AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Ernest Cline

This interview was conducted by Gwen Perkins.

“The Omnibot Incident” is a story about a robot uprising not placed in the future but in the past: 1983. What were your reasons for looking backward rather than forward?

When Dan Wilson first asked me if I would contribute a story to this anthology, I was still working on the screenplay adaptation of my novel Ready Player One, so I was immersed in 80s pop culture at the time. (Even more than usual). When I thought about a robot uprising, my brain immediately conjured up an image of the Omnibot 2000, the Christmas gift I always wanted and never received, because it was way out of my family’s price range. I immediately imagined an “Omnibot 2000 uprising,” which seemed like a fun story to write, and a unique take on the subject matter.

Was the year 1983 selected for any specific reason? Were there any events happening at that point in history that determined your choice of that time for this setting?

The story is actually set in 1986, which was the year the Omnibot 2000 was at the height of its popularity, and one of the most coveted items in every kid’s Christmas catalogs and computer magazines. The mid-80s were also something of a golden age for movies, TV shows, and cartoons that featured robots, and I wanted that to inform the protagonist’s interest in them.

One of the characteristics of this story is the number of pop culture references that color the description. These draw the reader in because they feel so familiar and instantly take those of us who lived through the 80s back to that time. What drives your use of cultural icons and references in your writing? How do you think such references will be interpreted years from now?

I find it difficult to differentiate between “pop culture” and just plain old “culture.” Pop culture has been my culture since birth, and the only way for me to write about characters who feel like they exist in the real world—the same one I live in—is if they reference that world and its culture in their thoughts and dialogue, the same way we all do when we’re having a conversation with our friends.

As for how those references will be interpreted years from now—I think they’ll be interpreted the same way a reader currently deciphers any obscure cultural reference or word they come across—they look it up online. Thanks to the Internet, there’s no longer any such thing as an obscure reference.

The family in this story is fighting with the loss of a wife and mother, the same loss that brings in the Omnibot of this story. The father seeks to heal his son through this gift, perhaps because he himself can’t communicate across his own grief. Is this based on a real-life experience that you or someone you know has had?

Yes, I lost my own mother to cancer when I was in my twenties, and it had a profound effect on my family and my life, even though I was already an adult and living on my own. The experience gave me a new understanding of how devastating it would be to lose a parent when you were still a kid, and already facing one of the most difficult times of your life. That was something I wanted to explore in this story.

The ending of “The Omnibot Incident” turns out to be different than the initial story would hint. Did you have that ending in mind when you first conceived of the idea or did it “write itself” as the story began to unfold on the page?

No, I had that ending in mind from the very beginning. I wanted the “uprising” to seem plausible to the reader by the end of the story.

What is the appeal of “robot uprising” fiction? Why do writers—or you yourself—write about it? What do you think readers like about it?

I think robot uprisings are so compelling because they represent a technological evolution of Frankenstein’s Monster. It’s always fun to watch human creative hubris back fire—especially when we dabble in creating machines in our own image, that like us, then develop a mind of their own. Danger, Will Robinson.

What are some of your favorite examples of robot uprising stories (in any media), and what makes them your favorites?

My favorite robot uprising story is the one James Cameron crafted in The Terminator and then continued in T2: Judgment Day. They’re two of the best written sci-fi films in history (the sequels, not so much). I would also argue that T2 is the most expensive anti-war film ever made—and Arnie doesn’t kill a single human being in the entire flick. (He maims quite a few, though.)