Book Review: Armada
Armada is the story of a high school nerd whos talent at videogames thrusts him into a life–changing adventure full of old pop culture references. If this sounds like the same components that made made up Ernest Cline’s first novel, Ready Player One, it’s because it is. Of course being a near carbon copy of a great book certainly has its merits, but at the same time Armada often ends up highlighting its own flaws by referencing and borrowing from both Cline’s debut and other works so eagerly.
Cline tells the story of an alien invasion that is deliberately familiar. Whilst Ready Player One was rooted in 1970s and 80s culture, the theme this time is sci-fi – and although videogames still play a key role in how the story functions – the references are predominantly science fiction films. This includes Ender’s Game and The Last Starfighter, two movies the plot borrows heavily from, whilst at the same time gleefully telling how intentional this is.
With a backdrop of impending alien doom, it is revealed that videogames have been secretly used to train the general population to man drones and spaceships to defend Earth. This has primarily been achieved through two fictional games that turn out to be surprisingly real simulators (because Gabe Newell and Shigeru Miyamoto were both consultants or something) but Ernest Cline also hastily re–writes some real history to fit his conspiracy. This ensures that the referencing is a key part of the plot, much in the way that James Halliday’s puzzle (inspired by the 1979 game Adventure) allowed retro culture to impact the story of Ready Player One in a meaningful way. Armada’s protagonist, Zack Lightman, has a knowledge of science fiction that allows him to question the alien’s motivations and try and uncover the truth behind the approaching invasion. In comparison there’s a notably obtuse commander who’s actions risk the fate of the entire human race. The reason he doesn’t understand the aliens? He’s the only one that doesn’t like sci-fi movies.
Whilst giving importance to nerd culture is part of Cline’s appeal, Armada is essentially the same set up Ready Player One created using a different method. And the part of this that involves rewriting history is inherently problematic as it gives incorrect explanations to real life events. Like did you know the production of both old and new Star Wars movies was motivated by a need to condition the population to a known alien threat? And if you were wondering why so many old arcade games were set in space? Same reason.
There are two main flaws with Cline’s logic. Firstly there’s the fact that these explanations are lies. Secondly there’s the fact that because of this they don’t make sense, and the actual reasons for these events are completely ignored. Again, as the novel so openly references real life media these omissions are noticeable. For instance Cline begins Armada with a quote from Eugene Jarvis, the creator of Defender. The same Eugene Jarvis who, when talking about early arcade games, said the following:
“You wanted to go to more abstract outer-world themes because that way people couldn’t say, ‘You know, that thing looks like shit’.” A more plausible explanation than that alien thing, right?
Eventually it’s possible to overlook Cline’s shaky logic, but it’s hard to give Armada the benefit out the doubt when it also suffers from uninspired characters and cliché prose. Here again components feel graphed right out of Ready Player One, including many of the novel’s weaker elements. Support characters are composed of a name, gender, county of origin and sexuality – these are the only descriptors that differentiate them. There’s a mandatory love interest called Lex who’s an awesome hacker and likes Star Wars but isn’t very convincing as a real person, and her entire role in the story feels like nothing more than geek wish fulfilment. She’s right up there with the concept of wasting your life on an online game only for it to turn out you’ve now got the skills necessary to save the world.
Armada isn’t all bad. Ready Player One proved that Cline is a talented writer, and here too the writing benefits from his skills. This includes his ability to bring scenes of action to life, and deliver a smart and well thought out story arc. Sure, the world of Ready Player One was inherently more interesting, but then the mysterious aliens are quite cool too. Their unknown motivations are compelling, and the way they have replicated human sci-fi with their technology is intriguing. Early on the characters theorise that if the aliens wanted to they could have easily destroyed Earth long ago, and the reasons why they haven’t linger in the background as the story’s most intelligent mystery. By the end everything fits together quite nicely, and concludes on a surprisingly strong note.
Armada does itself no favours by inviting many unflattering comparisons. It’s quick to pull apart sci-fi tropes but even quicker to succumb to them, and in mirroring elements from Ready Player One it highlights the superiority of Cline’s debut novel. Yet behind this Armada delivers a fun and satisfying story that is enjoyable, if a little cliché.