Ernest Cline on privacy, positivity, and “Ready Player Two”

Adrian Liang on December 29, 2020

Ernest Cline on privacy, positivity, and ‘Ready Player Two’

Sequels sometimes come to those who wait, and fans of Ernest Cline’s 2011 science fiction novel, Ready Player One, will find a whole lot to love in the recently released sequel, Ready Player Two, which has been dominating best seller lists since its publication on November 24.

Ready Player Two opens a few years after Wade Watts solved the quest designed by James Halliday and won ownership of the OASIS. The OASIS is a virtual universe that is used by nearly everyone on Earth for work and fun. And it’s also an escape from the true reality of a broken society and a soon-to-be-toxic planet.

Wade, naturally, is a billionaire. But he’s still young, and he doesn’t have a whole lot of life experience. That inexperience—plus a new quest launched by Halliday from beyond the grave—sends Wade, his friends, and his enemies on a collision course in which the OASIS itself could become a casualty.

I talked with Ernest Cline by video—and got to see his very cool DeLoreans. Here is a portion of that conversation.

Adrian Liang, Amazon Book Review: In Ready Player One you imagined a near future where the world endured a pandemic, it was in a severe economic depression, reality TV stars were elected political leaders, kids attended school remotely via virtual classrooms, and humanity escaped to the safety of a virtual universe. So your vision is feeling especially prescient. What has it been like seeing your science fiction become reality in so many ways?

Ernest Cline: Really unsettling. In 2010, which is when I finished and sold Ready Player One, I was looking forward 35 years and trying to imagine a world in which people would be driven to spend a lot of time in a virtual world. And it was easy from the perspective of 2010 to imagine that if we continue to ignore climate change and all the other problems facing us—one of which was the potential of a pandemic that eventually would come about—that would make the real world an increasingly unpleasant place for people to spend time in. And the more real our virtual reality got, the more compelled people would feel to escape the real world. So I was picturing this dark, dystopian future for storytelling reasons because I wanted to make the virtual world that much more appealing, but I didn't imagine that so much of those predictions would come true just within nine years of the book being published.

As a parent, it's just really unsettling. And I'm hoping that maybe it seems prescient this year, but that it will course correct in a lot of ways. Because the future that I depicted in Ready Player One and Ready Player Two is a fun future for stories of action, adventure, and online treasure hunts. But that's not the kind of world I want my daughters to actually grow up in. So hopefully in the background of my fun action-adventure stories is a cautionary tale.

Ready Player One came out in 2011 long before virtual reality headsets like Oculus were available. Now that video game technology is catching up to the OASIS, do you feel that your book serves as a manual for what to do and what to look out for?

I feel lucky that Ready Player One was published right at the time that there were already people, like the folks at Oculus, who were working to make consumer virtual reality a reality. They read Ready Player One and took inspiration from it and ended up giving it to all their new employees. So many people have told me, “I got your book when I got hired at Oculus to work on virtual reality.” But I would say I was standing on the shoulders of giants when I wrote Ready Player One. There are other great science fiction writers like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson who had imagined virtual reality even further back in the eighties and nineties. I had the advantage of seeing virtual worlds like World of Warcraft and EverQuest and seeing how they affected people's lives and how they get immersed and really connected to other people through their avatars. All that was a new kind of human relationship that was coming about that had not existed before because of technology.

This past year I bought an Oculus Quest headset for pretty much everyone I know and all of my family members just so we could hang out and spend time together in virtual reality—and it feels very different than a video chat. So I've been grateful that that technology has actually come about in the decade since I wrote and published Ready Player One.

But it did create a problem—not a problem, but the opportunity for me—when I [started writing] Ready Player Two to expand that technology and take it forward. Seeing how much it's advanced just in the past 10 [years], it's easy to see it becoming almost indistinguishable from reality, which is what I explore in Ready Player Two.

When I write about technology, I try to show how great it could make people's lives and how it can improve people's lives, but also the dark side of technology, which we don't always see right away. Sometimes it takes a decade or two after technology appears before we see the sociological and political ramifications of it on people's lives.

You mention the dark side of technology. With an increase in available technology also comes an increase in the ability to invade each other's privacy. And that tension between privacy and access is very apparent in Ready Player Two.

I wanted to show the way that the ability to violate other people's privacy would be irresistible, especially for young people or people who had helped invent or control this technology. I wanted to be true to the characters—very young people who have inherited very powerful technology that is basically mind-control technology. And there are lots of parallels to draw between that and social media, which has proven to be a very effective mind-control tool that has no oversight and that could be used to sow the seeds of disinformation and put people in their own virtual reality where they don't actually know what the truth is. In a way, we already all have our brain plugged into this global computer network, and it's having drastic effects. It's a lifeline to us now. It allows us to keep in touch and all stay connected and to go to school and to continue to do our jobs, but at a huge social cost that is continuously unfolding. And we're learning as we go how it affects and changes things.

I thought it was really bold how you opened Ready Player Two with Wade having made some questionable decisions over the past few years. It was great.

He's a teenager with very little experience outside of playing video games and studying trivia. He's only good at certain things, and running this giant company and inheriting all this power... You know, he's not much better at it than Halliday, and Halliday created a contest that would pick someone who loved the things that he loved and saw the world the way that he did, which is not necessarily good, and Wade has become Halliday. [Wade] is running around his empty house and is all alone and has isolated himself from his friends. He's got absolute power now, and that corrupts absolutely. And so I wanted to show him having been corrupted, and then being faced with his worst fear: The thing that he didn't think was going to happen, but that Art3mis/Samantha had been telling him was going to happen, happens.

That was the story I wanted to tell because I knew it would challenge all the characters and challenge their friendships and would reveal new things about the characters. One of my favorite parts of writing is when you get to be part of the audience and discover things that you didn't know about your own characters and get to see the story play out in your own mind just the way that the reader does. That's great.

Between the best-selling book and the hit film of Ready Player One, you've been pretty immersed in this world. But I imagine there was also a huge amount of pressure when it came to writing Ready Player Two. So how do you keep a book feeling fun when you yourself are under pressure?

Well, that's a great question. I'm really lucky because I have a really positive family. My wife is also a best-selling author, and she's very positive and understands what it's like to work on something in isolation for years and then put it out into the world during such a crazy time for everyone. I'm really lucky that I have my family, and they are fine with what I do. My research... I kind of get wrapped up in an old video game and learn everything about this old video game or an old musician and become immersed. And so they have to get immersed in the stuff too. My wife has to listen to a lot of talk about Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings and things while I'm studying.

And staying away from the Internet is another thing. You know, I spent a lot of time on the Internet when I was writing Ready Player One because I was working in the IT industry and I was doing tech support and Web design. I spent a lot of time helping people use the Internet, which I think helped me as a writer describe complex technical things in a simple way that people could understand. But if you go out on the Internet looking for positivity, you also risk seeing negativity. And I think negativity also gets more attention; that's the nature of click bait. So it's dangerous and not necessarily an honest medium, because it's all about getting a dopamine rush.

That's why I love and am missing being able to go on a real book tour this time—getting to interact with my readers and hear their reaction to the story in person, and doing real events and signing people's books. So I'm going to have to wait and do that [tour] for the paperback this time. It's really flattering to get the reaction online that I've gotten. But it's strange. Like the characters in Ready Player Two, I'm missing the human interaction that we all are missing this year.

For me, part of staying positive is having something to look forward to. So I'm looking forward to the day when I can go on another book tour and see readers in person again.

Author photo by Dan Winters

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