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Relive '80s pop culture in 'Ready Player One'

By Christian DuChateau, CNN
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Thu September 29, 2011
Ernest Cline's latest novel is a love letter to anyone who
Ernest Cline's latest novel is a love letter to anyone who "grew up geek."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ernest Cline's novel is described as "Willy Wonka meets the Matrix"
  • A love letter to growing up geek, it combines an intergalactic scavenger hunt and romance
  • Cline also wrote "Fan Boys" movie, an ode to "Star Wars" fans

(CNN) -- From Pac-Man to "Pretty in Pink," Dungeons and Dragons to Devo, Rush to "School House Rock": If this pop culture laundry list brings back fond memories, then do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Ernest Cline's new novel, "Ready Player One."

Packed with '80s nostalgia, it is part intergalactic scavenger hunt, part romance and all heart, a love-letter to growing up geek.

Described as "Willy Wonka meets the Matrix" the book takes place in a dystopian future. The year is 2044 and the real world is an ugly place. People escape their grim surroundings by accessing the OASIS, kind of like the Internet on steroids.

Hidden somewhere deep inside this virtual utopia is the ultimate golden ticket, the key to unlimited fortune and power, but to find it, players will have to unlock an increasingly difficult series of pop culture puzzles. It's an addictive read. The book has become a best-seller and a movie is in the works.

"Ready Player One" came naturally to author Cline. He's a self-described geek, a fan of video games, manga and Monty Python. He wrote the 2009 cult classic movie "Fan Boys," an ode to obsessed "Star Wars" fans.

How serious is Cline's geek cred? He has spent the last few weeks driving cross-country to promote his book in a souped-up DeLorean. Cline's tricked out car incorporates elements from his favorite movie vehicles, including "Back to the Future," "Knight Rider," "Buckaroo Banzai" and "Ghostbusters." He's even got an "ECTO 88" personalized license plate.

CNN spoke to Cline recently about his debut novel. The following is an edited transcript.

CNN: What was the spark that led you to write "Ready Player One"?

Cline: The initial idea for the story came to me way back in the summer of 2001. I was working a technical support job at the time, helping people use computers and the Internet, and so I spent a lot of time thinking about the future of the Internet. I believed it might evolve into a sprawling virtual universe, sort of a cross between World of Warcraft and Facebook.

When I start imagining what sort of person would create such a virtual world, I pictured a Willy Wonka-esque video game designer holding a grand video game contest inside his virtual world, and the rest of the story grew out of that first idea.

CNN: What was your introduction to geek culture growing up?

Cline: That's hard to say. I feel like I was hit by all of geek culture at once while I was growing up in the '70s and '80s. Saturday morning cartoons like "Star Blazers" and "Robotech." Live action Japanese shows like "Ultraman" and "The Space Giants." I spent most of my childhood welded to my Atari 2600, until I got my first computer, a TRS-80. I grew up immersing myself in all of these things, and they informed my whole adolescence.

CNN: You demonstrate an encyclopedia-like knowledge of '80s pop culture. It seems like a lifetime of research went into your novel.

Cline: It did, in a way, because I was writing about everything I love. It took me a long time to write this novel, and I maintained my interest in the project by filling the story with things I'm passionate about. I was also being lazy, in a way, since I didn't have to do a lot of new research.

Now, all of the geeking out I've been doing my entire life can retroactively be classified as "research" for my novel.

CNN: Tell me about "Ready Player One" the movie. I hear you're writing the screenplay?

Cline: Yes, I wrote the first draft of the screenplay adaptation earlier this year, and that's what Warner Bros. is using to find the right director. They're very excited about the reception the book is receiving, so the movie could go into production as early as next year. Fingers crossed.

CNN: You also wrote the movie "Fanboys." How did that experience compare to writing your first novel?

Cline: It was a lot more frustrating, because I had to give up control of the story to get the movie made, and so the end product didn't turn out exactly the way I'd hoped. That experience actually motivated me to finish "Ready Player One," because I wanted to see what would happen if I was able to have total control of my story, with no filters between me and the audience.

CNN: Tell me about your "Ecto 88" DeLorean. I understand you're wrapping up a cross-country road trip?

Cline: Well, I've wanted to own a DeLorean since I was 10 years old, but it always seemed like a silly daydream. Like owning the "A-Team" van or something. But once I sold my novel, it occurred to me that I could finally buy a DeLorean and us it to promote the book, since the protagonist drives one in the story.

I could pose with the car in my author photo, then drive it across the country on my book tour, thus making it a business expense! It's one of the best ideas I've ever had. When I bought the car, I knew I wanted to trick it out like the DeLorean in the book, which combines elements from Doc Brown's Time Machine, KITT from "Knight Rider," the "Ghostbusters" Ecto-1, and "Buckaroo Banzai's" Jet Car.

So I went on the Internet and found a Flux Capacitor, an Oscillation Overthruster, and a wide array of Ghostbusting equipment, including a screen-accurate Proton Pack (which rides shotgun). Then I installed a blue KITT scanner on the front of the car and got some personalized ECTO88 license plates. Then I took my time traveling, Knight Riding, Ghostbusting Jet Car out on the road. It was a big hit at every bookstore I stopped at on my tour.

Get a guided tour of Cline's tricked out 1982 DeLorean.

CNN: It seems like recently geek culture has gone mainstream. Would you agree? Does that change anything about being a geek?

Cline: I have no choice but to agree. I wrote the geekiest novel in history and it's now been on The New York Times best-seller list for several weeks. From my perspective, it definitely seems that the geeks have inherited the Earth. It's changed my whole life.

CNN: What are you geeking out to now?

Cline: Neal Stephenson's new novel, "Reamde." I managed to snag an advance copy and I can't put it down. Mr. Stephenson is one of my favorite writers.

CNN: What's next for you?

Cline: Well, I've started working on an outline for a possible sequel to "Ready Player One." But at the moment, I'm working on a geeky coming-of-age movie set in the late '80s. Sort of my version of "Dazed and Confused," but instead of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, my characters are steeped in Dungeons and Dragons, arcade games and comic books. It's going to be the nerdiest coming-of-age movie ever made.

Read an excerpt from "Ready Player One."

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