Armada is a summer blockbuster in book form. It’s entertaining, it moves fast, and it’s a fun ride. It’s also not nearly as smart as it thinks it is. Armada walks the line between “homage” and “rip off” on a razor wire. To be honest I’m still not sure which side it ultimately falls on but I’m leaning strongly toward rip off.
Aliens are invading Earth and only a group of clandestinely trained gamers can save us. Sound familiar? The X-Files tells us “The truth is out there.” and in this case the “truth” is that 40 years ago a Pioneer probe discovered life in our solar system. We inadvertently pissed it off and that life vowed to kill us all. So for the last 40 years through the invention of video games and an explosion of movies, books, and games about aliens we have been indoctrinated for the eventuality of one day fighting them. Our hero, eighteen year old Zack Lightman, is the 6th best Armada (a fictional space shooter) player in the world. His skills, as well as thousands of others, will be called on to push back the alien menace.
The pop culture aspect is pushed hard, even harder than Ready Player One if that is possible. Characters are one dimensional, but this may be intentional. At the half way mark it’s obvious something is rotten in Denmark but I’m not sure what. There is just way too much by-the-numbers plotting going on with the presumed dead under mysterious circumstances father, the “you are the chosen one” aspect to the main character, the gorgeous punk rock programmer he meets immediately, and convenient attack on the base moments after arriving and learning the truth. We’ve been here before, and seen these stories countless times. And Zack (and Ernest) know this, and comment on it, so the reader is left going “well this is all well and good but what is really going on?”
I wrote the above paragraph when I was at the half way point of the novel. I like to take notes as I go along to give a more accurate review since the middle of a book can feel wildly different than when you have the complete picture. Now that I’m finished I can say that the spectacular twist I was waiting on never came. The characters really are one dimensional cliches, Cline uses pop-culture as adjective shorthand, and for some reason the entire world (or at least First World countries) speaks in this same short hand. In Ready Player One the 80’s obsession worked because everyone in the OASIS was on a massive scavenger hunt that required knowledge of trivia minutia to navigate the quest. Here, it’s just nonsensical. It’s not even that geek culture has taken over the world in the book, it largely has in our culture. It’s the laser focus the book has on 80’s and 90’s geek culture that’s really jarring.
Look, I’m a science fiction fan from way back. I love 80’s and 90’s movies, I can quote them freely and so can most of my friends and family. However I’m able to go an entire conversation (sometimes in a row) without referencing Star Wars, Aliens, The Big Lebowski, Star Trek, and Firefly. The book takes place in 2018 and pretty much every character, even the hard ass military guys, reference 80’s pop culture like it’s a category on the SAT. It’s so bizarre that for most of the book I was convinced the whole thing was a Matrix-like simulation and everyone was a construct of Zack’s mind. This is not the case, the events are really happening. That may be a spoiler but if your book is so outlandish the reader is left for large chunks of time wondering if the whole thing is a fucking dream I would say you have a problem.
The real trouble with Armada is that it wants to openly crib from the stories that came before but thinks by acknowledging them the plot shortcutting is ok. Multiple times Zack comments that nothing makes sense, that a real life invasion would not go down like a movie or videogame, and the reader keeps waiting for the pay off. While there is an explanation of sorts, it’s not really satisfying and upon more than cursory examination falls apart completely. Unsurprisingly, the book immediately acknowledges the events are not as they seem just before it ends. I don’t know if Cline is setting up a sequel but the dark note the novel ends on screams “To be Continued…” and is a frustrating way to go out.
If you were hoping Cline was going to deliver another genre-smashing Ready Player One than Armada is going to disappoint you. It’s a fun book, but lightweight. More than anything it indicates that the pop culture obsessive writing in Ready Player One was not just for the subject, that this is how Cline’s writing style may be defined, for better or worse.
Disclaimer: I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this unbiased review.