My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Is Ernest Cline a “Ready Player One-trick-pony”, or has he found the perfect formula to appeal to science fiction lovers?
To say the Tome Raiders were excited for Armada, Ernest Cline’s latest romp in the world of campy 80s science fiction, would be an egregious understatement.
Whenever we’re asked for book recommendations the suggestion is almost always Ready Player One. It hit all of the notes of a thrilling adventure novel while sprinkling in the nostalgia-inducing movies, music, and mechs we’ve come to expect from Ernest Cline. However, the question looming on everyone’s’ lips was this: Could he do it again? I went in to this read with as realistic expectations as possible and put forth my best effort to produce an objective review regardless of the subject matter at hand or how I felt about the author’s previous work. With that being said, here is my DISCLAIMER: I love Ender’s Game, Firefly, and Cowboy Bebop. I’ve been an avid gamer my entire life and have played Magic: The Gathering, Starcraft, and Destiny for uncomfortably lengthy periods of my existence. I’m listening to Freddie Mercury belt out his sveltey signature lines as I write this review. I was clearly the target demographic of this novel. With that being said…
Armada was not a terrifically hard read, and the writing style and structure is very reminiscent of Ready Player One, as is the pacing of the story. The only times I had to stop reading were to Google a reference I might not have been familiar with or to visibly rest my face on the palm of my hand because of whatever I had just read (more on this later). The plot is basic wish fulfillment, as even the protagonist Zack Lightman points out several times throughout the story. Zack is an 18-year-old gamer in his senior year of high school on plain ‘ole boring earth. He lives with his widowed mother and is trying to survive the last few weeks of school til graduation so he can work full time at his current job where he sells used video game merchandise. Nothing too ground breaking thus far, just a relatable “blank canvas” guy (maybe TOO relatable for some) the readers can imprint themselves upon. Zack longs for adventure and intrigue to pull him from his unexceptional life, when one day he looks out of his classroom window and sees flying over nearby fields and forests a UFO that eerily resembles the alien starfighters he combats every day in his favorite video game, Armada. Zack is then recruited to the Earth Defense Alliance, along with all of the world’s top gamers. It is here that they discover the world’s two most popular video games, Armada and Terra Firma, were actually combat simulators preparing Earth’s citizens to defend their planet from an incoming alien invasion.
When I first read the synopsis for Armada months ago my stomach sank as I thought to myself, “This sounds like a rehash of countless already existing sci-fi classics…” though I immediately sprung back because I knew that Cline would have his own clever twist on the story. “Surely he’s using these stories as inspiration; it won’t be the exact same thing,” I rationalized. Well.. let me just put it like this: having the protagonist say, “Everything that is happening to me feels just like it came right out of my science fiction stories!” in a painfully self-aware fashion in order to rattle off the titles of some fan-favorite books and movies is not an excuse for an original plot or creative writing. Reading Armada can be likened to reading Ender’s Game, but in the first 20 pages Ender watches a copy of The Last Starfighter before going to Battle School. The experience is still a good ride, but every key plot point is excruciatingly telegraphed in the opening pages of the book. Not a single event caught me unaware or truly rewarded me as the reader. Now, I understand that Ernest Cline has the right to craft the book he wants to and he owes me nothing, but I would be very hard pressed to recommend this piece of fiction as opposed to any of its many predecessors.
So, the plot was unoriginal from beginning to end, but I sure did have a good time reading it. This is where I really fell into Cline’s wish-fulfilling trap. The pacing of the story flows very well and action pieces are told in a fluid and satisfying manner. There are a few romantic developments throughout the story, but unfortunately they all felt extremely forced. As much as the R2-D2 flask-wielding punk rocker Lex Larkin seems like my dream girl, I’m not falling for it, Cline. Putting a clone of every gamer nerds’ secret crush in the book doesn’t make her a good character. She’s so caricaturized and undeveloped that it feels cartoonish. Every character feels this way. They all seem to just fit into different facets of tropes on sci-fi characters. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I scoffed at lines such as, “We can play some pretty decent Van Halen covers […] Maybe we’ll jam for you guys later?” from one of the highest ranking military officers in the Earth Defense Alliance in the face of an impending alien invasion only hours away. You mean to tell me that someone SPRAY PAINTED, “The cake is a lie,” on the walls of a highly militarized secret base on the moon, and I’m not even supposed to bat an eye? Here’s why I think this sort of thing worked in Ready Player One, and not Armada:
Ready Player One was about the characters’ actual lives being turned into a video game. Armada is about the characters’ video games being turned into their actual lives.
Science fiction and fiction in general hinges on suspension of disbelief. The reader has to be able to compartmentalize their own knowledge and understanding and put it aside in order to take on the perspective that the author gives them. In Ready Player One it’s okay when someone references Star Wars or hops inside of a Gundam because they are gamers who are fighting to save their video game world. The stakes aren’t so high I can’t forgive the campy references. However, when the script is flipped and the aliens are coming to destroy everything that we know and love, I find it pretty unacceptable to have a high ranking military officer in charge of the Earth’s last defense getting blazed on some scientifically engineered VIDEO GAME WEED before boning one of the Earth’s best Interceptor fighter pilots named “Kushmaster5000” (I wish I was making all of this up, I really do.) There are many scenes like this in Armada, and I find them terribly distracting and derivative of the already uninspired plot. Though there are equally as many placed references that truly brought me joy and I found myself smiling at, they don’t carry near as much weight as the ones that “ruined the moment”.
Ultimately, I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed that Ernest Cline would take his gift for storytelling and his vast knowledge of this shared nerd culture we all have and produce the story that is Armada. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, and I was spurned. When I have the desire to revisit an exciting nostalgia thrill ride, I will be reaching for Ready Player One long before I will Armada. With that being said, I love what you do Ernest Cline, and I eagerly await your next work.
Final Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
Recommended for: Ender Wiggins, Star Citizens, Ramona Flowers