-place touchstones such as Star Wars, because unpopular references mean you are just “trying to show how smart you are.”
One thing working in Cline’s favor: ’80s and ’90s nostalgia is hot right now, from winning reboots such as Jurassic World and Mad Max Fury Road, to fumbled remakes including Poltergeist and Terminator Genisys. But is there a point at which a reference can be too obscure?
Don’t overthink it, says Cline. “You’ll throw in a Monty Python reference or something, and some people will get it and some people won’t. If people do get it, not only is it funny, but it conveyed a whole world of meaning between the two of you.”
For readers of Ready Player One who didn’t immediately grok all the references, it turned into a kind of treasure hunt, as Cline learned after several colleges picked the book as recommended reading for incoming freshmen. Younger readers at first assumed it was a straightforward adventure story set in a virtual universe. But since most of them were reading it on an iPad, the truth was only a few taps away. “If I reference an Oingo Boingo video they’ve never heard of, they can pull that up and be watching it in three seconds,” says Cline. There is no such thing as an obscure reference in the age of hyperlinks.
“I can’t think of the number of people that have tweeted at me that they watched War Games because Wade has to reenact it in Ready Player One.”
The aliens in Armada fly to earth and prepare to disrupt our communications systems, rendering humans helpless by firing a giant weapon. Cline just couldn’t quite figure out where the invaders ought to land–it had to be a location heavy with meaning. Naturally, he watches a lot of old VHS tapes and DVDs to get in the mood for writing, and one of the films he watched around that time was the 1977 classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That’s how he decided to make the alien landing location Devils Tower, which is where the aliens in Close Encounters deliver the five tone musical phrase (composed by John Williams) and make friends with the human race.
By turning Devils Tower into the location where aliens attempt to annihilate the human race, it “put a whole new spin on this spot where we’re supposed to meet the aliens and have this peaceful meeting.”
Science fiction authors are often judged on their ability to accurately predict upcoming events. Cline places himself firmly in the near-term forecasting camp, but rather than looking to hard science for ideas he uses popular entertainment. In Armada, a hit video game turns out to be training the human race to defend itself from alien attack. Cline says it’s not unlike the way modern military drone pilots use video game-like controllers to engage the enemy from afar.
“The two kind of science fictional elements that I worked into the story, which is what I think make it unique and different from Ender’s Game or The Last Starfighter or Star Wars, is the idea of drones and using video game platforms to control drones,” says Cline. “Which is fascinating to me because that’s how it is right now.”
Cline’s brother, to whom Armada is dedicated, is an explosive ordnance disposal technician in the Marine Corps. He uses remotely controlled robots to disarm bombs. “The controls that they use for both aerial and these ground force drones look like Xbox controllers and they do that on purpose because it lowers the learning curve for all these soldiers who’ve grown up playing video games,” Cline says.
The idea of sending drones into battle instead of aliens or humans became the kernel of the idea that the whole book is built around.
The off-kilter Star Trek parody Galaxy Quest is one of many inspirations for Cline’s humorous-yet-adventurous style. He particularly loves the Galaxy Quest megafan (played by a young Justin Long) who repeatedly gets rebuffed by the captain (Tim Allen) in the first half of the movie. The tables are turned later on when the captain must call on the knowledge of the die-hard fanboy in order to find his way around the re-created starship during battle.
Taking a seemingly useless bit of cultural detritus and turning it into the key to solving a huge problems is a device that Cline uses repeatedly. In Ready Player One, remembering the dialogue from War Games unlocks a vast fortune and control of a virtual world. In Armada, a video game was secretly created by the government to prepare humans to control drones that fight off an alien invasion. “You have all this skill and stuff in your head that’s just kind of useless,” says Cline, “it’s a natural fantasy to want to make it have value.”
Cline specializes in nerdy teen protagonists who save the day, which are inspired by a particular genre of film that he watched a lot of while growing up in Ashland, Ohio. The brothers who go on a pirate treasure hunt in The Goonies, for example, or the trio of boys who build a spaceship in Explorers. But two films in particular influenced Armada: Iron Eagle, the 1986 sleeper about an Air Force reject who ends up flying an F-16 to save his imprisoned father, and The Last Starfighter, which is about a teenager who lives in a trailer park (like the protagonist from Ready Player One) and discovers that the characters and ships in his favorite arcade game represent a real interstellar conflict.
His books recapture the fearless quality of being a teenager who senses he might just have a higher purpose in life.
“It’s such a part of my memory, growing up in arcades and having your Walkman mix,” says Cline.
Cline even bought an original Battlezone upright arcade game off of Craigslist while he was writing Armada. “It helps me get in the mood to return to that world every day.”