The first thing you should know about Ernest Cline—fiction’s most unabashed nerd and author of the dystopian gamer hit Ready Player One—is that he owns a DeLorean. Also, he’s obsessed with the 1980s, big-time, which comes across in his new novel, Armada.
Ernest Cline knows exactly what I secretly want and wastes no time making it happen. Within seconds of my arriving at his Austin home, the 43-year-old author has put me behind the wheel of his famously tricked-out Back to the Future-style DeLorean, switched on the flux capacitor, cranked up “The Power of Love,” and let me nostalgically time-travel back to 1985. That’s when I notice his customizations: the dangling gold dice like in the Millennium Falcon, the light bar from Knight Rider, the proton gun from Ghostbusters. Cline’s car doesn’t merely replicate famous props, though: “It’s a happiness machine,” he explains.
It’s also the closest thing in the real world to the imagined universe of Cline’s novels, which deliriously mash up wildly diverse pop culture references with tales of young loners caught in dire sci-fi plots. His 2011 debut, Ready Player One, was a best-selling smash, written over the course of eight years as Cline slaved away at a tech-support cubicle job. Since then, his geek dreams keep coming true. Recently Steven Spielberg signed on to direct the Ready Player One movie (Cline suspects he’s the only director who can pull off getting all the brand rights needed for the tale: “Nobody’s not going to give him Pac-Man, or Duran Duran, or whatever he wants”). Cline has also gotten to hang out with some of his idols, like Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin. “He was like, ‘How’s your new book going?’ And I’m like, ‘So much pressure! Everybody’s waiting and emailing!’ He was just laughing at me,” Cline recalls.
That new book has been released: Armada, a tale about a high schooler named Zack Lightman who learns his favorite videogame is actually a secret military training program preparing an army of pilots to fight off an alien invasion. If the concept sounds suspiciously like The Last Starfighter, that’s also what Cline’s protagonist thinks—in fact, it’s his characters’ extensive knowledge of sci-fi tropes that sets the book apart. “If an alien invasion happens and the characters don’t reference Independence Day or War of the Worlds, then it’s like they live in this alternate universe,” notes Cline, who was partly inspired by discovering that arcade classic Battlezone was once co-opted by the U.S. Army to train tank operators.
In another Armada twist, the characters pilot drones, a real-life combat evolution that threatens to make previous space-battle stories feel dated (Cline points out that it’s tough to watch Star Wars now and not realize the Rebels didn’t really need to send X-wing pilots to perish while attacking the Death Star). Armada has been snatched up for a potential feature film, too, with an eye toward turning the story into a franchise. “The main thing is all this useless knowledge in Zack’s head is actually really valuable, and I think that appeals to people,” Cline says. “And it appeals to me because I actually made it true. By taking all this useless stuff in my head and putting it into stories, it’s not actually not so useless anymore.”
This story appears in the July 31, 2015 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Pick it up on stands today, or subscribe online at ew.com/allaccess.