Regrettably, Ernest Cline will not be driving his DeLorean when he comes to Flyleaf Books for the paperback release of his 2015 novel, Armada. But he did take the stainless steel, gull-winged car, immortalized as a time machine in Back to the Future, across the country behind his 2011 debut, Ready Player One.
"I put about seven thousand miles on it, and it's a thirty-year-old car," he says by phone from his home in Austin, Texas. "There's only about four DeLorean repair shops left in the country, so I barely made it through my last tour. They look awesome, but they're not the most practical for long road trips."
Cline had the grill fitted with a pulsating LED display, à la Knight Rider, and the doors decked with Ghostbusters logos. He added proton packs and neutrino wands to the back, not to mention an oscillation overthruster from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.
It suffices to say he's a child of the eighties. And he's made it pay.
The award-winning Ready Player One might be the single most validating literary work for anyone ever accused by parents of wasting time striving for extra lives in a Nintendo game. In the book's desolate, overpopulated future, our hero finds his only refuge in the OASIS, the immersive virtual reality where everyone games, works, and goes to school. Its late creator has woven in an elaborate contest based on eighties trivia, and a breakthrough leads to a frantic race to the heart of the game. Necessary skills include surviving a Dungeons & Dragons dungeon and remembering all of Matthew Broderick's lines in War Games.
"That was the decade when I formed my worldview, saw all my favorite movies, and played all my favorite games," says Cline, who also cowrote the Star Wars-based caper Fanboys. "It was kind of like a golden age: the birth of arcade culture, the rise of home computers and video game systems. I'm continually shocked that as many people are interested in the things that I'm interested in."
Armada is another video-games-based adventure story, where a high school student discovers that the online game he's obsessed with is actually a covert training simulation for defending Earth against a real alien invasion.
"It's the natural fantasy of everyone who's ever played a video game," Cline says. "What if it had some real-world value? They've been doing that since 1982, when the U.S. Army bought Atari's Battlezone, and now video games are a hugely successful recruiting technique for the military. So it's a fantasy, but it's based on things from real life."
Armada pays homage not only to video games but also to science fiction in general, with influences ranging from The Last Starfighter to classic Robert Heinlein novels like Have Spacesuit, Will Travel.
"In the late seventies and early eighties, there was so much science fiction," Cline says. "Space Invaders came out in arcades around the same time Star Wars was in theaters. It was such a part of childhood to build a spaceship out of couch cushions and watch Buck Rogers on TV."
The film rights to Armada sold before the novel was written. Production has already begun on a film version of Ready Player One, directed by no less an eighties titan than Steven Spielberg, with filming scheduled to start in London in late June.
"It turns out he's a huge fan of the book, and has taken a lot of trouble to bring the adaptation back around to my novel. It's the most flattering thing that's ever happened to me in my life," Cline says. "His films were a huge reason I wrote this book, and are referenced in it, and it's because of him that they're able to get the rights to use footage referred to in the book."
But is there such a thing as too many sequels, homages, and remakes? Cline doesn't think so.
"[The studios] haven't made as many fun SF adventures since the eighties, and I think that's why Star Wars: The Force Awakens was such a big hit," he says. "It kind of harkens back to the action-faring space adventure from that time. I don't think there's any shame in drawing on what's come before, or building on an existing universe."
Though it'll be a few years before one of Cline's books hits the big screen, you do have a chance to play Phaëton, a formerly fictional eighties-style arcade game featured in Armada, which has now been brought to life as a browser game. If you can set the high score, you can win an Oculus Rift as the grand prize.
It might not be a DeLorean, or a chance to fight real aliens, but the virtual reality visor will move you one level further into the kind of virtual fantasy world Cline writes about, no quarters required.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Level Up."