Author: Ernest Cline
First Published: 2015
So what do you once you’ve turned the final page of a book you really loved? If you’re anything like me the answer might be:
- Feel a little sad that such a wonderful reading experience has come to an end.
- Start recommending said book to everyone you know.
- Find out if the author has published anything else and if so, buy it.
So you can imagine my glee when I discovered that, conveniently, I had finished Ernest Clines’ superb first novel, Ready Player One, just 3 days before his second book, Armada, was due to be published. Talk about perfect timing! Ready Player One may have presented a dystopian vision of the not-too-distant future but as far as reading experiences go, it was geek nirvana, laden as it was with so many contextually-justified references to the games, technology and pop-culture of the 1980s and 90s. Just like that novel’s protagonist, Wade, I’d been reluctant to logout of the enjoyably escapist virtual world laid out before me. But with Armada touted as offering a similarly pop-culture savvy experience to its predecessor it sounded like I wouldn’t be logged out for long. While Cline’s debut imagined the possibilities and the Pitfalls (Pitfall! Get it?) of a MMORPG style online world, Armada looks to the skies, and beyond: it’s an alien invasion narrative that promised to draw on every space shoot-em-up you’ve ever played and to offer a different context for all the sci-fi classic movies with which I grew up.
That all sounded so promising, and so much fun. You should never judge a book by it cover, of course, but it looked oh so promising too: what a great jacket design!
But…. while I can’t deny it was fun, overall, I have to admit I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so disappointed by a novel. I really wanted to like Armada but, though it does have some good moments, compared to the genius of Ready Player One, it just felt flat, forced and predictable. Son, I am disappoint.
What follows is a bit more on the novels’s themes as well as what I liked and the somewhat longer list of what I didn’t like about Armada. This is the kind of book that it’s hard to discuss without mentioning some key plot points so Rodimus is here to warn you that there may be one or two spoilers ahead.
Zack Lightman is a pretty normal geeky teenager. He spends his days doing the following: coasting aimlessly through school; failing to avoid conflict with the class bully; imagining the late father he barely knew; hanging with his mates, and wishing life was more like the videogames he loves – particularly the space battle simulator “Armada” at which he is among the top-ranked players in the world. Fortunately, geeky wish-fulfillment is the order of the day in this story. One day Zack peers out of the window of his classroom and sees a real-life UFO, except that the ”U” part quickly becomes redundant. This isn’t any alien spacecraft, it’s a design Zack recognises only too well as belonging to the Sobrukai, the invaders from his favourite game. What follows is payday for every nerdy conspiracy theorist, as Zack discovers the real state of his world, and the role played by every game and piece of sci-fi pop culture he’s consumed in both disguising and defining the truth that’s really out there.
Yes, Armada is basically what Ender’s Game would be if Ender Wiggins had grown up watching Star Wars, playing Gradius and reading, uh, Ender’s Game. In the interviews he’s given Cline has been very specific about how he wanted this novel and its characters to be genre-savvy. It’s a consciousness I find quite appealing. Think about horror movies: so rarely in those do the protagonists recognise the tropes they are experiencing. How many times have I found myself almost shouting at the screen “don’t split up you’ll all die one by one!” Likewise, zombies: it’s a well known fact that characters in zombie fictions rarely know or use the ‘Z’ word. Works that cut through this genre blindness can be among the most satisfying to experience, I’m thinking specifically of Cabin the Woods (one of my favourite horror films) and Left 4 Dead (a perennial gaming favourite). As we learn in The Sacrifice comic, Left 4 Dead’s Zoey has grown up watching undead horror flicks with her Dad, and as a result she responds differently and adapts more readily to the trauma she experiences. Refreshingly, in Valve’s game, nobody is afraid to say the Z word.
Armada strives to give the same knowing treatment to the alien invasion genre. Yes it reads like Ender’s Game, but Cline knows it does, and – crucially – his hero does too. As Zack wryly notes when he first sights the ship:
Implausible shit like that only happened in cheesy 80s movies, like TRON or WarGames or The Last Starfighter. The sorts of movies my late father had been nuts about.
It’s this consciousness that is intended to transform the book from rip-off to homage, I think it largely succeeds on that front. The idea of people responding differently to an alien invasion because such sci-fi narratives are an ingrained part of their pop-cultural psyche is a fun one. But it still makes for a rather flat reading experience. After a while I tired of the fact that every description here is a direct comparison: this part of the ship looks like something from Star Wars, that piece of equipment reminds Zack of a scene from Tron. Sure, I get the references, I can usually picture the scene; but the narrative technique quickly began to feel tedious.
In Ready Player One, the references were a delight because they felt contextually justified. Halliday’s Easter Egg hunt requires participants to immerse themselves in 80s culture, and quoting the movies and games of this era to each other is the Gunters’ way of showing off their learning. Armada is set in 2018; the reason Zack is so obsessed with the culture of the 80s is because this gives him a sense of connection to his absent father:
I could play music off my phone, but I preferred to listen to my father’s old mixtapes instead. His favourite bands had become my favourites too: ZZ Top, AC/DC. Van Halen, Queen.
Sure, Xavier Lightman has pretty good taste, but that’s just it. I would say that because I’m closer in age to Zack’s father than I am to Zack. Xavier’s culture is more like my own. In Ready Player One the environmental and economic catastrophes of the real world offer a plausible explanation to why people choose to live in the past, and to why there aren’t more contemporary pop-cultural properties. Zack’s grief for his father offers a partial explanation for his behaviour but – not to undermine the power of mourning – it never seems like quite enough to explain the extent of this book’s nostalgic obsession. While Zack’s schoolmates allude to more contemporary geek properties like the MCU these are contemporary to us, the readers, in 2015, not to the novel’s teenagers. Indeed, aside from the game of Armada itself and its land-based counterpart,Terra Firma, there seems to be little by way of newer sci-fi fiction in this book. Ready Player One showed how nostalgia could still be a source of rich invention, but here the overall atmosphere is one of stagnation. Mind you, when I think about the hyped-up releases of our current time: Jurassic World, The Force Awakens, the new Ghostbusters incarnation, I wonder if perhaps that sense of being mired in the pop-cultural past isn’t so very unrealistic after all.
Despite its throwaway tone, there are some quite moving scenes in this book, and I found myself touched by some of Zack’s feelings about his family. But while Zack himself felt decently fleshed out (albeit as the product of his cultural consumption) other characters here are decidedly two-dimensional. The worst offender, I felt, was Lex, the obligatory love interest. A tattooed manic pixie dreamgirl hacker who seems to fall for Zack entirely because the two share a couple of nerdy quotations. Lex’s presence is definitely part of the overall thread of wish-fulfillment in this book: you can save the world AND get the girl, armed with only a talent for shoot ’em ups and an arsenal of 80s quotations. I suppose there’s a touch of such fantasy about the depiction of Art3mis in RPO, too, but there I did feel that Wade had at least to earn her affection and get to know her, here Lex just feels like she is a prize to be awarded in some kind of pop-up achievement box. A Tank Girl tattoo is not a decent proxy for the creation of a strong female character and I think Cline could have done so much better here.
So, the positive: this is a fast-paced read that builds to some well-executed battle scenes and a twist that – while I could see it coming a mile off – did at least make for a tense and high-adrenaline finale. Likewise, while they may outstay their welcome, the sci-fi references are also fun to begin with, particularly when Zack is rifling through his father’s belongings. It was hard not smile – partly from recognition, partly from the epic silliness of it all – as I followed Cline’s protagonist uncovering the grand sci-fi conspiracy. For these reasons the book is probably still worth a look. I think my expectations were raised coming to this, as I did, straight off the back of Ready Player One. If Armada had been my first encounter with Cline’s brand of nerdy nostalgia I would probably have enjoyed it more, rather than finding it a tired shadow of his energetic debut. Perhaps the timing wasn’t so perfect after all.
A lot of the old games dealt with in RPO had minimal graphics (there’s even a whole section there that takes place within a text adventure) and for this reason, they worked well as a backdrop for a written adventure. By contrast, the media evoked in Armada are much more visual: even the titular game seems like quite an immersive pilot-simulator type experience. It would make a pretty good film. So many of the ‘wow, this looks just like the bridge of the USS Enterprise’ type comparisons would feel so much more subtle and so much more satisfying expressed on screen as visual jokes than when spelled out large in the text. I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that the film rights to Armada were picked up before the novel was even published. I’d definitely go to see the movie, but I won’t be re-reading the book. Which isn’t to say it’s not worth reading at all, but it’s probably one to borrow rather than to buy.
Next time : back in Robo Reads territory, R Reviews The Stories of Ibis by Hiroshi Yamamoto