Q&A: Ernest Cline 

Talking Nostalgia, Fanboy Culture, and Coming of Age

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MERCURY: What are some of the best and worst qualities of so-called "fanboy" culture?

ERNEST CLINE: I think the best quality of fan culture is its sheer enthusiasm. Fanboys (and fangirls) love what they love to the extreme, and they want to share that love with others, which I think is a wonderful quality in a person. I think the worst quality of fanboy culture is its tendency to nitpick and overanalyze things to a ridiculous degree, instead of just sitting back and enjoying the story.

A word that comes up when discussing the book is "nostalgia"—how strong a role does nostalgia play in your own life? Do you think it's a good thing?

I'm a very nostalgic person. For me, enjoying the music and movies of my youth is like eating comfort food. But I also spend an equal amount of time thinking about the future. I think nostalgia is a good thing, as long as you don't overdo it. I think if you spend too much time looking at the past through rose-colored glasses, your life in the present can suffer unfairly by comparison.

How has your book gone over with teens?

I never imagined that the book would have much appeal for readers who didn't live through the '70s or '80s, but I continue to get emails from teenaged readers who genuinely loved the book. They read it with Wikipedia open and just look up any references they don't recognize. For them, it works like a straightforward thriller, and the pop culture references work a lot like the references to ancient mythology in an Indiana Jones movie.

Even if you aren't familiar with it, you can still follow the story with no trouble. I've also received emails from people in their 60s who have never played a videogame in their lives, and who still enjoy the book, just as a fun adventure story.

Why do you think coming-of-age stories remain compelling to adults?

I think it's because adults know how important and formative your early years are, and how much they can affect the entire course of your life. I also think that, when you become an adult, it's easy to forget what it felt like to be young, with your whole life ahead of you, and coming-of-age stories help you remember that time, and relive it.

Your book offers plenty of ways in which virtual reality improves upon actual reality—but in Ready Player One the world is pretty much in shambles. Does actual reality have to be super terrible in order to justify spending all your time in a virtual one? Are people too quick to dismiss the potential advantages offered by the increasing amounts of time we spent involved in all things digital?

One of the reasons I made the future reality in my book so terrible is that I knew it would make the virtual world that much more appealing, and also give what occurred there just as much importance as events in the real world. We currently don't have access to a virtual reality as lifelike as the OASIS in my book, but there are already people addicted to World of Warcraft, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Many of us already live our lives inside the womb of technology all day, every day. And I think you're right—the advantages are astounding. We constantly have access to a global communications network and an online library of the collected knowledge of human civilization. Some people worry that it's dehumanizing us, but it also allows all of our doctors, scientists, and artists to communicate and collaborate with one another, and that's changing and improving our world in ways we can't even understand yet.

I tweeted about the book the other day and got unusually strong reactions in response, both positive and negative. What's your attitude toward negative reviews? Do you read 'em? Have you gotten any criticism you agree with or took to heart?

I don't mind negative reviews at all. More than anything, I'm shocked at how few of them there are. The whole time I was writing Ready Player One, I was really just trying to write a story that I would enjoy reading. If I was lucky, I thought it might become a cult novel someday. I never thought I was writing something that would have massive mainstream appeal. And I definitely never dreamed that it would become a New York Times bestseller or that Warner Bros. would buy the film rights. The book has already been more successful that I ever imagined, so I take the negative reviews in stride. And I actually enjoy it when the reviewer seems genuinely outraged by my novel, because it reminds me of one of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut quotes: "Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae."

Oregon is one of the few physical locations in the book—any particular reason?

I have driven through Oregon many times and I think it's one of the most beautiful parts of the country. But the main reason Oregon features in my book is because two of my favorite coming-of-age movies are set there: The Goonies and Stand by Me.

You're reading at Ground Kontrol; what games are YOU gonna play?

Everybody wants to challenge me to a game of Joust now, so I should get in some more practice before the signing. And if they have a Gauntlet II machine, maybe I can get three of my fellow Portland geeks to do some dungeon raiding with me. (The quarters will be on me.

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