Future Tense

“Imagining the Future Is Dangerous”

Sci-fi writer Ernest Cline discusses Ready Player One, virtual reality, and nostalgia.

Video gamers
“You get all your hunter-gatherer jones out of your system by playing video games. I know I do. But is that a good thing?”

Photo by Digital Vision

“Imagining the future is dangerous,” science-fiction writer Ernest Cline told me,  “because it can go either way.”

In the mid-21st century of Ready Player One, Cline’s first novel, Earth is in ruins, devastated by overpopulation and climate change. Facing starvation and pervasive unemployment, many of the survivors have retreated into a sprawling virtual reality simulation called the OASIS. At once a game and a way of life, the OASIS is a place of pure possibility, a speculative playground that allows its inhabitants to dream of a better world.

A sage of geek culture, Cline peppers his fiction with references to his favorite television shows, comic books, and role-playing games. Attentive to the history of science fiction and video games, Ready Player One was as much about the delights of the past as it was a grim image of a possible future.

Cline’s second novel, Armada, comes out this week, and a film adaptation of Ready Player One is under way. Ahead of Armada’s release, we spoke about the potential of virtual-reality technologies, the surprising realism of video games, and the way fatherhood helped change his understanding of the future.

What visions of and ideas about the future excite you?

I just finished reading Neal Stephenson’s new novel, Seveneves, which is brilliant.

Personally, I’m kind of swirling in this hurricane of virtual reality because of Ready Player One.

What makes VR technologies exciting?

For the whole history of cinema, we’ve been experiencing movies and television through a two-dimensional, letterboxed window. But once you can start programming entertainment for all the different senses, it becomes a wholly different medium. I feel like that will be the big demarcation here in the next few years, where movies and television all change as a result of VR technologies.

That’s one of the reasons I’m excited about the Ready Player One movie happening right now, and one of the reasons they’re in a hurry to make it. They know it won’t be science fiction much longer.

A lot of these technologies are things that have been imagined in one way or another in science fiction. Does science fiction have a role in technological culture, or in driving innovation?

Yeah! John Carmack [the legendary video game developer now working for VR company Oculus] and other people say that one of the reasons they wanted to work on VR is that Ready Player One helped show the potential of it. But I was standing on the shoulders of Neal Stephenson and William Gibson. Gibson wrote Neuromancer on a typewriter, you know, before the technology he was writing about existed. Same with Stephenson’s Snow Crash: He wrote that in the days of [Internet precursor] ARPANET.

I also had the benefit of playing Ultima Online, World of Warcraft, and EverQuest, and seeing the birth and evolution of the Internet, from the mid-’90s to the aughts. Now, a lot of early VR worlds or universes that are coming online take inspiration from Ready Player One. It’s just the coolest thing ever.

It’s a great time to be a science-fiction writer, but also dangerous if you’re trying to imagine the future.

What role do video games play in our lives today?

Human beings are not wired to live the way we live now. We’ve only been living in cities and driving cars and working in cubicles for a few hundred years. Millions of years of evolution have us wired to hunt and gather and form teams and kick ass and conquer territory and be explorers.

That’s the natural human thing, but we don’t get to do that any more, which is why modern life drives a lot of people crazy. We have to work out that hunter-gatherer energy by other means. Some people do it with sports, but I think an even larger group of people does it with video games.

In some ways what you’re suggesting is that video games are more natural than real life.

We’ve mastered nature now. We exist outside nature. Our food can just be packaged and brought to us. We exist in the womb of technology from the time that we’re born, protected by modern medicine, which is not our natural state.

You get all your hunter-gatherer jones out of your system by playing video games. I know I do. But is that a good thing?

What else inspired your approach to science fiction?

One thing I’m proud of about Ready Player One is that I’m aware of gaming’s history. I was born at the perfect time to witness the birth of the video game industry, and the birth of the modern blockbuster. I grew up as a child of Star Wars. I was 5 years old in 1977 when Star Wars came out. The next year, during a rerelease of Star Wars, I remember walking out of the theater and playing my first video game, Space Invaders, which I found out later was directly inspired by Star Wars. That also became one of the inspirations for my second novel, as did the experience of seeing Star Wars as many times as I could. It was part of the mythology of my youth.

In Ready Player One your characters are similarly fixated on the cultural artifacts of the past. Do you think focusing too much on what comes before might blind us to the present and the future we’re making?

For me, it was more about exploring the origins of geek culture. I was part of the first generation to have video games, to have computers, to have a VCR. I wanted to pay tribute to that. Nostalgia, I think, is good. Nostalgia is like video games, or music, or movies. It’s a form of escapism.

That’s a human thing, part of dealing with the burden of consciousness and mortality. Again, I wasn’t trying to make a judgment call. I was just trying to explore different facets of my own approach to nostalgia and escapism.

Why does Ready Player One resonate with young people who didn’t have those same experiences?

So much of Ready Player One deals with living online and having an online persona, and that’s their whole lives. Growing up in the age of Facebook is a nightmare that I didn’t have to experience.

Anonymity is still possible in the mashed up version of the Internet that you give us in Ready Player One, which isn’t always the case on the Internet today. Do you think anonymity is necessary? Do you think it’s a fantasy to imagine that we could have it in the future?

It’s clearly vanishing. But I know a huge number of people have an alternate online identity. They’ll have a fake account that’s not attached to their name or who they are, just so that they can be themselves or speak with impunity, and not worry about losing their jobs, but also exist as themselves. So that just seemed like a natural thing.

I have a lot of women friends who tell me that they’ll have an account with a man’s name or a non-gender-specific name so people will still read what they have to say. I would imagine it’s even more so for LGBT individuals. I’m fascinated with the way that creating an avatar allows you to create your own idealized version of yourself from your inner psyche. It’s this empowering thing when you can create this skin for yourself and walk around in it.

Earlier you proposed that video games may be more authentic than our so-called real lives. Here, it seems like you’re saying that pretending to be someone you’re not may actually allow you to be a more real version of yourself.

Yeah. There are so many stories of people wandering onto the Internet and finding who they want to be by creating an online ego, and that ends up informing their real life. It’s something we can never calculate, how much the Internet changed the course of human evolution.

I wanted to return to what you were saying about imagining the future being dangerous. Why is it dangerous to imagine the future?

Well, as a science-fiction writer you’re always wrong. You’re always overestimating the progress of humanity in some ways. The further into the future you go, the more perilous it gets to imagine things, the more you’re inevitably wrong. That’s part of why I had so much of Ready Player One take place in the virtual world, because I could dictate how that would be.

It was an allegory for my own use of this technology and the way you can wallow in it. You have the whole world at your fingertips on the Internet, but you use it for these mundane things. I always wondered about that when watching Star Trek. If you have a holodeck and a replicator, why are you exploring space? You’re set. You could just hang out in the holodeck and replicate any reality that you wanted. But that would also be bad and dangerous, a kind of prison.

Ready Player One offers a pretty bleak vision of the future. The world is broken, and there’s almost no way to fix it, so all that’s left to do is get really good at video games. Do you share the novel’s cynicism?

The human condition is by its very nature painful. Becoming aware that you’re going to die some day informs the rest of your life. And it’s also what gives your life meaning, urgency. Virtual reality would be the ultimate escape, a copy of reality that’s the way you want it to be, which makes human beings dodge to some degree, but it’s also dangerous, as the real world, where our real lives happen, becomes less urgent.

But I wasn’t trying to write a cautionary tale with Ready Player One—I was just trying to write a fun science-fiction action adventure story in the vein of the stories I loved. I put my own spin on everything. I wrote it in my 20s, and my twentysomething view of everything worked its way into the story.

Neal Stephenson and others have suggested that science-fiction writers have an ethical responsibility to help us imagine a better future. What’s your take on that?

I adhere more to the theory that science-fiction writers are writers like anyone else. And the purpose of writing is to share your own human experience, and also to make the human experience for everyone else a little less painful and a little more enjoyable. Kurt Vonnegut used to say this thing all the time—I think he was quoting his son—that the meaning of life is for all of us to help each other through this thing, whatever it is.

Some people are just struggling to get by on their own, but if you’re lucky enough to be able to write and to share your writing with this huge audience, like Neal Stephenson and I, then it’s beholden of you to entertain, but also to share your own ideas and experience. And you want people to have fun too.

But do you think that dystopias, as Stephenson and others have proposed, hurt our ability to imagine a better future?

I don’t know. I think real life hurts our ability to imagine a better future. I was writing Ready Player One during the Bush years, and it was not a great time to be an American. To me, it felt like a really scary time.

Today, the cavalier attitude that a lot of people have about climate change and overpopulation, deforestation and oceans dying off, all of that, is really scary. But also, as human beings, that’s when we really shine and kick ass, when our backs are to the wall and our whole species’ survival is in question. That’s why I love Seveneves so much, along with that whole genre of “oh shit the world’s in trouble, now how do we deal with it” stories.

Have your views changed in the years since you wrote Ready Player One?

Yeah, my views have evolved. Becoming a parent really changes things. I wasn’t a father when I started Ready Player One. What I’ve learned from fatherhood shows in my second book.

Now that I’m a parent, it forces me to be more optimistic. I have an investment in the future now, beyond my own lifetime. I want my little girl to be able to go to college. I don’t want her to have to wield a crossbow and skin a house cat to survive.

One last question. You’ll be working with Steven Spielberg on the Ready Player One movie. Has he given you any guff about the passage in the book where one of your characters makes fun of the fourth Indiana Jones movie?

I was told that when he came into Warner Brothers he had a copy with 100 Post-it notes in it, flagging things that he wanted to make sure were in the movie. That’s probably not one of them, I’m guessing.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.