'Ready Player Two' author Ernest Cline sees the dark side of technology

Roberto Ontiveros
Dallas Morning News

Ernest Cline’s 2011 debut novel, "Ready Player One," a kind of Willy Wonka-meets-"Tron" adventure story, validated the digital diversions of gamers and 1980s enthusiasts alike with its arcade in-jokes and allusions to John Hughes movies.

With the release of "Ready Player Two," the Austin, Texas-based author tweaks the expectations of his own brand of nostalgic escapism with an Easter egg of ambivalence regarding the addictive nature of the very internet-based obsessions that initially inspired him.

“Well, yeah, you know, I am 10 years older than when I wrote the first book, and 20 years older than when I started the first book,” Cline says. “I’ve matured, and my life has changed a lot.”

"Ready Player Two," by Ernest Cline. (Penguin Random House/TNS)

Cline, who is married to poet Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz and has two daughters, says he actually has a love/hate relationship with the internet and its corresponding technology. Regarding the warnings of too much social media and screen time that seem sewn into his sequel, Cline says: “I try to show the good side and the bad side of technology, but this one is definitely more of a cautionary tale.”

In "Ready Player Two," our hero Wade Watts, who has gone from living the life of a poor gamer to winning control of the virtual reality system OASIS, finds out about a technology called ONI that has been kept from the public. This suppressed technology enables users to experience OASIS with all five senses, to record and even upload real-life experiences.

ONI is a highly addictive, potentially brain-damaging simulation that will change the world forever. “That’s the end point in the evolution of video games and virtual reality,” Cline says. “When it becomes indistinguishable from reality. Then it becomes like you can’t tell the difference or feel the difference or smell or hear the difference. Then it would feel the same as reality and become highly addictive — especially since it would be a reality that you could have control over.”

Cline, who admits that his own addiction to games in his 20s inspired his first novel, is not sure how he would take to the kind of virtual reality temptations he details in his new book.

“I am glad that technology does not exist yet so I don’t have to find out,” he says, adding: “Once this technology becomes a mind-altering substance, then it, too, will have to be regulated like a narcotic.”

For Cline, who was born the same year that "Pong" appeared in arcades, pop culture is an inescapable component of who he is and how he reaches his readers.

“I reference pop culture more than most writers because I make pop culture like a central element of the story somehow,” he says, adding: “I love pop culture; it’s been my culture. I have been exposed to high culture, but it does not resonate with me — or with most people — the way that pop culture does. And what I love about pop culture is it creates connections between people who have never met. For me, it’s just another paint on my palette that I could use to connect with the reader and let them know that these characters that they read about exist in the same universe that they do.”

The massive success of "Ready Player One" (along with the 2018 Steven Spielberg film that followed) created an interesting fictional problem for this writer who based his speculative work, set in 2045, on a very real-world pop culture. “'Ready Player One' now has to take place in an alternate universe different from the one that it references where Steven Spielberg has a different filmography,” Cline marvels.

If Cline is ambivalent about the technology he writes about, he is also unsettled about how the more dystopian aspects of his first novel (such as reality TV stars entering politics and the havoc caused by a worldwide pandemic) have become real.

“It was strange to see so much of the story come true just in nine years,” Cline says. “I set it 25 years in the future when it was published. A lot of it, especially the virtual reality aspects of it, came true. And a lot of its dystopian elements ... you know, some of them where I was being playful or suggesting that reality TV stars would be elected to public office … that was something that I just threw in there that I was not thinking would come true, much less in less than a decade.”

Regarding the uncanny way elements of the "Ready Player One" universe have lined up with the real world, Cline says: “I worry sometimes that the only thing you need to be prescient is to be pessimistic.”