At long last I’ve finally gotten to read Ernest Cline’s sophomore novel ARMADA – the followup to his national bestselling cult hit Ready Player One. Some four years after RPO rocked the Sci-fi world (and likely created a new genre in doing so,) Armada was finally released to an impatient reading world. Reviewing it properly may not be an easy task since doing so will probably involve commenting on the unreal expectations and probably unfair comparisons the book will receive when held up to its spectacularly received predecessor. So here goes…
Zack Lightman is a gamer. He’s one of the best in the world at ARMADA, a multi-player online game that features swarms of human gamers in drones fighting off an alien invasion. Zack also has anger issues, has been raised by his mother, lost his father at a young age to a mysterious seweage plant explosion, and hates bullies. He’s also lost a girlfriend, feels estranged from most people his age, and can’t wait to graduate so he can go to work full-time at a game store run by his friend. In other words, Zack has real geek street cred.
Then the aliens attack… only the aliens are the same aliens represented in the game ARMADA! Zack is quickly recruited (along with the best gamers in the world) by the ultra-secret Earth Defense Alliance to save the world.
The short review version is this: Armada is an enjoyable bit of escapist fun. A rollicking good time. For that reason alone I give it all five stars. It is well written and is packed full of the very things Ernest Cline is famous for… 80’s allusions and winks to geeks, gamers, and movie buffs. It is everything anyone should have expected it to be, even if many reviewers are now complaining that the book is… exactly what it was advertised to be. When I was asked on Twitter what I thought about the book, here is what I said: “I like it. About what I expected. Some people are disappointed… but when I buy a donut and get a donut I’m satisfied.”
When a Donut is a Donut
I think that Ernie had an almost impossible task. It was probably coincidental, but it is interesting to note that Armada was released on the same day as Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s follow-up novel to her classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Despite all the controversy surrounding the release of that book (which I don’t intend to address here) I think we can all agree that an author releasing a book after one that has been almost universally declared a classic in the genre is problematic at best. Perhaps on a smaller scale, Ernie had the same kind of challenge… how to please a bunch of people who’d come to associate the author with a single work of art. Not an easy thing, I’m sure. When an author like Neil Gaiman or Stephen King releases a book every year or so, readers come to expect that some are going to be more to their liking than others. Readers are not as likely to savage a book that doesn’t measure up (in their mind) to their favorite from that author when there are many more to choose from, and more coming down the pike soon enough. In Ernie’s case, there was nearly a George R. R. Martin length interminable waiting period between books and no word on when another novel might appear. In any case, many readers and reviewers have tended to look at Armada solely in comparison to Ready Player One, rather than seeing it as a new and different book altogether. That’s probably natural and to be expected, but it doesn’t mean it is really fair. I mean, I like donuts, and some donuts I like better than others, but a glazed donut is not a bad donut just because it isn’t a blueberry cake donut.
Slate Magazine savaged the book… and echoed some of the complaints I’ve read in many of the reviews. Too many obscure allusions, an unhealthy fixation on 80’s culture, etc., etc. My question to them is… what were they expecting? That’s like going to a Michael Bay movie and screaming “Too many explosions! Too much CGI!”
Some reviewers were also disappointed that ARMADA seemed to be a mixtape of all the best story lines and tropes in the genre. But I think if Cline had titled the book 80’s Allusions, Geek Culture Tropes, and ultra-cool Sci-Fi Movie Mashup, they still would have missed the point, because he all but did that. They seemed to have missed the glaring fact that being “meta” WAS the point of this book. This is even hinted at in the blurb for the story on Amazon:
“It’s Zack’s chance, at last, to play the hero. But even through the terror and exhilaration, he can’t help thinking back to all those science-fiction stories he grew up with, and wondering: Doesn’t something about this scenario seem a little…familiar?”
Armada is a mashup of all of Cline’s favorite movie bits. Again… that’s the point of the book. The bits are not supposed to be original. What is original is the way he puts them all together to spin a fun and engaging yarn. But it is a mashup. It’s an homage, even to the point of characters spitting lines from the very movie, TV show, or game being “sampled” during the scene. In one scene a superior officer is chastising young Zach Lightman for dangerous flying and says, “And if you screw up just this much, you’ll be flying a cargo plane full of rubber dog shit out of Hong Kong!” That scene is supposed to be familiar. It’s supposed to be a direct rip-off of Top Gun and Cline even mentions that fact in the text. THAT’S THE POINT. If some readers don’t like that technique, I can understand that, but some reviewers seem to think that they are saying something particularly clever or provocative by declaring “Isn’t this just a ripoff of The Last Starfighter?” NO! It isn’t! It is a ripoff of everything! Ernie Cline does mashups! That’s what he does. What do you expect from a guy who drives a car that is an intentional mashup of the vehicles in Back to the Future, Knight Rider, Buckaroo Banzai, and Ghostbusters?
As another entry into a new(ish) genre some are now calling “mmopunk,” Armada is a solid winner. Is it the best book in the new genre? No. Ready Player One certainly has a legitimate claim to that title, and Nick Cole’s Soda Pop Soldier, along with the prequel Control/Alt/Revolt (due out in November,) are probably two of the best books I’ve ever read that qualify as mmopunk. If Armada readers are disappointed in what they got from Cline in this book, perhaps you should check out the Soda Pop Soldier universe. I reviewed the prequel HERE.
All-in-all, Armada was a fun read and I recommend it… unless you are the kind of person who orders enchiladas in a Mexican restaurant and is appalled to receive enchiladas instead of something else.