From the opening chapter of Ernest Cline’s new novel, Armada, there’s quite a bit to follow—even if you were a teenager of the ‘80s. A flying saucer in the sky that protagonist Zack Lightman recognizes from his favorite videogame; Zack’s best friends debating the merits of the Mjolnir and Sting; Zack musing about WarGames, TRON, ZZ Top. And something about dwarves, which we’ll get to later. As Cline explained when he phoned up Paste, Armada is a space opera powered by his love for videogames and ‘80s science fiction, namely the kind that features young dudes saving the world.
It’s familiar territory for Cline. He became a name in the sci-fi writing scene with his debut novel, Ready Player One, about a high school senior hunting for a prize hidden in a virtual universe riddled with warfare and ‘80s nostalgia. Calling from a hotel room in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Cline told Paste that Armada was a chance to tap into that nostalgia once more.
Paste: You’re in the middle of your book tour for Armada. Are you sick of talking about videogames?
Ernest Cline: [Laughs] If I were going to run out of juice to talk about videogames, that probably would have happened years ago. Lucky for me, as a fiction writer, I get to write about the stuff that I’m interested in, which is pop culture, classic videogames, drone technology, spaceships, etc. I get sick of talking about myself, but I don’t get sick of talking about videogames.
Paste: What gives you the energy to continue writing about videogames?
Cline: I wrote a movie called Fanboys, which is about Star Wars fans and doesn’t involve videogames, and I’ve written a bunch of screenplays as well—not all deal with video games. For me, it’s like movies and music—they’re all such a big part of my life that I just consider it part of the culture that I live in. And because of the success of Ready Player One, I think that my publisher was looking for something else that also involved gaming, so this is the other idea that I had. My next novel probably won’t involve games as much, although they’ll be mentioned, but the plot probably won’t center on videogames. I think I got it out of my system with these two books.
Paste: Like in Ready Player One, Armada drops a lot of pop culture references. I’m curious about these time-traveling kleptomaniac dwarves in the first chapter….
Cline: Ha! That’s from a Terry Gilliam movie called Time Bandits, about time-traveling kleptomaniac dwarves who kidnap this kid from London and take him to meet Napoleon and King Agamemnon. That’s one of my favorite kids-can-do-anything movies. Both Ready Player One and Armada are in the spirit of these great adventure movies I grew up watching—like Iron Eagle, WarGames, The Goonies and Flight of the Navigator. They’re all movies about kids who find themselves in an impossible situation and then they triumph. I love stories like that.
Paste: The protagonists in Ready Player One and Armada are young dudes who get mixed up with gaming and saving the world. Did you want to save the world when you were a young dude?
Cline: Yeah, Luke Skywalker did it for me. I saw Star Wars when I was five years old, and then I became obsessed with the mythology of my youth. I think I dressed up as Luke Skywalker three Halloweens in a row, and Star Wars led to my love for science fiction and Robert Heinlein’s juvenile novels, like Starship Troopers.
Paste: Are you playing games on your book tour right now?
Cline: The game I’ve been playing a lot, because everyone wants to me challenge at it, is a game based on Armada. Some game designer friends and I made an Atari 2600 game based on Ready Player One. For Armada, we made a fictional video game called Phaëton, and it’s kind of like the fictional game Polybius that’s rumored to have existed. If you go to earthdefensealliance.com, you can check it out. I have to practice, because everyone is challenging me.
Paste: How have the challenges gone so far?
Cline: There’s a global scoreboard. There are no contests, and it’s about who can get the highest score. Not too many books create an alternate reality online, so we created a fictional website for Chaos Terrain, which is a fictional video game company, and Starbase Ace, which is the crappy video game store that Zack works at. People get a huge kick out of it.
Paste: What are your top five sci-fi videogames?
Cline: I’m a huge fan of Portal and Portal 2. Half-Life 2 is probably one of my favorite videogames of all time. I’m also a big fan of EVE: Valkyrie, which is a new, first-person, shoot-em-up game with Oculus Rift—kind of what I describe in Armada. But probably my favorite science fiction game of all time is a game from 1980 I just bought—Battlezone. Battlezone is like a futuristic tank simulator game, and I bought it because it plays a big role in Armada. In 1980, when the game came out, the U.S. Army saw its potential as a training simulator, so they bought the game from Atari and paid the original programmer to reprogram it to Bradley Trainer, a training simulator for this new tank that the Army was developing. I remember reading about this when I was a kid and it blew my mind. Ever since I had first played Space Invaders after seeing Star Wars, I had been imagining that videogames were real and could train me to do something. Then a few years later, when I saw The Last Starfighter and when I first read Ender’s Game...those set me on the path to being a writer.
Paste: So you own an original copy of Battlezone?
Cline: Yeah, I got a coin-op one on Craigslist from a guy in Tucson selling it. They’re really hard to get in working condition, but I managed to find one. Now I play it when I don’t want to write—which is all the time.