Picture this. You’re a high school student in class. You look out of your classroom window and to your disbelief you see a UFO! Just flying around in the bright of day. What do you do? Well if you’re Zack Lightman, the teenage protagonist in Ernst Cline’s latest novel Armada, you sit around for a bit, check out what your buddies are doing, pick a fight with the school bully then casually drive home and rummage through your father’s old stuff, before settling in to your nightly video game session.
That’s the ridiculous opening to an even more ridiculous and disappointing novel.
Armada is Ernst Cline’s follow up to the wildly successful Ready Player One (read my review here). However whereas Ready Player One was imaginative, adventurous and fun, Armada feels like a rushed attempt to capitalise on its predecessors’ success by shoe-horning much of Ready Player One’s 80’s retro appeal into an absurd plot that won’t allow it to fit.
As for that plot, let me try to explain: Zack Lightman is a disillusioned high school student, not sure of what he wants to do with his life. The one thing he knows he is good at is video games. In fact, Zack is one of the highest ranked players in the widely popular game ‘Armada’. Well as it turns out, Armada is actually a recruiting tool for a secret military organisation called the ‘Earth Defense Alliance’ (EDA). The EDA recruits Zack along with other high ranking players to operate drones against an oncoming alien invasion the EDA has been secretly preparing for over the past 50 years. That UFO Lightman saw out of his classroom window? It was actually an enemy reconnaissance drone.
So now Lightman is thrown into the midst of an upcoming war. No longer disillusioned high-school student – he is now the revered ‘Lieutenant Lightman’, people salute him and even ask for his autograph.
It seems as through Cline has comfortably set himself up in his niche of appealing to the fantasies of geek-dom and is refusing to budge. The fantasy that Cline exploits is that a meaningless pursuit of video-gaming, to the expense of responsibility or relationships, will someday be valuable. It’s the ultimate nerd dream: that all those hours sunk into World of Warcraft will one day be useful and respected. In Cline’s world, the people who game the most rule the world. Yeah it’s a nice dream, but mum still wants you to move out of the basement or start paying rent.
The fantasy that Armada plays to would be harmless enough if it wasn’t so insulting. Within days, previously responsibility-free gamers are now receiving salutes, calling each other ‘sir’ and holding titles such as ‘Lieutenant’, ‘Captain’ and ‘General’ , while they remotely operate combat drones from the comfort of a bunker surrounded by their favorite gaming snacks for sustenance – including mountain dew (not an exaggeration). Too bad to all those in the armed forces who have put in years of hard work and personal sacrifice: you’re no longer needed and should have spent your time playing video games instead.
Like Ready Player One, Cline populates Armada with references to his favorite movies, music and video games. However, in Ready Player One these references made sense because the plot revolved around 80’s pop culture. In Armada, the endless references are mindlessly shoehorned and feel completely out of place and unnecessary.
There is one tenuous connection between the plot and pop-culture that Cline uses to jam as many references into the story as he can. Absurdly, in Armada all science-fiction pop-culture since the release of Star Wars has actually been government propaganda to de-sensitize people to the idea of the alien invasion. That way, we will all be ready to fight back when the time comes. As Lightman explains:
“Like Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid, when he made Daniel-san paint his house, sand his deck, and wax all of his cars—he was training him and he didn’t even realize it! Wax on, wax off—but on a global scale!”
Right… make sure to wear your tin foil hat while seeing the Force Awakens this year. The above quote also illustrates Lightman’s annoying internal dialogue that narrates much of the story. Lightman seems incapable of forming an original thought, but rather relates every experience, every sensation, to a scene in one of his favorite movies.
This is reflective of a bigger problem with Cline’s writing – his characters. Lightman is supposed to come across as moral and likable but also edgy with ‘anger-management issues’. Instead he comes across as a child prone to temper tantrums. His two best friends are worse and serve no purpose whatsoever than to act as walking talking nerdy message-board debate comments. You will cringe as they do nothing other than argue endlessly about superheros.
However perhaps the biggest character sin of all goes to Lex – Lightman’s love interest and fellow EDA recruit. I said in my Ready Player One review that many scenes felt like I was reading fan-fiction. Well, when reading scenes featuring Lex I felt like I was reading Cline’s personal erotic fiction…it was uncomfortable. Lex is cool, Lex is edgy, Lex quotes the Big Lebowski. Lex has tattoos and drinks from a flask and doesn’t take shit. But most important of all, Lex likes guys who are good at video games. Ugh … I think Cline should have kept this fantasy to himself.
With all this said, surely the action is Armada’s saving grace? Unfortunately you’re out of luck. Any hope for epic aerial dog fights is shattered once you reach Cline’s bland and uninspired descriptions of the action. I get the angle that Cline was going for with the action – you pilot a drone, your drone is destroyed, you ‘re-spawn’ by taking control of a new drone: it’s like video games in real life! But, ultimately you’re reading about remote control drones fighting other remote control drones – it’s dull.
Despite Armada’s many flaws, there is still a level of charm to the book, stemming from Cline’s passion which he personally infuses into the story. This charm is expanded on in the audiobook version with Wil Wheaton’s enthusiastic voice performance. The conclusion of Armada was also better than expected, but unfortunately not worth the time it took to get there.
2 stars out of 5
Amarda can be purchased here.