WARNING – Possible spoilers for Armada and Ready Player One below.
It’s still 1985 Month and there is no more appropriate new book release to celebrate it with than Armada, Ernest Cline’s second offering of all things 1980s pop culture. If you’re any sort of geek, you’ve probably read his debut novel Ready Player One, a sci-fi action novel set in a virtual world that celebrates pop culture from many of our childhoods. With Armada, Cline doesn’t stray too far from that same principle, but its effectiveness doesn’t quite hit the same mark.
Armada tells the story of Zack Lightman, a high schooler with an anger problem and a love for Armada, a popular MMO video game pitting him against an invading alien force. What he and the millions playing Armada worldwide don’t know, however, is that Armada isn’t just a video game; it’s a tool that’s secretly training everyone to fight off an impending real-life alien invasion. With the help of some of the finest video game pilots in the world, Zack is tasked with taking down the alien drones and protect the human race.
If it sounds familiar, it’s because Armada cribs a bit of its overall premise from the likes of The Last Starfighter and Ender’s Game. It shouldn’t come as a shock; the book makes multiple mentions of these two stories, as well as basically every sci-fi movie, television program, and book from the past fifty years. Armada is essentially homage to these stories, to the things that made Ernest Cline love the genre. To me, that’s fine; the familiarity of the story does not detract from the overall enjoyment of the book. It’s a quick read and a super fun ride.
While I enjoyed the book, it’s not without it’s missteps, most of which have to deal with characterization. To be blunt, there aren’t many fully formed characters in this story. In place of what feel like real human beings, we are taken through this story by characters that identify themselves by the pop culture they’ve ingested and the references they can regurgitate. If you can imagine a huge mural featuring Yoda in a lightsaber battle with Captain Picard while E.T. flies above them in a Delorean piloted by Gandalf, you’ve just imagined the mind of our hero, Zack Lightman.
It may seem like an odd gripe coming from someone that loved Ready Player One, but Cline’s debut novel seemed to make more organic references to the pop culture he loved. For one, all the references of RPO were ingrained into the world building of that story. The virtual world of OASIS in RPO is built by a video game creator and pop culture junky James Holliday. The characters essentially live in a fantasy world where anything that can be imagined can be created, so it’s not ridiculous to see Ultraman occupy the same space as Mechagodzilla.
In contrast, Armada’s pop culture references are how each character communicates with each other and done to an eye-rolling degree. It’s to the point that a character can’t wish another person good luck without saying “May the force be with you” or a character can’t pull out a flask of alcohol that isn’t shaped like R2-D2. Even our main character’s mom, who has a short presence in the novel, has time to watch Doctor Who and quote Gandalf. The problem is, when all the characters are quoting the same things and getting each other’s references, it’s sacrificing varied character voices. This book feels like Ernie Cline is talking through each character; something I wouldn’t say about Ready Player One.
As for our hero, Zack Lightman, we are told early on that he has a bit of an anger problem, but it never comes into play after the first act of the story. Sure, he takes chances, skirts authority for what he thinks is right, but there is a difference between being defiant and being a kid that pulls out a tire iron when in a fight with the school bully. His “rage” is a Chekhov’s gun that is never fired.
The supporting characters feel like appendages of our main character, and stock appendages at that: we have the Midwestern housewife, the black girl from New Orleans, a Chinese kid from Shangai, and the elusive “cool girl” archetype, which is the most disappointing of all. Lex, a girl that hack alien technology minutes after she receives it and a penchant for quoting Vasquez from Aliens is probably the closest thing we get to an interesting side character, but falls just short; while she had potential to be fully realized, she instead fills the dual role of love interest and plot device.
It’s unfortunate, especially after Ready Player One and Cline’s similar mishandling of Art3mis. While Art3mis is closer to a full-fledged character, RPO’s Wade can’t help falling for her, and seeing as how it is his story, she’s slowly dragged into his idyllic idea of Manic Pixie Dream Girl syndrome. I’m not necessarily pointing these out to call Cline sexist, but saying he doesn’t write female characters particularly well is a fair assessment.
Despite my gripes, I did enjoy the novel as a whole. I don’t want to talk too much about what I did like, as it’s all plot and, therefore, very spoilery, but it is a very enjoyable read. I just hoped that maybe we’d see a little bit of growth from the author as a writer; this feels more of a horizontal move than any sort of progression.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5
RATING: 3.5 out of 5