Ready Player Two author Ernest Cline on returning to the Oasis
“Going outside is highly overrated,” famously declared Ernest Cline’s blockbuster debut novel Ready Player One. The story imagined a near future where America had endured a pandemic, was in a severe economic depression, reality TV and movie stars were elected political leaders, and kids attended school remotely via virtual classrooms. Back in 2012, all that seemed pretty far-fetched.
“Sometimes I wonder, especially recently, if all you need to be prescient is just to be pessimistic,” Cline mused from his Austin home where he’s promoting his long-awaited sequel, the inevitably titled Ready Player Two (out Nov. 24).
His novels’ dystopic setting aside, Cline’s first book and its sequel are far from bleak downers; both serve as wish-fulfillment escapist page-turners centered around high-stakes pop culture-stuffed treasure hunts, a world his fans are rather eager to reenter. “I want it to be as fun and bringing as much joy to people as the first one did,” Cline says.
Most of the new novel's story line is being kept secret. We can tell you that James Halliday — that Atari-age Willy Wonka-esque tech mogul — has once again left a priceless Easter egg from beyond the grave in his globally shared virtual universe of the OASIS, where users can pretend to be anybody and do just about anything within the boundaries of their imagination. This time, the hidden Egg unlocks a powerful and new technology with the potential to transform the OASIS and the real world alike, and our young hero Wade Watts must solve the game ahead of a team of murderous rivals. Sure it sounds a bit familiar, but that’s intentional as — well, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Below, Cline discusses his new novel, whether there will be a third book, working with director Steven Spielberg on the 2018 Ready Player One movie, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So when did you first start thinking of ideas for the sequel?
ERNEST CLINE: I tried to set up the possibility of a sequel when I wrote the first novel. As I was finishing the first book, and I knew the first book was going to be published, ideas started to formulate in the back of my head. I don't think I really started writing until they started production on the movie, which got me back into living in the world of Ready Player One. That's when I started to really write the sequel. Also, I knew then there was like a ticking clock because if the movie does well, then they're going to want to make a movie sequel. And if there's no book to base the sequel on, then that won't stop them. So that motivated me and it was great because as we were finishing the movie, Steven started to ask me questions about what the sequel might be about so he could get that into the ending of the first movie. It was also great because I was in [the book's shantytown village] the Stacks — on the set of the movie — in this recreation of things from my imagination. So it was hard to think about anything else once I was there. I had to then stop and do [promotion for the film] and now I've been working on it nonstop for the last two years.
While there are obviously many reasons to do a sequel, did you have any trepidation after you managed to have a first-time writer's dream experience with the first book, which was such a home run in every way? Were you concerned about doubling down?
It did give me a huge amount of anxiousness going into writing it. I know from my own experience — like with the Star Wars prequels — that expectations are often resentments waiting to happen. The higher your expectations, the more you're setting yourself up for disappointment. The great thing about my first novel was that nobody knew who I was and people could discover it. Once it became more popular I would see people who heard it was so great from their friends, then they would go into it with expectations. So I knew everybody would even be going into this story with expectations, including me and including Steven Spielberg. He would call occasionally and ask if it was done. Nothing will light a fire under you like getting one of those phone calls, and I knew fans were waiting too. At the same time, I wasn't going to let anyone rush me. It's a strange sort of storytelling. I worked on Ready Player One for almost a decade. I was still working full-time jobs during that time, but I would work on and off and sometimes set it aside for as much as a year, but I'd always come back to it. I believed in the story and I knew I had to finish it. The way that I would do the puzzles is very elaborate. Each of the puzzles is its own elaborate puzzle box and weaving all the riddles and puzzles and the '80s references into the story takes a lot of thinking and like trial and error. So it's different than other writing projects. I really wanted it to be as good as I could make it and as fulfilling as the first book. I think a lot of people are going to enjoy it. I know some people's expectations might not be met and I'm braced for that too.
I sort of feel like everything in fandom now becomes controversial to some extent.
It's part of the game. If you want the world's attention, if you tap the world on the shoulder and say, "Hey, look at this awesome thing that I did," then the Eye of Sauron is going to focus on you and everyone will make their decision. But most artists would kill for that. It's a very lucky position to be in for a writer to be in, and the cost of playing the game at that level.
I know you want to be cautious about what you say about the storyline, but what do you want fans to know?
The sequel picks up a little over a week after the first book ends. Then there's a gap of time, but it all kind of flows out of the first story. It's that trick of a sequel where you don't want to tell the same exact story again, but you want to give fans similar elements that made the first story a success. I think I successfully did that in a very different story that takes place over a different time span than the first book, but it has all the same characters, and some new characters and I also built on the characters' backstories, and it also builds on the technology and the world.
Yeah, when I read the jacket description I was pleased by that. I'm always a bit disappointed when sequels are so eager to do something different that, as you say, lose what you liked about going to that world in the first place.
I remember thinking in the early stages that there has to be another treasure hunt, because the whole fun of the first book is this pop-culture treasure hunt, and the way readers get to use their own pop culture knowledge to try to decipher these clues along with the characters — sometimes before the characters. One of the reasons it took me so long is I took feedback from my few [advance] readers really seriously, which I did the first time and I think that was part of the success of the first novel. I took all of the feedback seriously because I wanted as many people as possible to enjoy the book and I wanted it to be unputdownable. And Steven Spielberg helped shape my storytelling sensibilities from the time I was a kid just from his, his films. So getting to bounce ideas off of him and get his reaction was really valuable. He lived in that world of the book for several years and knows it as well as anybody.
What's a specific piece of advice he gave? Or some idea he shot down?
He did not shoot anything down. He was really kind and generous. He knows what it's like to be a writer. I really wanted to read the draft of his screenplay for AI which has never been published. It was the last screenplay that he wrote, adapting work that Stanley Kubrick and [Brian Aldiss] had already done. So I begged him and he finally shared it with me ... the only specific advice I ended up implementing was he asked for more of his favorite character, and I don't want to say which as it might be a spoiler. It was hard getting to that point where I was ready to let him read it and I thought I'm only going to get one chance to make a first impression. The first book was already a bestseller by the time he read it and that was still one of the most nerve-wracking weeks in my life. He knows how much weight his opinion carries with people. So he's very gentle with writers. But he was so supportive and read multiple drafts.
You do have a bit of a potential Ian Malcolm-like issue though, given that Daito was killed in the book, but not in the movie, and now there's a sequel. On the other hand, he's kind of a minor character.
I made that clear to everybody that I was going to write a sequel to my book and not a sequel to the movie. It was hard to do as I had to keep two separate versions of the story and two different timelines in my head. I'm not one of those people who makes a checklist and thinks everything in a book better be translated exactly. I've never seen that work — even with The Wizard of Oz, and especially The Lord of the Rings trilogy. They had to take so many liberties, but it's still great. The best you can hope for in a film is a great tribute to the source material and adopts the same spirit, but you're never going to get the whole story or the same experience that you get from a book. So I was trying to keep the movie out of my head and not make changes that were influenced by the movie. But I failed at that a couple times. Just by helping with the film and some of the things that we came up with for the adaptation, they ended up inspiring me and giving me ideas. Like the soundtrack of the movie and some songs that were used ended up giving me some inspiration. Once you read the book, you'll know what I'm talking about, but some of the songs Steven chose for the movie ended up inspiring which artists I pay tribute to. The way the three keys and three gates are in Ready Player One, Ready Player Two has similar series of challenges that have to be passed through and each one of those pays tribute to different facets of pop culture. So it's kind of impossible for the experience of making the movie not to influence me a little bit.
So do you view this as a sequel that closes off the story or as an ongoing franchise?
I'd always envisioned it as a trilogy of stories. One is a sequel, which I've just written and then another other one being a prequel about James Halliday and Ogden Morrow in Ohio. It's a coming-of-age story. It won't be called Ready Player Three, it'll be more like Ready Player Zero. I do plan to take a break, but someday I'll write that book too, which is more based on my own childhood — growing up, playing Dungeons and Dragons and video games as a kid. It's like Stand by Me. It's a huge part of my childhood being immersed in all the escapism so that I could write Ready Player One.
So Ready Player Two is basically the end of the story as you currently see it.
Yes, as I currently see it. I think the first five Dune books were by Frank Herbert and that was the end of the story the way he saw it. They went on and his son continued them. So I don't know. There might be a Ready Player Seven from my daughter, but probably not.