Ernest Cline's career as a science fiction novelist is only slightly less unlikely than the tales he spins of alien invasions and virtual reality.
His fan-fic script for a sequel to '80s sci-fi cult hit, "Buckaroo Banzai," made him Internet-famous while he worked in IT, but it took 10 years for "Fanboys," his script about a break-in at George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch, to be filmed, re-shot by the Weinstein Company and then released to general indifference and disappointment.
His first novel, however, "Ready Player One," the tale of a no-holds-barred treasure hunt in cyberspace, was a huge critical and popular success right out of the gate in 2011. Prior to publication, book and movie rights were snapped up in a 48-hour period, to the tune of a half-million dollar each. Now, "Ready Player One" is being turned into a big-budget movie. With Steven Spielberg as director.
Using proceeds from the print and movie sales, Cline bought himself a gull-wing DeLorean, just like the vehicle in "Back to the Future." He let George "Game of Thrones" R.R. Martin borrow the car to promote his Santa Fe movie theater.
In a telephone interview prior to his appearance at San Diego Comic-Con, Cline said, "Everything you could want to happen when you write your first novel and put it out into the world, that happened to me, and it just kept getting crazier and crazier."
Cline's much-anticipated second novel, "Armada," will be published July 14. It's a high-concept humorous thriller about an unlikely alien invasion, packed with pop cultural references and nerdish trivia. Universal Studios has already purchased the film rights, and Cline is working on the screenplay.
Cline will read from and sign "Armada" at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park on Tuesday, July 14.
A longtime resident of Austin, Texas, 43-year old Cline spent his childhood in Ohio, collecting video games and obsessing about "Star Wars" and other cinematic science fiction franchises.
"I loved 'Star Wars' and video games and loved the way the two influenced each other, Cline said. "'Star Wars' invented the (summer movie) blockbuster and reinvigorated science fiction. And it happened right at the time of the birth of the video game, both the arcade games and the home versions."
From an early age, he wanted to recreate the arcade experience on his own terms. "I used to build a cockpit out of couch pillows in front of my TV with my Atari and play Star Raiders or Star Ship."
Later on, Cline read a magazine article about Atari's Battlezone, a rudimentary 3-D tank game, and how it was adapted by the military into the Bradley Trainer tank simulator.
"That story just blew my mind," Cline said, "that as early as 1980, the U.S. Army had seen the potential of using video games as real-world training simulators."
"Armada" explores in great detail the connections between sci-fi, video games, military technology and space flight. It chronicles the adventures of high school student Zack Lightman, who spies a flying saucer outside his window and is soon whisked off on a mission to save Earth from extraterrestrial invaders from the Jovian moon Europa. Part of what sets the narrative apart from, say, the 1984 film "The Last Starfighter" is its characters' metatextual understanding of the clichés and tropes of science fiction.
"If there was an alien invasion now, after 50-plus years of alien invasion movies and stories, we would have all these preconceived notions about it," Cline said. "And you would be shocked if it went down the way it had in some movie you had seen."
"Armada" is dedicated to Cline's younger brother, Major Eric T. Cline of the U.S. Marine Corps. The younger Cline has experience in the Middle East as an explosives ordnance disposal technician.
"They use robots to disarm bombs from 50 yards away, so they don't have to be next to them if they make a mistake," Cline explained. "The controls they use for them are X-Box controls. It lowers the learning curve if the consoles are the same as the game consoles they grew up with."
In "Armada," Cline combines the here-and-now idea of remote-controlled drones with a more futuristic possibility of "loss-less" communication through quantum data teleportation: the ability to transmit information instantaneously across vast distances.
"When I watch 'Star Wars,' I wonder why they can have faster-than-light holographic phone calls between different star systems with no delay at all," Cline said. "If they can transmit that much data, then they can control an X-Wing or TIE Fighter remotely, and they don't have to send (pudgy human pilot) Porkins or anybody else out to die."
With "Armada" launched, Cline is eager for the filming of "Ready Player One" to begin. "My plan is to be in disguise and hang out on the set," he said. "I want to watch everything be filmed. I want to learn as much as I can. It's a huge opportunity. So, that's all I have planned: sneaking on to the set of my own movie and stealing props."
Whatever comes next for Cline, he already regards his career thus far as "a dream come true."
"I think it's like 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,'" he said, referencing Ambrose Bierce's 1890 short story written in a stream-of-consciousness style. "I'm just making it up in my head."
Freelance writer Michael Berry can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
What: Ernest Cline signs and discusses "Armada"
Where: Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park
When: Tuesday, July 14, at 7:30 p.m.
Cost: Admission: Free
Info: Go to keplers.com or call 650-324-4321