Last week, Ryan posted a spoiler-free review of Ernest Cline’s second novel, Armada. Now, Ryan is on-record of being a big fan of Cline’s first novel, Ready Player One. Seriously, you don’t have to go beyond the first paragraph of that linked review to see it’s either his favorite or second favorite book depending on his mood. Now me, I enjoyed Ready Player One for the most part, but not being as enamored with the 80s as the author appeared to be, it didn’t do as much for me as it did for Ryan and the other podcaster types. Besides, I hate nostalgia.
So, here’s my review for Armada. SPOILERS after the cut.
So, Ryan in his review gave what he considered a generous 7 out of 10 alien attack waves. He liked the book, but didn’t love it the way he did Ready Player One.
You know what? Of course Ryan liked it. It’s almost the exact same book as Ready Player One.
Oh, not precisely. Armada tells the story of one Zach Lightman, who’s good at playing video games. Zach oughta be good at video games. His name sounds like a character straight out of one. His dad supposedly died when he was a baby, and one day he spots an alien attack ship jet like the one from his favorite MMORPG outside the window of his school while he sat through math class.
Apparently, he was the only person in the entire school looking out the window at that time. I gotta call BS on that. I’m a teacher. There’s never only one person looking out the window.
Meanwhile, Zach’s two best friends are debating whether Tolkien’s Sting or Marvel Comics’ Mjolnir is the best fictional fantasy weapon. I gotta call BS on that too, since I am pretty sure Sting is just an Elven dagger, and there were much better weapons in Tolkien’s world than a glorified Elf butter knife…you know, like Aragon’s sword. So, either Zach’s friends were bigger idiots than they might have been portrayed as or Cline is not as good at his pop culture geek stuff as he should be. Oh, and Zach didn’t notice the problem with choosing Sting either, so he isn’t much better.
But really, how is this book exactly like Ready Player One? Well, let’s go to the numbered list:
- Numerous pop culture references that indicate the protagonists have not gone much beyond Cline’s own youth. Cline is a little older than I am, so obviously he has a similar childhood experience as I did. So, why then do his (younger) protagonists always seem to love his childhood loves and not their own? I’ll accept that Zach and whateverhisname from Ready Player One can go for the big stuff like Star Wars and Back to the Future, but Flight of the Navigator? Seriously? Does anyone really remember that movie? I do…barely. I will say it is probably better than Krull…
- The pop culture references are often a lazy way of building a character. He becomes little more than his entertainment interests. Cline tries to prevent that this time around by giving Zach a bit of a temper, but it seems to crop up at odd times. Constant pop culture references is straight from the Family Guy school of storytelling.
- The plot itself is a throwback to the very thing the main character venerates. Ready Player One is little better than the stereotypical 80s movie where a bunch of teenagers band together to stop the greedy corporate types from taking over the local hangout, only this one is in cyberspace. Armada is equal parts video games and every science fiction space war thrown into a blender. That Armada sort of acknowledges this is not a point in its favor as far as I am concerned. The novel even ends in a way reminiscent of the “friendly aliens” story, where Cline mixed Close Encounters of the Third Kind with The Day the Earth Stood Still. Very little of Armada didn’t seem like something I’d read or seen before many, many times.
- The main character venerates a dead man, taking that person’s interests as his own. See point #2.
- What really bothers me about the pop culture references is that they show a society with stunted pop culture growth. It was worse in Ready Player One where nobody seemed to be interested in anything that came after 1989, but Zach doesn’t have any preferred music or movies aside from what his dad left behind. I read Jo Walton’s Among Others recently, and while that book’s main character also loved dated science fiction, the story was set in the late 70s, meaning the science fiction wasn’t dated to the narrator. That made sense. And she developed her own taste independent of a parent with similar interests. Cline’s protagonists only love stuff because some dead person they venerate loved the stuff. None of them develop their own tastes and interests. I also felt like I got a ton of good book recommendations from Among Others without the narrator dropping fictional words to describe situations like Zach does. Nothing Zach name drops makes me want to go out and see or read it, mostly because I already have in many cases.
- A very popular fictional video game is central to the plot.
The novel had a couple other flaws too. Zach manages to get the hot, slightly older gamer gal to fall in love with him instantly due to being funny, at least to her. Instant love? Seriously? Is Zach’s middle name “Marty Stu”? And you know what’s less exciting than watching someone else play a video game? Reading about someone else playing a video game.
There are ways to take known genre and story tropes and make an entertaining read out of it while turning the conventions on its head. Author John Scalzi’s Red Shirts largely pulled it off while poking a bit of familiar fun with Star Trek, especially if you skip a couple of codas at the end of the book. Red Shirts wasn’t an all-time favorite of mine, but it was fun and a better read than Armada.
One point in Armada‘s favor was the treatment of the Admiral character at the very end of the book. He wasn’t really a bad guy. But, as I work for an Army Prep School, what the hell kind of ranking system did the Earth Defense Alliance have? Admirals and Generals do not exist in the same military that I have ever heard of. One is a high ranking officer in the army, the other in the navy. That threw me off.
Now, I didn’t hate Armada. I thought it was decent if predictable. Using video games to train people for a war sounds a bit like Ender’s Game, but even Zach seems to know that. The novel ends with a potential set-up for a sequel that could, theoretically, be more interesting than all of Armada, since it would force Cline away from his pop culture crutch that he leans on far too much.
I’m giving this one five game tokens out of ten. It was neither all that good or all that awful. It just was.