Armada is one of my most-anticipated books of the year. My love for Ernie Cline’s first book, Ready Player One, has been mentioned many times on this site and in the podcast. Ready Player One is not only in my top five books of all time (and it actually flip flops between the first and second spot depending on my mood that day) but it’s also the only book that I’ve read in less than 24 hours (not counting a few books in college that involved some skimming). When I was able to obtain an advance copy of the book, I was thrilled. Now that the book is available to everyone, I’m free to tell you my spoiler-free thoughts and feels on this new book. Jump after the break to read all about it!
Armada tells the story of a high school student who is thrust into the middle of a war between Earth and a technologically superior alien civilization by virtue of his video game skills. Like Ready Player One, the book draws upon a heavy dose of 80s and 90s science fiction/pop culture: explicit references to The Last Starfighter, Flight of the Navigator, Contact, Ender’s Game, and Iron Eagle are found throughout. There’s even a specific mix tape of 80s/90s music that the main character listens to when getting in his video game zone–the exact tape can be found after the story ends in the form of an old style mix-tape label that so many people in my generation made at some point (although did anyone really put the Van Halen logo instead of the name? This guy did.).
The book is definitely a page turner, although a bit slower than Ready Player One. While I finished Mr Cline’s first book in under 24 hours his second book took me 25 hours. And while this book was still a highly entertaining read it unfortunately did not captivate me like Ready Player One did. Without giving things away, here’s what I liked and disliked about the book.
Liked: The 80s/90s pop culture references. This was one of the greatest parts of Ready Player One, living in this world where people referenced pop culture that I grew up in. That continues here and even in a broader sense since it grew to incorporate more video game elements (there were a few in RPO but not many) and properties that may fall outside core geek material (Iron Eagle being one of them).
Disliked: The retro-pop culture was inconsistent. In RPO, Mr Cline created a world where everyone knew these old shows and movies and games because they were all clues to the greatest treasure hunt ever created. Armada takes place in 2018 and while there’s a story that makes sense for the main character to be enthralled with older content, it doesn’t make sense for anyone else. So when his friends can participate in his geekness or references, it makes a bit of sense (they’re friends, it probably came up or they liked it too and that’s why they’re friends) but it still felt forced and awkward. There was not a shared cultural appreciation for old content as it existed in RPO making shared experiences in Armada feel artificial.
Liked: Video Games! The greater inclusion of video games as compared to RPO was appreciated, at least for modern games. RPO had Joust and Tempest and Adventure as core parts of the story, but anything approaching 1990 and beyond wasn’t part of that world. Armada is a world very much focused on modern video games.
Disliked: The depiction of video game culture. Although a central theme of this book deals with the current generation of video games, they are only barely depicted. It feels like Mr Cline wanted this theme and story to be present but he isn’t involved in enough modern day gaming to make it feel authentic. Maybe he is and it was just cleaned up to appeal beyond the gaming crowd, but I felt like the gaming storyline was a typical Hollywood depiction of gamers. RPO had an authentic culture that sprung up around a game–rival factions, groups that both helped each other while competing with each other, etc. Armada didn’t feel nearly as authentic and it’s supposed to be in today’s gaming age. Instead they used tired video game tropes (gamers love breakfast cereal and soda!) and didn’t explore the community that would be built around this game except in the loosest of ways.
Liked: The story. Overall, this is a fun story that is both grounded in pop culture yet still a complete fantasy grown out of that world. You can suspend enough disbelief to enjoy the story without questioning the central tenets.
Disliked: The execution of the story. RPO was set in a more distant future with technology beyond what we have, yet it was made comfortable and approachable from the start with the help of a fantastic story structure. RPO had a contest with three gates to clear and the book was the story of that contest. Armada attempts a similar structure by dividing the book into three phases, and three phases do become a major theme of the book, but the phases of the book and the phases of the story don’t connect. Instead, the book takes a more Hollywood approach to the story. The phases are merely Acts, not true videogame phases. Unfortunately, as the Acts and story escalate, the plot starts to lose cohesion. Huge setbacks are revealed not to matter a few pages later. And in the biggest faux pas, there’s a huge plotpoint that is a giant secret kept from our main character until about a third through the book that, once revealed to him, is common knowledge to everyone else. This despite his earlier attempts to solve this mystery and people not knowing–now within a few minutes everyone knows (without any good reason).
Overall, I liked but did not love this book. Like Age of Ultron, the first entry had me incredibly excited for the second and my expectations were too high. If Armada had been Mr Cline’s first book I would have enjoyed it and looked forward to his second book (which, if it had been RPO, would still have blown me away). Coming on the heels of RPO, I can appreciate the similarities and the appeal to his core audience, but this book didn’t rock my world and that’s what I expected.
Armada left just as many hooks for a sequel as Ready Player One did. I am still hopeful Mr Cline returns to the OASIS of RPO for his next book rather than giving us the next chapter of Armada.
Score: 7 out of 10 alien invader waves.